Leaders of Turkey, Syria could meet for peace - Erdogan

FILE PHOTO: G20 summit in Bali

ISTANBUL (Reuters) -Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday he may meet Syria's Bashar al-Assad as part of a new peace process, after their defence ministers met last week for the highest-level talks between the two foes since the Syrian war began in 2011.

In a speech in Ankara, Erdogan said the next step, following the landmark talks between defence ministers in Moscow, would be a trilateral meeting of the foreign ministers from Turkey, Russia and Syria, to further develop contacts.

"We have launched a process as Russia-Turkey-Syria," Erdogan said. "We will bring our foreign ministers together and then, depending on developments, we will come together as leaders."

Turkey has been the primary backer of Syria's opposition for more than a decade of war, while Russia has backed the Syrian government.

The conflict, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced millions and drawn in regional and world powers, has ground on into a second decade, although fighting is at a lower intensity than in earlier years.

With backing from Russia and Iran, Assad's government has recovered most Syrian territory. Turkish-backed opposition fighters still control a pocket in the northwest, and Kurdish fighters backed by the United States also control territory near the Turkish border.

The United States said it was not supportive of countries re-establishing ties with Assad.

"We will not normalize and we do not support other countries normalizing relations with the Assad regime," U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a daily briefing.

"We've not seen that this regime in Damascus has done anything that would merit normalization, or improved relations with partners and other countries around the world."

A Turkish official said the Turkish and Syrian defence ministers met in Moscow on Dec. 28., with the topics of migration and Kurdish militants on the agenda.

Turkish-Syrian rapprochement seemed unthinkable earlier in the conflict, and Syria's opposition has urged Turkey to reaffirm its support. Ankara has sought to reassure the opposition, with Defence Minister Hulusi Akar saying Turkey would not take any step that would cause problems for them.

(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Can Sezer;Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in WashingtonWriting by Daren Butler;Editing by Peter Graff and Andrew Heavens)