Turkey concedes including Assad in Syria talks
ANKARA - A senior Turkish official said Friday it was no longer "realistic" to insist on a solution to the Syria conflict excluding President Bashar al-Assad, just three days before new peace talks.
Turkey acknowledged last year that Assad remains an important actor in Syria but the remarks were the first in which Ankara has openly envisaged a deal which does not include his ouster.
"We have to be pragmatic, realistic. The facts on the ground have changed dramatically," Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek told a panel on Syria at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
"Turkey can no longer insist on a settlement without Assad. It is not realistic."
Simsek's comments come as Turkey, a vocal critic of the regime in Damascus, sponsors talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana on Monday, together with key Assad allies Russia and Iran to shore up a ceasefire in the war battered country.
Turkey has backed Syrian opposition rebels fighting against Assad since the complex conflict began with anti-government demonstrations in March 2011, even saying previously that his days were numbered.
Simsek appeared to reflect a policy shift away from Turkey's long-held position of being against Assad having any role when the conflict ends, though he still blamed him for the war's carnage.
"As far as our position on Assad is concerned, we think that the suffering of Syrian people and tragedies clearly... the blame is squarely on Assad," Simsek said.
Turkey recently hosted talks between Russia, which backs Damascus with military support, and Syrian opposition fighters.
- 'Beginning in Astana'-
Russia and Turkey have become closer after repairing ties last summer that had frayed following the downing of a Russian war plane on the Syrian border in November 2015.
Ankara and Moscow brokered a ceasefire between Assad's forces and rebel groups in late December, but violence has again escalated across the country, particularly around the capital.
At Davos, Simsek said there had to be "a beginning in Astana" to make sure the conflict stops.
"For now at least the fighting has stopped, it is very, very critical because that is the beginning of anything else," he added.
"The process is to make sure that we translate the current lull into a more lasting ceasefire initially, and then of course talk about more mundane stuff, settling the conflict."
In an unprecedented incursion in August last year, Turkey waged a military operation against Islamic State (IS) jihadists and also Kurdish militia to back up pro-Ankara rebels.
There has so far been no indication of clashes with Assad's forces or that Turkey plans any offensive against regime-held territory.
- No 'secret bargain' -
Russia has generally steered clear of sharp criticism of the Turkish offensive. And officials in Ankara dismiss talk of any secret "bargain" with Moscow over Syria.
Five Turkish soldiers were killed in an attack in northern Syria blamed on IS jihadists, local media reported Friday, quoting the Turkish military.
Another nine soldiers were wounded in the bombing in Al-Bab, where Turkish-backed rebels have suffered heavy casualties in a weeks-long bid to retake the town from IS, the private Dogan news agency said.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin said destruction by IS jihadists at Syria's ancient city of Palmyra was disturbing.
"What is happening (in Palmyra) is a real tragedy from the point of view of cultural and historical heritage," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists in Moscow.
"Barbaric actions of the terrorists are continuing."
IS recaptured Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, from government forces on December 11 and the new devastation reportedly occurred earlier this month.