US Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with Turkey’s leaders on the Syria crisis on Friday amid a row over comments by the Turkish prime minister branding Zionism a “crime against humanity.”
“Obviously, we disagree with that, we find it objectionable,” Kerry said at a joint press conference in Ankara, referring to a speech delivered by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that likened Zionism to fascism and anti-Semitism.
Kerry said he would raise the issue “very directly” with Erdogan and express Washington’s hopes to see the two “vital allies” work together.
He met later on Friday with Erdogan and had a “respectful, but frank discussion of the prime minister’s speech in Vienna,” a senior State Department official said.
“The secretary made US concerns very clear. The US and Turkish side agreed to stay in very close touch about the whole range of related issues, including their shared commitment to Middle East peace,” the official said.
The top US diplomat’s visit to Turkey came a day after Washington announced that it would for the first time provide direct aid to Syrian rebels in the form of food and medical supplies, as well as US$60 million in extra assistance to the political opposition.
However, the discussions were overshadowed by renewed tension between Turkey and Israel, two major US allies, following comments Erdogan made earlier this week at a UN-sponsored forum in Vienna.
“As is the case for Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it is inevitable that Islamophobia be considered a crime against humanity,” Erdogan said on Wednesday.
Kerry said it was essential for Turkey and Israel to rekindle their “historic cooperation,” but the situation got more complicated “in the aftermath of the speech that we heard in Vienna.”
Turkish-Israeli relations have remained in free fall since Israeli troops raided a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship in 2010, killing nine people.
“We have never made any hostile remarks against any nation,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in response to a question over Erdogan’s remarks.
“If you want to talk about hostile you can call Israel’s attitude that, after it killed nine civilians on high seas,” he added. “If some countries acted in a hostile way against our citizens’ right to life, allow us to reserve our right to make a statement.”
The incident strained bilateral military and diplomatic ties and left Washington in a bind to mend relations between its two key allies in the region.
Erdogan’s comments were branded as “a dark and mendacious statement,” by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while Washington said “characterization of Zionism as a crime against humanity ... is offensive and wrong.”
A US official traveling with Kerry on his first trip abroad since taking over as secretary of state from Hillary Rodham Clinton said Washington was “dismayed” to hear Erdogan’s remarks.
“This was particularly offensive frankly,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
As part of their agenda, Kerry and Davutoglu also discussed the nearly two-year civil war in neighboring Syria, which has killed at least 70,000 people according to the UN.