ISTANBUL, (AFP) – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived Saturday in Istanbul for talks on the conflict in Syria with Turkish leaders after Washington slapped fresh sanctions on Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its allies.
Clinton flew in from Benin after wrapping up a marathon 11-day, nine-nation Africa tour.
The secretary of state will meet President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, with a press conference by Clinton and Davutoglu scheduled for 1030 GMT. Meetings are also expected with Syrian opposition members and refugees.
Clinton will have “lengthy and in-depth conversation” with Turkey’s leaders to discuss a three-pronged strategy, a US official said.
The first aspect is “how we judge the effectiveness of what we are doing in terms of supporting the opposition,” the official said, adding that pressure and isolation of the regime was part of the strategy.
The United Nations Security Council is divided on Syria with Russia and China having vetoed three draft resolutions.
“So after that… we made clear that we were shifting from New York to a focus on supporting the opposition in its efforts to hasten the day that Assad falls and to begin in earnest planning for the day after Assad falls,” the State Department official said.
Clinton is expected to discuss with Turkey’s leaders ways to effectively enforce sanctions against Damascus.
Turkey, once a close ally of Syria, has become a vocal opponent of the regime since it launched a brutal crackdown on dissent in March last year.
Relations hit an all-time low after a Turkish fighter jet was shot down by Syrian fire in June, killing its two-man crew and leading Ankara to brand Damascus a “hostile” opponent.
In November, the Turkish government joined Arab League sanctions, freezing Syrian government financial assets, imposing a travel ban on senior Syrian officials and cutting off transactions with the country’s central bank.
The second part of the strategy, according to the US official, would be to extend humanitarian assistance to Turkey as it copes with an influx of refugees from Syria.
In Istanbul, Clinton is expected to announce an additional $5.5 million in aid for those fleeing fighting that monitoring groups say has now claimed over 21,000 lives.
Turkey is currently home to more than 50,000 refugees living in camps along the Syrian border.
This week has seen a marked increase in refugees, with close to 10,000 turning up at the border amid intensifying battles between regime forces and rebels for Syria’s second city of Aleppo.
“The third area is transition planning and day after planning,” the official said.
“The Secretary was very clear that we don’t want to put a date on Assad’s departure, because we can’t. We don’t know when that day will come, but it is our strong conviction that it will come and that the international community needs to be prepared to support the Syrians themselves as they deal with all of the challenges that will come with actually effectuating a transition to a new Syria.”
The State Department official went on: “There are political challenges in terms of organizing the state and protecting its institutions.
“There are economic challenges, both in terms of short-term stabilization and in terms of rebuilding a deteriorating Syrian economy.
“There are security challenges that may require international and multilateral assistance of various kinds.
“There are challenges related to securing, of course, weapons inside Syria to ensure they don’t fall into the wrong hands.
“And there are humanitarian challenges related to the need to provide basic subsistence to displaced Syrians both inside and outside Syria.”
Clinton’s visit comes after Washington on Friday announced sanctions against Syrian state oil company Sytrol for trading with Iran, in a bid to starve the regimes in both Tehran and Damascus of much-needed revenue.
The US Treasury also said it was adding the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has close ties with Iran and Syria, to a blacklist of organisations targeted under Syria-related sanctions.
Washington already classes Hezbollah a “terrorist organisation” and it is under US sanctions, but Friday’s move explicitly ties the group to the violence in Syria, where Assad is attempting to put down a 17-month revolt.
The sanctions are designed to increase pressure on the Assad regime as the conflict escalates sharply after the failure of former UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan and his dramatic resignation.
World powers are expected to name veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as their new envoy for Syria early next week.