Obama urges Turkey, Russia to set tension aside, focus on reining in IS
Aiming to head off a rift between major Mideast players, President Barack Obama today urged Turkey and Russia to set aside tensions over the downing of a Russian warplane and focus on the common priority of defeating the Islamic State group.
Obama, at a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, vouched for the NATO ally’s right to self-defence, and he pledged a solid US commitment “to Turkey’s security and its sovereignty.” Yet he emphasised the need for Turkey and Russia to “de-escalate” their conflict and not get distracted from the campaign against IS and efforts to resolve Syria’s long-running civil war.
“We all have a common enemy. That is ISIL,” Obama said, using one of several acronyms for the extremist group. “I want to make sure that we focus on that threat.”
Tensions between Russia and Turkey have complicated US efforts to prod Moscow into steering its military might towards Islamic State rather than the moderate Syrian opposition. Putin supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Obama and Erdogan want him to go. The downed plane incident has been further exacerbated by the strong personalities of the Russian and Turkish leaders. Obama’s relationship with Putin is tense but direct. His relationship with Erdogan, whom he referred to by first name, is also not close, though the two men are in contact frequently.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called for the opening of communication channels between Turkey and Russia to prevent further incidents like the downing of the warplane.
Putin, who has signed a decree imposing economic sanctions on Turkey over the incident, has said Turkey shot down the jet because it wanted to protect supplies of oil from Islamic State militants. Erdogan says claims that Turkey buys oil from Islamic State are “slander”.
While both Erdogan and Davutoglu have said they do not want an escalation in tensions with Russia, they have also indicated they have no intention of issuing an apology.
Both Putin and Erdogan are strong-willed leaders ill-disposed to being challenged and playing to domestic audiences who like their pugnacity. Neither wants to be seen to back down first. “Putin and Erdogan are two peas in a pod. They’re very similar characters,” said one top European diplomat.
Erdogan said following the meeting with Obama that tension with Russia was harming both countries.
“The tensions in the region sadden us. It is causing harm to both sides,” he said. “Our concern is to not come out badly from this, but on the contrary to turn this into peace and contribute to the peace in the region,” Erdogan said.
Obama said the US was eager to accelerate work on its military-to-military relationship with Turkey to ensure its NATO ally was safe and to help resolve the conflict in Syria.