Erdogan raps US on Syria ahead of Biden visit

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Ankara (AFP) - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday chided the United States for failing to meet Turkey's conditions to play a bigger role in the anti-jihadist coalition in Syria, in a new sign of strains ahead of a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden arrives in Istanbul on Friday for a key three-day visit aimed at finding some common ground with Turkey in the fight against Islamic State (IS) militants who have captured swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Relations between the United States and Turkey, NATO's sole Muslim-majority member state, have hit a rocky period amid divergences on how best to resolve Syria's civil war.

Speaking to reporters at Ankara airport before leaving for a trip to Africa, Erdogan said the coalition "had not made the steps we asked them for".

Turkey has insisted it will only play a major role in the coalition against IS if there is a coherent strategy to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power and if a security zone is set up along its 911-kilometre (566-mile) border with Syria.

The government also so far has refused to allow US forces to carry out bombing raids from the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, forcing them to make far longer sorties from the Gulf.

Ankara also wants the United States to help train and equip a large contingent of rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces to fight against the Assad regime.

Erdogan said that the "parties have not taken any decisive steps towards the train-and-equip plan" for FSA fighters.

"From the no-fly zone to the safety zone, and training and equipping, all these steps have to be taken now.

"But the coalition forces haven't taken the steps we asked them for or suggested to them."

-'Not considering buffer zone'-

US Secretary of State John Kerry had heartened Turkey on October 8 by declaring that a buffer zone was an idea "worth looking at very, very closely".

But in an indication that little progress may be made on the issue during Biden's visit, a senior US administration official said the idea was off the table for now.

"At the moment, we're not considering a no-fly zone or a buffer zone," said the official in comments posted on the White House website.

But the official played down the divergences between Washington and Ankara, saying these were merely "different ways of achieving our common end."

In Istanbul, Biden will meet individually with Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to discuss cooperation in fighting IS.

Talks will centre on "coping with the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflicts on Turkey's southern border," according to a statement from the White House, as well as "countering the threat posed by foreign fighters."

Erdogan however signalled Turkey would not change its position unless its conditions were fulfilled. "Of course Turkey will maintain its stance until this process has been completed."

So far, Turkey's sole contribution to the coalition has been allowing a contingent of Iraqi peshmerga Kurdish fighters to transit Turkish soil to fight IS militants for the Syrian border town of Kobane.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Ankara confirmed that retired General John Allen, coordinator of the US-led coalition against IS forces in Iraq and Syria, was visiting Ankara on Wednesday on a previously unannounced trip.

"He is meeting with senior Turkish officials as part of ongoing discussions about countering the ISIL threat," the official said.

Biden and Erdogan were involved in a highly-publicised spat last month after the US vice president suggested Ankara had changed its Syria policy after realising it had encouraged the growth of IS.

Erdogan promptly declared that his relationship with Biden would be "history" for him had he said such a thing and the two sides even argued over whether there had been an apology.

But the US official said: "It's our view that there's no need for reconciliation," describing the relationship between the pair as "close".

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