Turkey's Erdogan renews push to restore ties with Syria that were severed over a decade ago

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his willingness to restore ties with Syria and extended an “invitation” Sunday to bring back relations to "how they were in the past."

Over 12 years ago, diplomatic ties between Ankara and Damascus were cut off when protests turned into a civil war in Syria. Turkey supported armed opposition groups in the northwest that aimed to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad from power.

Before that, Erdogan and Assad enjoyed close ties, even vacationing together with their families in southern Turkey in 2008. Last week, both indicated their readiness to end tensions and normalize diplomatic relations.

“Yesterday, we were not enemies with Syria. We met with Assad as a family, ” Erdogan told journalists Sunday on a flight from Berlin, where he watched Turkey play the Netherlands in the quarter-final of the European Championship's soccer tournament.

“We talk about mediation everywhere, so why not with the one on our border?” Erdogan added in comments reported by the state-run Anadolu news agency.

This comes as the Turkish government has been facing increased pressure to repatriate millions of Syrian refugees amid a steep economic downturn and rising anti-refugee sentiment.

A week ago anti-Syrian riots broke out in Kayseri, central Turkey, following reports that a Syrian refugee had allegedly sexually harassed a 7-year-old Syrian girl. Residents of Melikgazi overturned cars and set shops ablaze, calling on Syrians to leave the country.

Last year, the Turkish and Syrian foreign ministers met in Moscow alongside counterparts from Russia and Iran, marking the highest-level contact between Ankara and Damascus since the start of the Syrian war. But those talks and a previous meeting involving the two countries’ defense ministers did not bear fruit.

Signs of détente between Erdogan and Assad, including plans to open a crossing between Syrian government-held areas and those held by opposition groups in Aleppo province, have led to rising tensions in towns controlled by the Turkish-backed opposition.

The Idlib-based “salvation government” of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — a formerly al-Qaida-linked insurgent group that controls other parts of northwestern Syria — issued a statement on July 1 calling on Turkey to “assume its legal and moral responsibilities to protect Syrian refugees.”