US Vice President insisted that the relationship between the two sides was “as strong as ever it has been”. Fight against ISIL, Cyprus and energy security were discussed.
Istanbul.- The fight against ISIL, the prospects for the resumption of stalled peace talks on Cyprus and the issue of energy security were among the matters discussed on Saturday by US Vice President Joe Biden and Turkish government officials during a visit by the former to Istanbul.
US Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul in a bid to ease strains over the Syria crisis and persuade Turkey to step up its support for the coalition against Islamic State (IS) jihadists.
The trip to Istanbul by Biden, the highest ranking US official to visit Turkey since Erdogan was elected president after over a decade as prime minister, comes amid unusual tensions in the traditionally strong relationship between the two NATO allies.
The pair did not announce any breakthrough after some four hours of talks at an Ottoman palace in Istanbul but Biden insisted that the relationship between the two sides was “as strong as ever it has been”.
Washington is frustrated by the relatively limited role played by Turkey in the fight against IS fighters who have seized swathes of Iraq and Syria right up to the Turkish border.
Turkey in turn is upset that its contribution in hosting 1.6 million refugees from the Syrian conflict has gone relatively unrecognised and is wary of supporting the Kurdish fighters battling IS.
“On Syria we discussed the full range of issues and the options available to deal with those issues,” Biden said after the talks.
He said this included “strengthening the Syrian opposition” and seeing a “transition” from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Biden personally stung Erdogan last month by suggesting his policies in supporting Islamist rebel forces in Syria had helped encourage the rise of the IS militant group, a slight that prompted Erdogan to warn his relationship with the US number two could be “history”.
But the straight-talking Biden said that openness was a key part of the US-Turkey relationship.
“We have always had direct and frank discussions on every issue, that is what friends do,” he said.
Erdogan also praised bilateral relations. “We want to continue our cooperation with the United States by strengthening it.”
Erdogan said that global peace is facing critical threats and stressed the importance of strategic cooperation between the two countries.
“The coordinated steps taken by Turkey and the U.S. will have a role in changing the future of the region,” he said. “Turkey is determined to strengthen its relationship with the U.S. to maintain regional peace and security.”
Joe Biden said the U.S. needs Turkey in its fight against ISIL.
“We are attempting to both stem the flow of foreign fighters to battlefields in Iraqi and Syria and dry their funding. We thank Turkey for their leadership in that regard,” Biden said.
The U.S. vice president noted that the Turkish president and he talked about their work as part of an international coalition to degrade and eventually to defeat ISIL.
Biden said, “We had a candid discussion and we strategized together as allies and friends do.”
Regarding Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s most recent visit to Erbil and Baghdad, Biden said Turkey had shown significant leadership in helping Iraq during its latest turmoil.
“I told president (Erdogan) how impressed and pleased the Iraqi government was with the fact that he and his government reached out a hand to the Iraqi people and government,” he said.
Biden said they also spoke about their nations’ efforts to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces protecting their communities.
He said: “Turkey, as a consequence of the ongoing Syrian civil war, is carrying a heavy humanitarian burden. The people of Turkey have welcomed and cared for those displaced by this war, and accommodating so many refugees has been a costly proposition.”
So far, Turkey’s sole contribution to the anti-IS coalition has been allowing a contingent of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters to transit Turkish soil to fight IS militants for control of the Syrian border town of Kobane.
Ankara has also so far refused to allow US forces to stage bombing raids from the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, forcing them to make far longer sorties from the Gulf.
Turkey has set several conditions for playing a greater role in the coalition.
It wants a clear coordinated strategy to overthrow Assad, a major training and equipping programme for the anti-regime Free Syrian Army (FSA), and a security zone, backed by a no-fly area, to be set up in northern Syria along the Turkish border.
A senior US administration official told reporters ahead of the talks that both Turkey and the United States were in agreement on the need to do more to combat IS jihadists in both Iraq and Syria.
But the official conceded that while Washington was aiming for a transition in Syria that did not include Assad, its “highest priority” was to defeat IS.
This puts United States at odds with Turkey, which wants ousting Assad to be given the same strategic importance as defeating IS.
But the official indicated that one of Turkey’s key demands — the creation of a security zone inside Syria — could be created by the FSA if it took control of the area.
“You can imagine a scenario in which you have a more robust opposition on the ground that was more capable of clearing and holding terrain,” the official said, emphasising it was different from having the international community declare a safe zone.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday however said the US-led operation against IS jihadists in Syria could be a guise for trying to “surreptitiously” topple the Assad regime.
Referring to the Cyprus issue, Biden said that, if there was political will, there was potential for a solution which would be beneficial for both Cypriots and people in the wider region.
He called for de-escalation of the tensions and for both sides to return to the negotiating table.
Cyprus issue was high on the agenda, chiefly due to a gas row between Nicosia and Ankara. The Turkish seismic vessel Barbaros has been sailing in the waters of Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone since October 20, prompting the condemnation of Greek, Cypriot, Egyptian and Israeli authorities.
During his talks with Biden, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said both sides should acknowledge that natural resources off the island’s coastline belong to both communities. He did not indicate, however, that Ankara would stop actions that have fuelled tensions in the eastern Aegean.
Biden underlined the need to allay tensions in the eastern Aegean in his talks with the Turkish officials. And in an interview with the newspaper Haberturk, he noted that a Cyprus settlement would boost energy security and prosperity in the region.
Biden arrived in Istanbul on Friday and held a joint news conference with Prime Minister Davatoglu, playing down differences in the fight against Islamic State.
“We’ve been friends for a long time and one of the great advantages of being back in Turkey with a friend and NATO ally is we’re always direct with one another,” he said. Turkey has been a reluctant partner in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS) insurgents.
Joe Biden is to leave Turkey for Washington on Sunday after a meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.