Shared concern over Syria brings thaw between Turkey and Iran

Reuters

* Increasing sectarianism in Syria raises mutual concern

* Iranian foreign minister meets Turkish leaders

* Geneva talks high on agenda

By Humeyra Pamuk and Tulay Karadeniz

ISTANBUL/ANKARA, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Turkey and Iran said onFriday they had common concerns about the increasingly sectariannature of Syria's civil war, signalling a thaw in a key MiddleEastern relationship strained by stark differences over theconflict.

Iran has been a firm ally of Syrian President Basharal-Assad since the start of the 32-month-old uprising againsthim, while Turkey has been one of his fiercest critics,supporting the opposition and giving refuge to rebel fighters.

But the election in June of President Hassan Rouhani, arelative moderate who says he wants to thaw Iran's ties with theWest, and shared concern over the rise of al Qaeda in Syria,have spurred hopes of a rapprochement.

"Sitting here together with the Iranian foreign minister youcan be sure we will be working together to fight these types ofscenarios which aim to see a sectarian conflict," TurkishForeign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a conference in Istanbul.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who heldtalks with President Abdullah Gul in Istanbul and Prime MinisterTayyip Erdogan in Ankara, echoed the comments, saying sectarianunrest posed an even greater risk than chemical weapons.

"If the flames of sectarianism rage in the Middle East, youwill see the results in the streets of London, New York, Romeand Madrid," he told the conference.

While deep divisions remain between Ankara and Tehran overthe conflict in Syria, particularly over the role of Assad inany transitional government, diplomats and government officialssay both sides want to mend a relationship which could be key towider diplomatic efforts towards a solution.

Zarif said there was common ground on many issues, includingthe need for Syrians to decide their own fate at the ballot box,and the differences were largely over methods rather than goals.Davutoglu said he would visit Tehran later this month.

"Both Iran and Turkey are at a point where they think theycan work together on Syria," a senior Turkish official said.

"Both countries believe the situation needs an urgentsolution. But the big question is how," he told Reuters.

GENEVA 2

Following talks with Erdogan, Zarif reiterated that Iranwould be willing to take part in a long-delayed internationalpeace conference on Syria in Geneva, if invited.

Arab and Western officials told Reuters this week thatinternational powers were unlikely to meet their goal ofconvening the "Geneva 2" talks this month, largely due todifferences over who will represent the opposition.

Turkey has long argued that Iran and Iraq, another neighbourwith whom Ankara has been trying to mend fences, should beinvolved in the talks if they are to be credible.

Tehran's desire to participate in a June 2012 meeting onSyria hosted by the United Nations in Geneva was a major bone ofcontention between Washington and Moscow, Assad's key ally.

"For Geneva 2 to be meaningful there must be a clearpolitical strategy and there must be Russia and Iran at thetable. Both of them must be included and so must Iraq," a sourceclose to the Turkish government said.

With al Qaeda-linked groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and theIslamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) taking territory inparts of northern Syria near Turkey's border in recent weeks,pressure for a resolution has been mounting.

"We may have disagreements but if we can't present a commonposition over the future of the Middle East, over sectarianclashes, we would all have to bear the consequences of this,"Davutoglu said.

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