WASHINGTON – U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have pledged to "keep increasing pressure" on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The raging conflict in Syria was at the center of wide-ranging talks between the leaders at the White House on May 16.
Speaking to reporters following the meeting, Obama said the country would one day be "free from Assad's tyranny" but underscored the difficulty in realizing that.
"There's no magic formula for dealing with an extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria's. If there were, I think the prime minister and I would have already acted on it and it would already be finished," Obama said. "Instead, what we have to do is apply steady international pressure [and] strengthen the opposition."
Obama also expressed cautious optimism that a conference planned for June in Switzerland on a political transition in Syria could help end the civil war that activists say has claimed nearly 100,000 lives.
"I do think that the prospect of talks in Geneva involving the Russians and representatives [from both the Syrian regime and the opposition] about a serious political transition that all parties can buy into may yield results," he said.
Russia's support for the process is seen as crucial, as Moscow remains Assad's most powerful ally. However, Russia has also insisted that Iran participate in the conference, despite objections from Washington.
Erdogan said he would continue to press for Assad to step down and make way for democracy in Syria.
"I will be visiting other countries, my foreign minister will be visiting other countries, just to see how we can speed things up in a way which will prevent the death of more people and in a way which will ensure a transition to a democratic system in Syria,” he said. “Our goal is to see the tyranny, the dictatorship, go away in Syria and be replaced with democracy. And I think this is a collective responsibility on the part of all countries that believe in democracy and this is what we will all continue to do."
Bombings Blamed On Syria
The Turkish leader arrived in the U.S. capital just days after car bomb attacks in his country that Ankara blamed on Syrian intelligence. Damascus has denied any role in the attacks, which were the deadliest on Turkish soil in years.
The crisis in Syria has also strained Turkey's otherwise booming economy and burdened the country with hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Erdogan was expected to push Obama to take a more aggressive stance in Syria, including establishing a no-fly zone and arming the country's rebels. Calls on Washington to consider additional action have intensified amid reports that chemical weapons have been used in the conflict.
Obama said the two leaders had discussed efforts to strengthen the opposition politically and to "increase their capacity on the ground" but offered no sign of an imminent change in U.S. posture or unilateral steps to come.
"There are a whole range of options that the United States is already engaged in," Obama said, "and I preserve the options of taking additional steps, both diplomatic and military, because those chemical weapons inside of Syria also threaten our security over the long term, as well as our allies' and friends' and neighbors'. But this is also an international problem."
The U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions against four senior Syrian officials and two companies shortly after the press conference.
When asked by a reporter how the U.S. decision to not step up its involvement in Syria might affect the war, Erdogan said, "I like to look at things with the glass half full instead of half empty."
"We will continue to discuss this issue in greater detail in our [dinner] meeting this evening," he added.
'Contribute To Peace'
The leaders also said they had taken steps to boost bilateral trade and discussed issues ranging from the Middle East peace process, to the reunification of Cyprus, to Iran's nuclear stand-off with the West, to instability in Iraq. The Turkish leader said issues relating to Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, the Balkans, and Central Asia were also discussed.
Erdogan told reporters he is likely to visit the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the West Bank next month to "contribute to peace." The move is likely to rankle both the United States and Israel, which consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
Obama had initiated a thaw in relations between Turkey and Israel earlier this year.
Erdogan also said the leaders had discussed support for peace in Iraq, which was expected to be a point of contention for the meeting.
Washington fears Turkey's cooperation on energy projects with semiautonomous Kurds in the north of the country could sow instability, as Baghdad considers the move illegal.
Only brief mention was made of civil liberties, as Obama said Washington would support Turkey to "to uphold the rule of law and good governance and human rights for all."
Critics of the Turkish leader say he has trampled on freedoms. Under his leadership, Turkey has become the top jailer of journalists in the world.