Turkey, Iran signal thaw in ties amid mutual concern on Syria


* Increasing sectarianism in Syria raises mutual concern

* Iranian foreign minister meets Turkish leaders

* Geneva talks high on agenda

By Humeyra Pamuk

ISTANBUL, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Turkey and Iran said on Fridaythey had common concerns about the increasingly sectarian natureof Syria's civil war, signalling a thaw in a key Middle Easternrelationship strained by stark differences over the conflict.

Iran has been a staunch 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 icy relationswith the West, and shared concern over the rise of al Qaeda inSyria, 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 Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Istanbul and wasdue to meet Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan later in Ankara,echoed the comments, saying that sectarian unrest posed an evengreater risk than the use of chemical weapons.

"I believe sectarian conflict is even a greater threat andit is not confined to one region," Zarif said.

"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.

"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.


A long-delayed international peace conference in Geneva,first proposed in May, would be high on the agenda in Zarif'sconversations with Erdogan, government sources said.

Arab and Western officials told Reuters this week thatinternational powers were unlikely to meet their goal ofconvening the "Geneva 2" talks later 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.

"Turkey and Iran's positions have moved closer, because Ithink Turkey also has realised the threat of these radicalelements on its border," a regional diplomatic source said,speaking on condition of anonymity.

"There are still disagreements, but I think thesedisagreements can and must be overcome because both Turkey andIran are key to the stability of the region."

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