Turkey’s Erdogan says he is open to meeting with Syria’s al-Assad

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that he was open to a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but that setting the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syrian territory as a precondition for talks was “unacceptable.”

Turkey has been the biggest military and political ally of the Syrian opposition, which controls the last rebel bastion in northwest Syria. Ankara has set up dozens of bases and deployed thousands of troops in northern Syria, preventing the Russian-backed Syrian army from re-taking the region.

Speaking to reporters in Istanbul ahead of his departure for a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates, Erdogan said that Turkey has never “shut the door” to discussions with the Syrian government.

“We can hold a four-party summit (with Syria, Russia and Iran), and I am also open to a meeting with al-Assad. What matters here is their approach toward us,” Erdogan said.

Damascus’ condition of a complete withdrawal of Turkish forces for such a meeting was “unacceptable,” he added.

Erdogan first said earlier this year that he may meet Syrian President al-Assad as part of a new peace process, but al-Assad said in March that there was no point in a meeting with Erdogan until Turkey’s “illegal occupation” ended.

“We are fighting against terrorism there. How can we withdraw when our country is under continuous threat from terrorists along our border … We expect a fair approach,” Erdogan said.

The defense ministers of the two countries met late last year for the highest-level talks between the two neighbors, whose governments have been at odds since 2011, when the Arab Spring uprisings reached Syria and plunged the country into war.

The foreign ministers of the two countries also met in Moscow in May ahead of Turkish elections as part of talks overseen by Russia.

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