WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan projected a united front Thursday on Syria, keeping stark differences about how much the U.S. should intervene behind closed doors as they looked to Russia and the global community to close ranks behind efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Under a pair of umbrellas outside a drizzly White House, the two leaders offered no hints about new actions either country would take, but pledged to keep upping the pressure on Assad to leave. After a lengthy meeting focused on Syria, Erdogan sidestepped a question about what he wants Obama to do, even though the Turkish premier has publicly urged the U.S. to take further steps to hasten Assad's departure. And Obama emphasized that if and when the U.S. takes further action, it won't be alone.
"I don't think anybody in the region, including the prime minister, would think that U.S. unilateral actions in and of themselves would bring about a better outcome inside of Syria," Obama said.
Erdogan, speaking in Turkish, called attention to where the U.S. and Turkey have spoken with one voice.
"Our views do overlap," he said. "We will continue to explore what we can do together."
Harmony in the White House Rose Garden obscured the intense debates both leaders are confronting at home and abroad about how to bring to an end a conflict that started in 2011 as a popular uprising and has escalated to claim more than 70,000 lives. Instead, Obama and Erdogan professed both impatience and optimism, hoping that unanimity among allies may compel other players in the conflict — namely, Russia — to get in line.
"What we have to do is apply steady international pressure, strengthen the opposition," Obama said. "I do think that the prospect of talks in Geneva involving the Russians and representatives about a serious political transition that all the parties can buy into may yield results."
Mindful that support from Russia, the Syrian regime's most powerful ally, is a key factor allowing Assad to cling to power, the Obama administration is looking hopefully to a joint U.S.-Russian push to launch peace talks between the regime and the opposition, possibly in early June. But those hopes have been somewhat dampened by word that Russia was planning to sell an advanced air defense system to Syria that could complicate further military intervention, and by Russia's demand that U.S. nemesis Iran be included in the talks.
The State Department wouldn't address the Iran demand Thursday, but said the U.S., Russia and others are still working to get talks underway. Secretary of State John Kerry next week will meet with foreign ministers representing America's Arab and European allies in Jordan, while Syria's opposition will discuss its plans at a meeting in Istanbul.
"The goal here," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, "is to get both sides back to the table to work toward a path toward a political transition."
None of these obstacles was on display after White House meetings Thursday between the U.S. and Turkey, a NATO member and largely secular nation that the U.S. sees as a crucial gateway to engagement with the Muslim world. The two leaders glossed over deep divisions about how actively to support the shadowy array of opposition groups fighting Assad's regime.
"Over the last couple of months, it seemed they were drifting away from each other, and Erdogan was, to put it mildly, disappointed with Obama for not extending the support he thought would come once the U.S. elections were over," said Kemal Kirisci, an expert on Turkish foreign policy at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. "Today, they seemed to want to project an image to the public that they are on the same wavelength."
The White House is considering arming rebel forces despite concerns about weapons falling into the wrong hands and has already provided some military equipment like body armor in addition to hundreds of millions in humanitarian aid. But Obama, reluctant to mire the U.S. military in another unpredictable conflict, has resisted calls from some lawmakers for more decisive action like enforcing a no-fly zone.
Syria's lethal two-year war assuredly hits closer to home for Turkey, which shares a long southern border with Syria and is sheltering hundreds of thousands of its refugees. Violence spilling over the border reached new heights over the weekend when a pair of car bombs in a Turkish border town killed dozens, raising fears that Turkey is becoming increasingly embroiled in the conflict. Turkish authorities have blamed Syrian intelligence for the attacks.
"The United States stands with you as you defend your nation against terrorism," Obama said, calling the bombings "outrageous."
An early adversary of Assad, Turkey has firmly supported Syria's opposition, hosting its leaders and rebel commanders and retaliating against Syrian shells that have landed in its territory. Erdogan has been among the more vocal of the world leaders calling for a more hands-on U.S. effort, nudging Obama to act by declaring assertively that Syria has been delivering chemical weapons on hundreds of missiles — a move that would violate Obama's "red line" against chemical weapons use. Obama has said there's evidence of chemical weapons use but is holding off until the circumstances can be more definitively determined.
Erdogan, too, faces a public divided about the best way to confront the seething conflict in its backyard. Some Turks have accused their leader of putting the nation's security at risk by backing the rebels, prompting anti-government protests and calls for Erdogan to resign. Meanwhile, the 200,000 or so Syrian refugees along the border have stoked resentment among residents in the ethnically mixed regions of southern Turkey.
In an attempt to show concrete action, the Obama administration added four Syrian government ministers, a Syrian TV station and its national airline to a U.S. terror blacklist Thursday, blocking their U.S. assets and prohibiting Americans from doing business with them.
But even that step included a pointed reminder that the U.S. can't be sure who will claim power if and when Assad is ousted. In a parallel move, the State Department blacklisted Muhammad al-Jawlani, the leader of the al-Qaida-linked rebel group fighting Assad's regime. The State Department dubbed al-Jawlani as a "global terrorist" and said he aims to create an Islamist state in Syria.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.
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