BEIRUT — A flap about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s description of Zionism as a “crime against humanity” overshadowed U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s visit Friday to Turkey, a key NATO ally.
Although the topic of Syria was expected to dominate discussions — both the United States and Turkey are major supporters of the Syrian opposition — Erdogan’s remark this week has drawn a firestorm of criticism, including condemnation from the White House, the United Nations and Israel.
Kerry, on his inaugural trip as the nation’s top diplomat, was forced to respond as Erdogan’s comments ignited new friction between two of Washington’s pivotal regional partners, Turkey and Israel.
Kerry said at a news conference in Ankara with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that he communicated U.S. displeasure with Erdogan’s remarks. “We not only disagree with it, we found it objectionable,” Kerry said.
The secretary said he planed to raise the issue “very directly” at a scheduled dinner with Erdogan. At a United Nations conference in Vienna this week, the prime minister said Islamaphobia was a crime against humanity, like “Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism.”
Davutoglu, asked about the “hostile remarks” about Israel, denied that Turkey had been hostile toward any state or individual.
Instead, the Turkish diplomat said Israel had displayed a “hostile attitude” during its 2010 raid in international water on the Gaza-bound ship the Mavi Marmara, an incident that left nine Turkish citizens dead and severely strained Turkish-Israeli relations. Israel said its naval commandos responded in self defense after boarding the craft. The Mavi Marmara was part of a flotilla challenging the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
“If we need to speak about a very hostile practice, I would refer you to the killing of nine civilians in open waters; they have not violated any international right whatsoever,” the Turkish foreign minister told reporters. “Despite that fact, they have been killed, and this is a hostile attitude vis-a-vis Israel.”
On the topic of Syria, Kerry said that the United States and Turkey backed a “political solution” to the crisis, though neither diplomat laid out steps for possible peace talks. Both nations have called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.
Turkey, which shares a more-than-500-mile border with Syria, has been a major patron of the Syrian rebellion, which is now approaching its second anniversary. Ankara has allowed Syrian rebels to use Turkish territory as a sanctuary as well as a corridor for weapons and fighters headed to Syria.
In Geneva on Friday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that Syria was facing “dissolution” and cited an urgent need for peace talks. The U.N. says as many as 70,000 have died in the conflict.
Meanwhile, Russia said Friday that the latest U.S. push to aid the Syrian opposition promotes “extremists” who have no interest in peace talks and are determined to seize power through force.
The comments came a day after Kerry, speaking in Rome, pledged tens of millions of dollars in nonlethal assistance to Syrian dissidents but turned away opposition calls for direct military aid to rebels. Moscow says the aid is part of a military approach to a crisis that requires a negotiated solution.
“The decisions taken in Rome and also the statements that were voiced there, both in spirit and literally, encourage the extremists to take power by force regardless of would-be inevitable suffering of ordinary Syrians,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement. “In our view, the urgent task of today is to immediately halt the bloodshed and any violence and turn to a political dialogue.”
In Rome, Kerry said Washington also favored a “political solution,” but one predicated on Assad’s ouster and the creation of a transitional government in Damascus.
Russia, a stalwart ally of Assad, says it is trying to encourage negotiations between the regime and the opposition. But Moscow says it is illusory to expect Assad’s government to agree to talks that will ensure its demise.
The Syrian opposition coalition refuses to engage in any negotiations that do not result in the removal of Assad and his security apparatus. Moaz Khatib, who heads the major opposition coalition, reiterated that point in Rome.
The stern tone of the Russian Foreign Ministry statement Friday contrasted with the somewhat conciliatory comments a day earlier from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who discussed Syria and other issues in Moscow with French President Francois Hollande.
“I think we must listen to the opinion of our [Western] partners as to some aspects of this not-so-simple problem,” Putin said, referring to Syria. “It seems to me that we would need to sit over a bottle of vodka — a bottle of good wine wouldn’t be enough — to sort these things out.”
McDonnell reported from Beirut and Loiko from Moscow.