By Ece Toksabay and Ali Kucukgocmen
ANKARA (Reuters) -Turkey has no preconditions for dialogue with Syria but any talks should focus on security on their border, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday, in a further softening of Ankara’s stance towards Damascus after a decade of hostility.
Turkey has backed rebels fighting to topple Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and cut diplomatic relations with Damascus early in the 11-year conflict.
But the two countries’ intelligence chiefs have maintained contact and recent comments from President Tayyip Erdogan’s government suggest a move towards political engagement, alarming Assad’s opponents in the remaining pocket of rebel-held Syria.
Cavusoglu said two weeks ago that the Syrian opposition and government must be brought together for reconciliation, and Erdogan said diplomatic relations could never be fully cut.
After visiting Russia, which has strongly backed Assad, Erdogan said President Vladimir Putin had suggested that Turkey cooperate with the Syrian government along their joint border, where Erdogan is planning a further military incursion against Syrian Kurdish fighters he says pose a security threat.
Turkey, which has carried out four military operations in northern Syria since 2016, says it is creating a safe zone where some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it is currently hosting could return.
‘NO CONDITIONS FOR DIALOGUE’
Asked about the prospect for any talks, Cavusoglu said they would need to have specific goals.
“There cannot be a condition for dialogue, but what is the aim of these contacts? The country needs to be cleared of terrorists… People need to be able to return,” Cavusoglu told broadcaster Haber Global.
“No conditions for dialogue, but what is the aim, the target? It needs to be goal-oriented,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking after talks in Moscow with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad, called for talks involving Turkey and Syria to avert a military operation.
“The main thing is not to allow any new military action, to negotiate through diplomatic channels on the basis of the political principles that previously existed in relations between Syria and Turkey,” Lavrov said.
Cavusoglu revealed earlier this month that he briefly spoke with Mekdad last year on the margins of an international gathering, though he played down the meeting.
Asked last week about potential talks with Damascus, Erdogan said that diplomacy can never be fully severed. There is a “need to take further steps with Syria,” he said, according to a transcript of his comments to Turkish media.
Around 3,000 people demonstrated on Aug. 12 in the town of Azaz, which is controlled by Turkey-backed rebel forces, pledging to continue their opposition to Assad.
Omer Celik, spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, said a political solution could only be reached when Syria’s government changes course and the opposition believes that a basis for reconciliation has emerged.
“Of course it is out of the question to talk about any political dialogue until the conditions that led to the severance of the political relationship (between Turkey and Syria) are eliminated,” Celik said.
(Reporting by Ece Toksabay and Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Alistair Bell)