ANKARA: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with Turkey’s leaders on the Syria crisis Friday amid a row over comments by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan branding Zionism a “crime against humanity.”
“Obviously we disagree with that, we find it objectionable,” Kerry said at a joint news conference in Ankara, referring to a speech delivered by 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.
The top U.S. diplomat’s visit 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 $60 million in extra assistance to the political opposition.
But the discussions were overshadowed by renewed tensions between Turkey and Israel, two major Washington allies, following comments Erdogan made earlier this week at a U.N.-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 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.”
“No single statement carries a price higher than the blood of a person ... If Israel wants to hear positive statements from Turkey it needs to reconsider its attitude both toward us and toward the West Bank,” he added.
The incident strained bilateral military and diplomatic ties and left the U.S. in a bind to mend relations between its two fundamental 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 U.S. official traveling with Kerry on his first trip abroad since taking over as secretary of state from Hillary Clinton said Washington was “dismayed” to hear Erdogan’s remarks.
“This was particularly offensive, frankly,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
Kerry also attended a memorial ceremony in Ankara in honor of the U.S. Embassy guard who was killed in a Feb. 1 suicide attack claimed by the fiercely anti-U.S. Marxist group the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front.
The situation of jailed journalists in Turkey – which has more imprisoned reporters than any other country in the world – was also expected to be raised by Kerry.