Turkey’s president expresses willingness to restore diplomatic ties with Syria

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that there is no obstacle preventing Turkey and Syria from restoring diplomatic ties that were cut off at the start of the Syrian civil war more than a decade ago.

His comments came just days after Syrian President Bashar Assad made similar remarks, indicating a willingness among the two neighboring countries to end tensions and normalize relations.

“There is no reason why (diplomatic ties) should not be established,” Erdogan told reporters.

“In the same way that we kept our relations with Syria alive in the past — we had these meetings with Mr Assad that included family meetings — we cannot say that it will not happen again,” Erdogan said. He was referring to a vacation that the Erdogan and Assad families took in southern Turkey in 2008, before their relationship soured.

During the Syrian conflict, Turkey supported armed opposition groups in the country’s northwest aiming to oust Assad from power. The Syrian government has repeatedly condemned Ankara’s control over a territory that it took hold of through several military incursions since 2016 targeting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces that Turkey regards as terrorists.

On Wednesday, Syrian state media reported that in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, Assad “affirmed Syria’s openness to all initiatives related to the relationship between Syria and Turkey, based on the sovereignty of the Syrian state over all its territories on the one hand, and combating all forms of terrorism and its organizations on the other hand.”

The Russian envoy, in turn, said that “the current circumstances seem more suitable than ever for the success of mediations, and that Russia is ready to work to push the negotiations forward, and that the goal is to succeed in restoring relations between Syria and Turkey,” Syrian state-run news agency SANA reported.

Erdogan told reporters that Turkey respects Syria’s sovereignty.

“There is no question of us having the aim of interfering in Syria’s internal affairs,” Erdogan said. “The people of Syria are our brothers.”

Turkey has been trying to mend fences with Syria as the government faces increased pressure at home to repatriate millions of Syrian refugees amid a steep economic downturn and rising anti-refugee sentiment.

Last year, the Turkish and Syrian foreign ministers met in Moscow alongside counterparts from Russia and Iran, marking the highest-level contact between Ankara and Damascus since the start of the Syrian civil war. But those talks and a previous meeting involving the two countries’ defense ministers did not bear fruit.

On Friday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in the opposition-held Syrian city of Idlib and in surrounding areas to protest reports that a key crossing between government-held territory and areas held by Turkish-backed opposition groups in Aleppo province will soon reopen to commercial traffic, for the first time since the beginning of the country’s civil war.

The protesters carried banners saying: “Opening the crossings with the regime is a crime and a betrayal of the blood of the martyrs,” and calling for “opening battles, not crossings.”

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