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Turkey and Iran Suggest a Thaw in Stands on Syrian Conflict

By SEBNEM ARSU and TIM ARANGO

November 1, 2013


ISTANBUL — Turkey and Iran, on opposing sides of the raging civil war in Syria, signaled on Friday that mutual concerns over the rise in sectarianism there could bring the two regional powers closer together, just as the international community is working toward peace talks aimed at ending the conflict.

Appearing jointly at a security conference here, the foreign ministers of Turkey and Iran spoke in language that belied the many disagreements that have strained relations between the two Middle Eastern powers – in Syria, but also in Iraq, where Iran is a strong supporter of the Shiite-led government and Turkey has long supported the Sunni opposition.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told reporters that the growing sectarian strife in Syria, abetted by Al Qaeda operatives and their Sunni jihadist associates, was a contagious threat to the region.

"If the flames of sectarianism rage in the Middle East, you will see the results in the streets of London, New York, Rome and Madrid," he said.

Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said, "Sitting here together with the Iranian foreign minister, you can be sure we will be working together to fight these types of scenarios, which aim to see a sectarian conflict."

The appearance of the two diplomats on the same stage highlighted the international charm offensive that Iran has undertaken since the election in June of President Hassan Rouhani. A relative moderate, Mr. Rouhani has signaled that he wants to pursue warmer relations with the West, raising the possibility of a deal over Iran’s disputed nuclear program, as well as a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict.

A pivotal issue for the planned peace talks on Syria, referred to in diplomatic shorthand as Geneva II, is whether Iran, which has been the most important ally to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, will participate. Turkey is pushing for Iran to have a seat at the table, even as Western powers, such as the United States, have wavered on that question.

Whether those talks can be convened by the middle of this month in Geneva, a goal announced Sept. 27 by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, is still unclear because so many questions are unresolved, including the list of invitees. Mr. Ban’s special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, told a news conference in Damascus on Friday that he remained hopeful the talks would take place but that Syria’s fractious opposition would need to decide on how they intended to be represented.

"In my personal opinion, Geneva II will not happen if no opposition representatives attend," Mr. Brahimi said. He declined to specify a date. "We hope it will take place in the next few weeks, not next year," he told reporters.

Turkey has long had strained and complicated relations with Iran, although it has kept channels of communication open even as the two countries have fought what amounts to a proxy war in Syria, with Iran supporting the Syrian government with weapons and fighters and Turkey supporting the opposition rebel fighters inside Syria. The Turkish government has also allowed foreign fighters to use Turkey, which shares a border of more than 500 miles with Syria, as a staging ground.

Turkey’s relationship with Iran has also become more strained amid the rise in sectarianism between Sunni and Shiite Muslims across the region.

As a Sunni power, Turkey, and its government led by the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, has been accused by critics of pushing a foreign policy that favors Sunni interests, while Iran and its Shiite clerical hierarchy have been the guardians of Shiite Islam in the Middle East, supporting the Shiite powers of Iraq and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group.

Even so, Turkey and Iran have always maintained a relationship, mainly because of energy interests. Turkey, as a rising economic power but with few of its own sources of energy, relies on Iran and Russia, another strong supporter of the Assad government in Syria, for natural gas and oil imports.

Sebnem Arsu reported from Istanbul, and Tim Arango from Ankara, Turkey. Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York, and Somini Sengupta from the United Nations.




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