Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, expressing mistrust of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, claimed Assad has made a tactical move by pledging peace in order to manipulate the results of this weekend's key Syria gathering in his favor.

Damascus has accepted a cease-fire and six-point peace plan drafted by United Nations and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, his spokesman, Ahmed Favzi, said on Tuesday.

En route to Tehran after attending a nuclear security conference in Seoul, Erdoğan said Assad is attempting to influence public opinion before the second Friends of Syria meeting in İstanbul on April 1 and ruled out the possibility that the Syrian president is genuine in his promises to quell violence in the country.

"Even though we used to have a close relationship with Assad, he hasn't stuck to the promises [to make democratic reforms] he repeatedly made to us. Making promises is one of his frequently used tactics," Erdoğan said.

"Before the UN meetings, Arab League meetings and the first Friends of Syria meeting, he [Assad] made similar promises and wanted to have an influence on the decisions of those meetings. Now, he is trying to influence the results of the İstanbul [Friends of Syria] meeting in a tactical move. However, I don't believe him. If only he was sincere," Erdoğan maintained.

The Foreign Ministry also has expressed similar caution for Assad's compromise.

"We hope that Assad's decision [to accept Annan's plan] will not turn out to be an act to buy time [to conduct more violence]," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Selçuk Ünal.

Syrian National Council, or SNC, leader Burhan Ghalioun, speaking from İstanbul, said Assad's recent move is a strategy to divert attention from the ongoing violence in Syria and to cover up new assaults in the country.

Syrian opposition groups convened in İstanbul on Tuesday to seek a common front for their year-old uprising against Assad. Meanwhile, conflicts sprang up on Tuesday on Syria's Lebanese border, vindicating Turkey and the Syrian opposition's suspicions of Assad's motives.

While Assad visited the besieged Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs as a show of good intention to end violence, Syrian troops advanced into north Lebanon, destroying farm buildings and clashing with Syrian rebels, residents said.

Annan's six-point plan includes a number of appeals to the Syrian regime, such as ensuring an immediate UN-supervised truce between the regime and the opposition forces, intensifying the pace and scale of the release of arbitrarily detained persons and allowing the freedom of movement for journalists across the country.

Syria To Recall Its Turkish Envoy

Syrian-Turkish relations seem to have chilled further after Turkey withdrew its ambassador in Damascus. In a retaliatory move to the closure of Turkey's embassy in Damascus on Monday, the Syrian regime has recalled a significant number of its diplomatic staff in Turkey to Syria.

Mounzer Mounzer, Syria's ambassador to Turkey, is also expected to return to Syria soon. Syria will downgrade its diplomatic representation to the level of junior chargé d'affaires in reaction to Turkey's move to cut diplomatic relations, according to reports. Ömer Önhon, Turkey's ambassador to Syria, has already returned to Turkey after being recalled by the Turkish government.

Arab League Shuns Turkey, Iran On Syria

The Arab League has shunned Turkey and Iran from a Thursday meeting regarding Syria in Baghdad, seemingly intending to distance itself from Ankara-led aggressive policies against Damascus that prioritize toppling President Bashar al-Assad from power.

Turkey was not invited to the Baghdad meeting even though Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has worked closely with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi since the early days of the Arab Spring; Turkey has observer status at the body and Ankara has participated in almost every crucial summit held by the 22-country organization.

Though officials have said the meeting was closed to all non-Arab countries, including Turkey and Iran, a senior European Union official will take part in the summit, with the executive secretary-general of the European External Action Service, Pierre Vimont, scheduled to represent Brussels at the meeting.

There are three main reasons for Turkey's exclusion from the meeting. The first is the current chilly relationship between Ankara and Baghdad over the latter's accusations that the Turkish government is seeking to increase its influence in its southern neighbor. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki objected to Turkey's participation, the Hürriyet Daily News has learned.

Maliki and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan found themselves at odds earlier this year because Ankara believes al-Maliki is acting as an offshoot of the Iranian administration and provides a link between Tehran and Damascus.

As Iraq assumes the term presidency of the Arab League, the league's relations with Ankara are likely to become bumpier during this period. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari was explicit in expressing his government's concern over the growing influence of regional powers Turkey and Iran inside Iraq in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

"This summit will enhance our position to stand on our feet vis-à-vis these regional powers," he said, accusing Turkey and Iran of "competing to fill the vacuum in Iraq in the absence of an Iraqi representative, strong, national unity government."

Arab League Went Too Fast On Syria

The second reason for Turkey's exclusion from the meeting seems to stem from the Arab League's intention to distance itself from the policies of Turkey and some Western powers, which are focused on toppling al-Assad.

Divided over Assad's future, the members of the Arab League will likely endorse Kofi Annan's mission, which has received a positive response from Damascus. The Annan Plan is perceived as much more realistic than other competing plans in many Arab countries, which are growing increasingly suspicious of the Friends of Syria initiative.

Some Arab countries believe the league moved too quickly in demanding that al-Assad leave office -- losing some political maneuvering room by doing so. They have also laid part of the blame on Arabi for remaining under the influence of Davutoğlu, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Related to these differing positions over Syria, the third reason for Turkey's exclusion reflects growing concerns about rising Turkish interference in the Arab world's internal affairs. A good majority of Arab politicians, scholars and journalists suspect that increasing Turkish influence carries with it the motive of glorifying the Ottoman past, something the Turkish diplomatic establishment strongly denies.

Annan Not Participating To Syria Talks In Istanbul

The joint United Nations-Arab League special envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, will not participate in the meeting of the Friends of Syria Group in Istanbul on April 1.

Nasser al-Kidwa, the UN-Arab League deputy joint special envoy for Syria, will attend instead, diplomatic sources told the Hürriyet Daily News. Despite having been invited by Turkey to attend the Istanbul meeting, Annan has to participate in a UN Security Council briefing on early April 2, sources said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will also not be able to attend the Friends of Syria meeting due to the same briefing. Lynn Pascoe, Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs, will represent the UN on behalf of Ban, sources said.

The meeting of top diplomats in Turkey comes after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accepted Annan's six-point plan calling for a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire and access to all areas affected by the fighting in Syria, an inclusive Syrian-led political process, a right to demonstrate, and the release of people detained arbitrarily.

Annan Asks 'Low Profile'

Annan is expected to lay out a road map to achieve his peace plan during briefing to the UN Security Council. Annan has asked some Western powers to take a low profile on the issue of the Syrian crisis for the sake of his peace plan, now that al-Assad has accepted it, the Daily News has learned. Meanwhile, Syrian National Council Chairman Burhan Ghalioun ruled out a dialogue and asked Assad step down in a statement on Tuesday. Meanwhile, military action against towns and villages from the southern province of Deraa to the cities of Hama and Homs were reported.

Syrian forces backed by tanks stormed the central town of Qalaat al-Madiq, killing at least 13 people, activists said Tuesday.

Dissidents May Unite If Committee Re-Elected

Syrian opposition groups have expressed their desire for unity, with some groups having set the deadline for re-electing the Executive Committee of the Syrian National Council to three weeks.

"We prepared a protocol which foresees the re-election of the executive committee in three weeks' time. If the council members do not sign the protocol, we will quit from the declaration and we won't accept them as the representative of the Syrian opposition," Tariq El Saed, a Syrian dissident from the opposition bloc formed by five different opposition groups, told the Hürriyet Daily News on Wednesday.

Syria's splintered opposition leaders announced they had reunited under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council on Tuesday, in a bid to show the world they could form a real alternative to President Bashar al-Assad. Early on in the talks in a seaside hotel, veteran dissident Haitham al-Maler and Kurdish delegates walked out, saying their views were not being heard.

Freed Turkish Journalist At European Parliament

Journalist Ahmet Şık sharply criticized Turkey's anti-terrorism laws and the religious Fethullah Gülen community while addressing the Liberal Democrat Group in the European Parliament in Brussels Wednesday, just 16 days after his release from prison.

"Many a journalist who assumed a critical stance toward the AKP [Justice and Development Party] and the Gülen community, the government's invisible partner, [or] attempted to maintain a dissident outlook toward their policies, either lost their job or had to keep quiet through auto-censure," Şık told an audience at the European Parliament.

Şık cited the names of Ruşen Çakır, Nuray Mert, Çiğdem Anad and Mehmet Altan as some of the journalists who were fired after slight criticisms and went on to elaborate on the elusive nature of the Gülen community.

"The Gülen community is a phantom. They are everywhere but nowhere. They are the cause of fear in society because they control the police," he said.

An explanation is warranted as to why the Gülen community is so eager to organize within the police and the military, Şık said, adding that he had also been targeted by the community because he asked such questions.

"This system has to distort everything, as it has been enslaved by its own lies. It distorts the past. It distorts the present. It distorts the future," Şık said, paraphrasing a 1978 article by former activist and late Czech President Vaclav Havel.

The Gülen community is both avenging the past and trying to destroy its political opponents by organizing within the judiciary and the police, according to Şık.

"The anti-terrorism law [depicts] everyone who is a dissident or exhibits unfavorable behavior as a 'terrorist,' through a mentality that is based on protecting not the interests of citizens, but of the state. The State Security Courts, which were allegedly abolished, have changed only in name. The legal but lawless order of the past still rules the day under the [guise] of specially authorized prosecutors and courts," he said.

Şık also rebuffed claims that journalists jailed in Turkey are not under arrest for their professional activities and said the prosecutors and judges who questioned them primarily asked about their journalistic activities and sources.

Turkish Commander Inspects Troops On Syria Border In Surprise Visit

Land Forces Commander Gen. Hayri Kıvrıkoğlu on Wednesday traveled to the border province of Kilis to inspect Turkish troops, accompanied by Gen. Servet Yörüklü, Second Army commander, who visited a Syrian refugee camp in the town of Öncüpınar. They also had talks with Governor Yusuf Odabaş before he inspected Turkish troops along the border later in the day.

Kıvrıkoğlu and Yörüklü already visited a brigade in the İskenderun district of Hatay, also on the Syrian border, on Tuesday evening.

The generals' surprise visit comes after Turkey recently raised the possibility of establishing a buffer zone in the event of a massive influx of refugees from Syria, as well as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's talks in Tehran, which focused on the latest developments in Syria. Analysts say such a move is likely to lead to armed confrontations between Turkish and Syrian forces.

Turkey has bitterly criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests and said it would offer help to Syrians fleeing from violence.

In 1998, when tension was running high with Syria due to its support for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has waged a bloody war in Turkey's southeast since 1984, former Land Forces Commander Gen. Atilla Ateş visited the Reyhanlı Border Command in the southern province of Hatay, where he made harsh statements against Syria's policies.

Turkish gendarmes on Tuesday detained three Syrians who were carrying explosives as they were trying to enter a tent city hosting nine generals who defected from the Syrian army.

The three Syrians attempted to enter the tent city near the village of Apaydın in the Altınözü district in the province of Hatay on Tuesday, telling gendarmes guarding the refugee camp that they were staying there with relatives. The three men, identified only as A.İ., S.M. and H.M., were instead taken to a gendarmerie station for questioning after gendarmes searched them and found the explosive belts.

An investigation is under way following the discovery of explosives. A subsequent search of the camp revealed that there were no other explosive devices inside the camp, but security was heightened in Syrian refugee camps across Hatay. Last week, security personnel confiscated three grenades before they were smuggled into a refugee camp in Hatay's Reyhanlı district.

More than 17,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey to escape violence in their country. In addition to the refugees, Turkey has also emerged as the main haven for Syrian opposition groups and fighters.

Prime Minister In Iran, Venue For Nuclear Talks Unclear

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated Turkey's readiness to host nuclear talks in Istanbul between Iran and the P5+1 countries, while the Iranian foreign minister said the date has been set as April 13.

"We had made a proposal to hold the nuclear meeting in Istanbul. The Iranian foreign minister had expressed a desire to hold the nuclear negotiations in Istanbul. We are waiting for the decision of the P5+1 [U.N. Security Council members plus Germany]," Erdoğan said at a press conference with Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi in Tehran.

"The date has been set as April 13, but the negotiations for the venue are still ongoing," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said. "Turkey has announced its readiness to host the talks, and my personal preference is Istanbul," he added.

The foreign minister said a "suggestion" from the P5+1 for a venue had been received and was being studied; the location "will be announced soon." The talks carry hopes of defusing a tense international showdown over Iran's nuclear activities that has sent oil prices soaring.

Ahead of meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, where he will discuss Iran's nuclear program and crisis in Syria, Erdoğan said there were positive developments regarding the nuclear talks at the nuclear summit in Seoul.

"We wish to make a positive contribution to this process. Turkey is the third country that has been closely monitoring the process," the prime minister said. Erdoğan also slammed the bellicose language directed against Iran, saying: "Military threats against a country that seeks to master peaceful nuclear technology are not acceptable."

Before his Tehran visit, Erdoğan was in South Korea, where he took part in a nuclear security summit and held talks with United States President Barack Obama. There have been unconfirmed reports that Erdoğan is carrying a message to Iran from Obama, who warned at the start of the nuclear summit Monday that "time is short" for a diplomatic solution to the standoff with Iran.

"Iran must act with the seriousness and sense of urgency that this moment demands," Obama said.

The last round of Iran and P5+1 talks was held in Istanbul in January 2011 and ended in failure. The round before that, in late 2010, was in Geneva. Erdoğan, who was accompanied by several key ministers and intelligence and military officials is expected to meet with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei during his visit.

The United Nations has imposed four rounds of sanctions against Tehran for its refusal to halt uranium enrichment, a technology that can be used to produce nuclear fuel or materials for a bomb. Also, the European Union, as well as the U.S. and others, have imposed an oil embargo as part of sanctions to pressure Tehran into resuming talks on the country's nuclear program.

They have also imposed tough banking sanctions aimed at limiting Iran's ability to sell oil, which accounts for 80 percent of its foreign revenue. Meanwhile, Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan said Turkey complies with international law, but has its own will to decide regarding trade with Iran.

Turkey Offers Help With Iranian Nuke Talks, Refutes 'Imposition'

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won Iranian praises by rejecting outside pressure to prevent countries from acquiring nuclear energy for peaceful purposes during a visit to Tehran. He also said the P5+1 group's opposition to have the next round of talks on Iran's nuclear program may have softened.

Erdoğan, who is in Tehran for talks with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials, has once again defended the right of nations to pursue nuclear energy as long as it is for peaceful purposes and reiterated that Turkey is ready to host talks between Iran and world powers to bring about a negotiated settlement in the dispute over Tehran's nuclear program.

"No one has the right to impose anything on anyone with regards to nuclear energy, provided that it is for peaceful purposes," Erdoğan said at a news conference after talks with Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi. "Everyone with commonsense opposes nuclear weapons."

The United States and its allies have accused Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies the charge, saying its nuclear enrichment program is only for the purpose of generating energy.

Erdoğan arrived in Tehran from South Korea, where he attended a nuclear security summit and also held talks with President Barack Obama.

Turkey has built close economic ties with Iran and has been at odds with Washington over the best way to get Tehran to halt its nuclear program, arguing for a diplomatic solution to the standoff instead of sanctions. However, Turkey has also decided to host a NATO defense shield radar that would warn of any Iranian ballistic missiles in the region, sparking protests from some Iranian officials.

The last round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the group of P5+1, consisting of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, was held in İstanbul in January 2011, but ended without agreement.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said earlier Wednesday that he favored İstanbul as the venue for the April talks but that a final decision will be made by top Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton within the coming days.

"İstanbul has expressed its readiness to host these talks and it remains one of the probable options for the negotiations," Salehi told the official IRNA news agency.

Erdoğan reiterated Turkey's readiness to provide the venue for a new round of talks and indicated that the opposition from Western countries to have the meeting in İstanbul may have softened. Referring to Salehi's remarks, Erdoğan said his talks in South Korea also revealed promising developments regarding the P5+1's stance toward having the meeting in İstanbul.

"Based on the information we obtained in South Korea, there are also positive developments concerning the other side. I think we need to wait for their statement as well," Erdoğan said. "We hope to make positive contributions to this process because we have been following this case most closely as a third country."

Rahimi said Iran firmly supported İstanbul hosting the upcoming talks and praised Turkey for its insistent support for countries' rights to acquire nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The Iranian official said Wednesday's talks with Erdoğan further advanced the "brotherhood" between Iran and Turkey.

"It is known to everyone that Iran wants to use nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes. Our brothers in Turkey know about this better than anyone because we are neighboring countries," he said, adding that his country has invested extensively in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. "We are ready to offer our services to Turkey, other Muslim nations and all of humanity. The West does not want us to make strides in the scientific field. It wants to keep the monopoly [on access to nuclear energy]."

Erdoğan and Rahimi also announced readiness to increase the bilateral trade volume from the current $16 billion to $35 billion by the end of 2015.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan, Energy Minister Taner Yıldız, National Intelligence Organization, or MİT, head Hakan Fidan and Deputy Chief of the General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar accompanied Erdoğan in the visit to Tehran.

Messages On Syria

While Turkey has repeatedly voiced its support for Iran's right to establish a peaceful nuclear program, it is at odds with Tehran over Syria where the government crackdown continues against opposition forces and anti-government demonstrators.

Turkey's EU Minister Egemen Bağış has underlined the importance of Erdoğan's messages in Tehran over the ongoing violence in Syria.

"In order to halt bloodshed in Syria, the prime minister's messages to Tehran have a significant importance. We don't want innocent people to lose their lives either in Syria or in any other country," Bağış said.

Erdoğan has urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, putting an end to more than a year of fighting between Assad's forces and opponents of his rule. Turkey has also allowed opposition groups to meet regularly in İstanbul.

In contrast, Shiite Muslim Iran has steadfastly continued to support what is its closest Arab ally whose leader is from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

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