* U.S. seeks Turkish support with Syria peace conference
* Erdogan, Obama to discuss evidence of chemical weapons use
* Israel relations, Iraq energy also on agenda
By Nick Tattersall
WASHINGTON, May 14 Turkey's prime minister will
push U.S. President Barack Obama for more assertive action on
Syria during a visit to Washington this week, days after car
bombs tore through a Turkish border town in the deadliest
spillover of violence yet.
The bombings in Reyhanli, which killed 50 people on
Saturday, and activists' reports of a massacre of Sunni Muslims
in a Syrian coastal town have incensed Tayyip Erdogan, already
critical of the slow international response to the conflict.
The risk of Syria's chaos spreading will top the agenda in
Erdogan's talks with Obama on Thursday, but the wide-ranging
meeting with one of Washington's Middle Eastern allies is also
expected to cover Turkey's nascent reconciliation with Israel
and its deepening energy ties with Iraqi Kurdistan.
Turkey has thrown its weight heavily behind the two-year
uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, allowing the
rebels to organise on its soil and sheltering 400,000 refugees.
But Ankara resents a sense that Western allies are cheering
it along while offering little in the way of concrete support.
"Of course Syria will be our main topic ... We will draw a
roadmap. Turkey has been damaged more than any other country,"
Erdogan told reporters before boarding his plane to Washington.
Saturday's bombings in crowded shopping streets, which
Ankara blamed on "an old Marxist terrorist organisation" with
direct links to Assad's government, brought home the reality of
Syria's chaos spreading to Turkish soil.
Washington sees Turkey, which shares a 900 km border with
Syria and has NATO's second-largest army, as key to planning for
a post-Assad Syria and is expected to push for Erdogan's support
in arranging a proposed peace conference also backed by Moscow.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he expected the
conference to be held in early June, although Western leaders
including Obama have dampened expectations that a civil war,
estimated by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human
Rights to have killed over 94,000 people, can be doused soon.
Assad's government has said it wants specifics before it
decides whether to take part, while Syria's main opposition
coalition has said it will meet in Istanbul on May 23 to assess
whether it will join.
"Our objective is to ensure Assad cedes power to a
transitional authority. We are hoping that what (Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei) Lavrov and Kerry announced will be within those
parameters," a senior Turkish government official said.
Turkey long advocated a no-fly zone to create safe havens
within Syria but the idea failed to gain much traction among
Western allies. It has since said it favours greater support to
the opposition over military intervention, though some Turkish
officials said a no-fly zone could come back under discussion.
Erdogan and Obama are also expected to confer on any
evidence of chemical weapons use by Assad's forces, which the
U.S. president has warned would be a "red line", as well as
possible deeper U.S. engagement in the conflict.
Turkey has been testing blood samples from casualties, which
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who will also be in
Washington, said last week indicated chemical weapons use.
Washington has said in recent weeks it is rethinking its
long-standing opposition to arming the rebels, although there
has been no word on when a decision might be made.
Turkey and the United States have a long history of military
and strategic cooperation but ties have often been prickly.
Erdogan and Obama will discuss a host of other regional
issues, from Turkey's thawing relations with Israel to its
energy deals with Iraq, as well as the division of Cyprus, split
between a Turkish north and Greek Cypriot south since 1974.
"The visit is an opportunity for the leaders to coordinate
on a broad and substantive agenda, including Syria, Iraq, Middle
East peace, Iran and countering global terrorism, among others,"
a White House official said.
Turkey is not the deferential U.S. ally it once was, its
long-standing alignment with Washington has eroded under the
decade-old leadership of Erdogan, who has carved out an
increasingly assertive and independent role on the world stage.
Its caustic rhetoric on Israel, gold sales to Iran - meant
to be under the choke of U.S. sanctions - and deepening energy
ties with Iraqi Kurdistan, to the chagrin of the central
government in Baghdad, have all been sticking points.
Before leaving for Washington, Erdogan - who will be
accompanied by Energy Minister Taner Yildiz - said Turkey had
agreed with Kurdistan's regional government and U.S. oil giant
ExxonMobil on terms for oil exploration.
Kurdistan is pushing ahead with plans to build its own oil
export pipeline to Turkey, despite objections from the United
States, which fears it could lead to the break-up of Iraq.
An energy official in Ankara said Turkey could open a
neutral escrow account to help share the revenues.
"If the U.S. administration gives the green light, Turkey
could take a step forward in this," the official said.