US President Obama supports Turkey's right to defend itself

US President Barack Obama meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Left) during the COP21 on Dec 1, 2015.
US President Barack Obama meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Left) during the COP21 on Dec 1, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (REUTERS) – United States President Barack Obama urged Turkey on Tuesday (Dec 1)  to reduce tensions with Russia that are hampering efforts to fight Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants in Syria and stressed that United States support for its Nato ally’s security remained steadfast.

Obama met Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Paris, where they have been attending an international climate summit, a week after Turkish jets shot down a Russian warplane along the Syrian border. 

“The United States supports Turkey’s right to defend itself and its airspace and its territory,” Obama said. “We discussed how Turkey and Russia can work together to de-escalate tensions and find a diplomatic path to resolve this issue.” 

Obama told Erdogan that the ISIS militant group, also known as ISIL, was the entity that all sides needed to pursue, echoing a message he delivered to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris on Monday (Nov 30). 

“We all have a common enemy, and that is ISIL, and I want to make sure that we focus on that threat,” Obama said.

Tensions between Russia and Turkey have complicated US efforts to prod Moscow into steering its military might towards ISIS rather than the moderate Syrian opposition. Putin supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Obama and Erdogan want him to go.

The downed plane incident has been further exacerbated by the strong personalities of the Russian and Turkish leaders. Obama’s relationship with Putin is tense but direct. His relationship with Erdogan, whom he referred to by first name, is also not close, though the two men are in contact frequently.

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Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called for the opening of communication channels between Turkey and Russia to prevent further incidents like the downing of the warplane.

Putin, who has signed a decree imposing economic sanctions on Turkey over the incident, has said Turkey shot down the jet because it wanted to protect supplies of oil from ISIS militants. Erdogan says claims that Turkey buys oil from ISIS are “slander”.

While both Erdogan and Davutoglu have said they do not want an escalation in tensions with Russia, they have also indicated they have no intention of issuing an apology for the downing of the jet, as Moscow has demanded.

Both Putin and Erdogan are strong-willed leaders ill-disposed to being challenged and playing to domestic audiences who like their pugnacity.

Neither wants to be seen to back down first. “Putin and Erdogan are two peas in a pod. They’re very similar characters,” said one top European diplomat.

Erdogan said following the meeting with Obama that tension with Russia was harming both countries. “The tensions in the region sadden us.

It is causing harm to both sides,” he said. “Our concern is to not come out badly from this, but on the contrary to turn this into peace and contribute to the peace in the region,” Erdogan said.

Obama said the US was eager to accelerate work on its military-to-military relationship with Turkey to ensure its Nato ally was safe and to help resolve the conflict in Syria.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said similar ties between Russia and Turkey had failed. “Military channels existed and were meant to not allow such tragedies. These channels didn’t work and not through the fault of the Russian side,” he said.