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Obama, Turkey’s Erdogan Reaffirm Urgency of Ending Bloodshed in Syria

May 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
President Barack Obama hosted Turkish Prime Minister Erdo─ƒan at the White House where talk centered on Syria. Margaret Warner talks with Henri Barkey of Lehigh University and Steve Heydemann of the U.S. Institute for Peace about how the international community could collaborate on ending the Syrian civil war and the violence.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Despite the swirl surrounding the IRS, reporter phone records and Benghazi talking points, the issue of what to do about Syria took center stage during the president’s meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan today.

Margaret Warner reports.

And a warning this: Story contains some graphic images.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That’s good. You guys, I’m sorry.

MARGARET WARNER: The rain today didn’t seem to dampen the public unity of the president and the Turkish prime minister on Syria.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We both agree that Assad needs to go. He needs to transfer power to a transitional body. That is the only way that we’re going to resolve this crisis.

PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkey: We also agree that we have to prevent Syria from becoming an area for terrorist organizations. We also agree that chemical weapons shouldn’t be used and all minorities and their rights should be secured.

MARGARET WARNER: But Turkey has been pushing the U.S., NATO and the United Nations, publicly and privately, for tougher action to stop the carnage, and again after bombs killed 51 people in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli on Saturday. Reyhanli is home to 60,000 Syrian refugees, among the more than 400,000 Syrians who have fled to Turkey.

The prime minister has charged the bombings were linked to the Syrian regime, which Damascus denies. In the meantime, the U.S. and Russia are pushing for a peace conference in Geneva. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about the prospect yesterday in Sweden.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY, United States: Each of us has agreed to work very hard with respect to the people that we’re in touch with, the foreign ministers, the opposition, the Assad regime, others, in order to bring the parties to the table.

MARGARET WARNER: But that same day, on NPR, Syria’s vice minister of foreign affairs said the government would never agree to the demand that Assad be ousted.

FAISAL AL-MIQDAD, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister: The replacement of President Assad means destruction of Syria, means no international conference, and means support of terrorism. If this is the objective of the conference, then there will be no conference.

MARGARET WARNER: All of this comes amid signs of recent gains by the Syrian army. This week, regime forces took control of a strategic town near the highway that links Damascus with Jordan.

Such advances put new pressure on the U.S. to assist the rebels militarily. But balanced against that is new evidence that both sides are committing atrocities. Rebels say this amateur video shows 20 members of one family killed by government forces, victims of mass executions in the town of Banias, while this video shows rebels executing three Syrian officers in apparent retaliation, all of which had President Obama saying today that the way forward in Syria is anything but clear.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: There’s no magic formula for dealing with an extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria’s. If there was, I think the prime minister and I would have already acted on it and it would already be finished.

MARGARET WARNER: For now, the president said, the U.S. will pursue the conference, while maintaining pressure on Assad and working with the opposition.

And for more on this, I’m joined by Henri Barkey, a specialist in Turkish affairs and a former State Department official in the Clinton administration. He’s a professor at Lehigh University. And Steve Heydemann, senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the United States Institute for Peace — of Peace.

And welcome to you both.

First of all, you’re experienced Turkey watchers. You watched this press conference. How did you read what these two leaders had to say, and also from what you have been able to assess this afternoon in terms of whether they came any closer to narrowing the gaps on how to go forward in Syria?

Steve Heydemann, why don’t you start?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN, U.S. Institute of Peace: My sense is that when Prime Minister Erdogan arrived, there were a number of issues that could have made these talks fairly contentious.

We expected the prime minister to push the Obama administration on a no-fly zone. We thought he might well request more aggressive U.S. policy in dealing with Syria. There were also concerns about the terms of a negotiation.

And Prime Minister Erdogan stuck to the position that Assad’s removal needed to happen before conditions could begin. He backed away from every single one of those positions. And it seemed to me as if Prime Minister Erdogan was bending over backwards to cooperate, to narrow the differences between Turkey and United States, and to broaden the possibilities for cooperation between them.

The no-fly zone wasn’t mentioned. He seems now to agree that Assad’s removal shouldn’t be a precondition.

MARGARET WARNER: For talks.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: For talks.

And it seems as if he no longer pushing the U.S. to take a more active role in its policy towards Syria. So I saw this as an interesting shift on the part of the Turkish government.

MARGARET WARNER: Henri Barkey, you were at Prime Minister Erdogan, a lunch that was given for him. How do you read the body language and language?

HENRI BARKEY, Lehigh University: The body language I thought initially was — he seemed like he was having fun, but as time went by, he seemed as if he wasn’t very happy today.

I think he didn’t get what he wanted. He had — he did launch kind of a balloon, a test balloon earlier, about the no-fly zone, that Turkey would support a no-fly zone. He wanted to see how the president would react.

And I think what the president basically told him was, first of all, there will never be any boots on the ground, American boots, and, secondly, that a no-fly zone is one of these quagmires that once you get in it’s very hard to get out, and the people who want the United States to get in two weeks later will say, you haven’t achieved anything. You haven’t completed anything.

And so I think Erdogan now understands. I think the one place where there may be some new thinking on the part of the Turks is with respect to the Al-Nusra and the fundamentalist forces that are committed …

MARGARET WARNER: That’s the more fundamentalist al-Qaida-linked resistant forces.

HENRI BARKEY: Until now, Qatar especially — and today, there is a story of that the Qataris have spent $3 billion dollars to support the Syrian opposition, and that between the Qataris and the Turks, they have given the Al-Nusra Front a free ride. And these guys are really bad news.

And I think the Turks are starting to — realizing that. And whether or not they can agree with the Americans as to what to do next is another issue.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what is the situation on the ground? Steve Heydemann, do you agree with recent reports that in fact the Syrian forces have been gaining momentum? If so, where and why?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: The Syrian military, supported by forces from Hezbollah, and with a great deal …

MARGARET WARNER: From Lebanon.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: From Lebanon, with a great deal of assistance from Iran, technical assistance from Iran, has been able to recapture a number of important strategic locations along an urban corridor from Homs to Damascus that the regime views as critical for its long-term survival.

They have mounted operations in Banias, some of which — along the coast, some of which have resulted in horrific massacres that have drawn significant attention globally. But I view this as part of an effort on the part of the Assad regime to ensure that it can secure those areas of Syria that are essential for the resupply of its troops, for its access to Lebanon, and for Iran to remain able to access Lebanon through Syria in order to resupply Hezbollah and ensure Hezbollah’s own military capability.

So, for a variety of reasons, I think we have seen this concerted to push them out of areas that the regime viewed as strategically critical.

MARGARET WARNER: The regime also has these militias now that they have really beefed up, not — I mean, have they been a tremendous asset to them in a maybe horrific way?

HENRI BARKEY: Look, I think these kind of conflicts go through all kinds of cycles.

At the beginning, it was the opposition that had the upper hand. And the Syrian army and with the help of Hezbollah, as Steve said, have learned the lessons and now are fighting back. And I think now it’s up to the opposition to learn its own lessons from this.

The opposition needs to get itself organized and join forces and have some kind of command structure that can respond. I think, eventually, they will learn also from their mistakes, and you will see this conflict, unfortunately, go one — shift from one side to another.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the U.S. and Russia seem to have come together talking about the prospects for negotiating a peaceful transition.

Do you think — Secretary Kerry was in Russia last — I think it was last week, Prime Minister Cameron from Britain. Do you think the prospects for that have improved at all? Or what do you think the prospects are?

HENRI BARKEY: I personally think the prospects are actually worse now, precisely for the reason that Steve was mentioning, i.e., that Assad thinks he has the upper hand, so he has very little incentive to negotiate.

What he will probably do — and if I were him, I would do the same thing — I would pretend to participate. There is a price to pay if you don’t participate in one way or the other. So you have to pretend. But let’s face it. This is a charade, and it has to work itself — itself out.

And it’s only after it fails that you will see others essentially taking much more explicit positions on the Syrian conflict.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: I would agree.

I think we find that Russia and the United States have not yet reached agreement on what that negotiating framework would look like, and both the opposition and the regime have now begun to impose conditions on their participation that make it seem almost impossible to get them to the table.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you don’t take at face value both Russia indicating it’s willing to sort of press the Assad regime, and, clearly, President Obama is asking Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, who all support the rebels, to put pressure on them to attend?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: Well, I think there is a sense of urgency, especially in Washington, about the importance of getting these negotiations launched.

The U.S. is watching this conflict grow and expand, spill over beyond Syria’s borders, and lead to violence in every one of the neighboring countries. It’s watching the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria escalate at an enormous scale. And I think that is giving them a very compelling sense that they need to get a political process launched.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Steve Heydemann and Henri Barkey, thank you.

HENRI BARKEY: Thank you.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: Thank you.