(MintPress) – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan labeled Israel Zionism a “crime against humanity” during a speech at a United Nations forum Thursday. This remark has been sharply criticized by representatives from the United States and Israel ahead of critical talks regarding the crisis in Syria. Since the outbreak of violence in March 2011, the Syrian civil war has lead to the deaths of at least 50,000 and nearly 1 million refugees and internally displaced people.
Newly-confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to address the comments when meeting with leaders in Ankara, the Turkish capital on Friday.
This follows Washington’s announcement authorizing the first official non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels Thursday, a pledge that includes $60 million worth of food rations and medical supplies. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is alleged to have been secretly aiding the Syrian rebels battling dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime since 2012.
The Turkish president decried the political movement to establish a Jewish state in Palestine at a U.N. forum in Vienna saying, “As with Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it is inevitable that Islamophobia be considered a crime against humanity.”
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu quickly criticized the Turkish prime minister’s statement, calling it “a dark and mendacious statement the likes of which we thought had passed from the world.”
President Obama has long maintained support both for Israel and Zionism. “We will always reject the notion that Zionism is racism,” Obama said during a 2012 speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington.
Turkey borders Syria to the north and is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), making it a critical country central to any discussions about a coordinated military intervention to assist rebels in Syria.
Of the more than 600,000 Syrian refugees who have fled since the outbreak of violence, 200,000 have entered Turkey, a humanitarian crisis that swelled the populations of countries in the region.
Erdogan’s remarks continue the steady decline between Turkey and Israel in recent years. Bilateral relations declined significantly following the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. The Mavi Marmara, an aid ship attempting to deliver aid to the blockaded Gaza strip, was raided by Israeli commandos in the dead of nightv— resulting in the deaths of nine passengers on board.
Turkish officials condemned the incident, demanded an apology and expelled the Israeli diplomatic envoy in protest.
Israel has maintained a military blockade of the Gaza strip since 2006, a measure that the Netanyahu administration believes is necessary to cut the flow of illegal weapons going to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups deemed to be terrorist organizations by Israel and the United States.
A 2011 U.N. report found that Israel’s blockade was legal, but that forces had used excessive force when engaging the Mavi Marmara aid ship in 2010.
Turkey was the first Muslim majority nation to recognize Israel in 1949, developing close economic and military ties with Israel. Relations warmed considerably in 1993 during the Oslo Peace Accords when Israeli and Palestinian leadership appeared to be moving closer toward a comprehensive two-state solution to the long-standing conflict.