ISTANBUL — Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan had expressed a wish to meet President Bashar al-Assad if the Syrian leader had attended a summit being held in Uzbekistan, a report in Turkey's pro-government Hurriyet newspaper said on Friday.
But, he noted Assad was not attending the summit.
The report came after four sources told Reuters Turkey's intelligence chief held multiple meetings with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus in recent weeks, a sign of Russian efforts to encourage a thaw between states on opposite sides of Syria's war.
Hurriyet columnist Abdulkadir Selvi reported Erdoğan made the comments about Assad at a meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (known as AK Party), held behind closed doors on Monday.
"I wish Assad had come to Uzbekistan, I would have spoken to him. But he can't come there," Erdoğan was quoted by Selvi as saying at the party meeting.
"He went to war with rebels to maintain his own power. He chose to protect his own power. He thought to protect the areas he controlled. But he couldn't protect large areas," Erdoğan was reported as saying.
Any normalization between Ankara and Damascus would reshape the decade-long Syrian war.
Turkish-backing has been vital to sustaining Syrian rebels in their last major territorial foothold in the northwest, after Assad defeated the insurgency across the rest of the country, aided by Russia and Iran.
Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan