Erdoğan: Turkey has maintained contact with Syrian government

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) shakes hands with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Al-Shaab presidential palace in Damascus on October 11, 2010. AFP PHOTO/LOUAI BESHARA (Photo by LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

Turkey has maintained low-level contact with the Syrian government, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Sunday, even though Ankara has supported rebels who fought for years to topple President Bashar al-Assad, Reuters reported.

Erdoğan has described Assad as a terrorist and said several times during Syria’s eight-year conflict that the Syrian leader must go. But with support from Russia and Iran, Assad has recaptured large parts of Syria from rebel fighters, driving them from most of their former strongholds.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said in December Turkey and other countries would consider working with Assad if he won a democratic election, and last month said Ankara was in indirect contact with Damascus via Russia and Iran.

Erdoğan suggested on Sunday that Turkey also had direct contacts with the Syrian government.

“Foreign policy with Syria continues at a lower level,” he told broadcaster TRT in an interview, adding that intelligence services operated differently to political leaders.

“Leaders may be cut out. But intelligence units can communicate for their interests,” Erdoğan said. “Even if you have an enemy, you should not break the ties. You may need that later.”

The Turkish president also said a proposed safe zone in northeastern Syria, which President Donald Trump has said should be established as US forces withdraw from the area, could not be set up by Western coalition forces without Turkey.

“We can provide the security in the area. We can manage the region together with you,” Erdoğan said. “No problem there. But we can’t leave the region for coalition forces.”

Washington has said the proposed safe zone should address Turkish concerns about preventing any cross-border threat from Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia fighters in north Syria while also preventing Turkish military operations against the YPG.

Erdoğan is due to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for talks on Syria in the Russian resort of Sochi on Feb. 14.

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