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Syrian president makes landmark Turkey trip

Assad, left, and Sezer review a Turkish honour guard during a ceremony for Assad in Ankara.
Assad, left, and Sezer review a Turkish honour guard during a ceremony for Assad in Ankara.

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Bashar al-Assad
Ahmet Necdet Sezer

ANKARA, Turkey (Reuters) -- President Bashar al-Assad began the first official visit by a Syrian head of state to Turkey on Tuesday, hoping to nurture a new warmth between neighbors that were close to war only five years ago.

Relations have been frosty for decades, chilled by rows over territory, shared water resources and Syria's long-time tacit support for Kurdish separatists fighting in southeastern Turkey.

The three-day visit aims to fan the spark of cooperation kindled last November when Syria handed over 22 people suspected of involvement in a wave of deadly suicide bombings in Istanbul.

"My visit coincides with a period when Syrian-Turkish relations are reaching a peak. But if we consider the region as a whole, our region is going through a bad period," Assad told a joint news conference with Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

"We have moved together from an atmosphere of distrust to one of trust. We must create stability from a regional atmosphere of instability."

Sezer echoed the Syrian leader's broader concern.

"No time can be lost in replacing the atmosphere of enmity, distrust and instability which unfortunately prevails in our region with one of peace, stability and prosperity," he said.

Assad brought his wife, baby daughter and toddler son on the trip, expected to be a charm offensive in a country that has close ties to the United States and Israel, Syria's deadly foe.

"Syria wants at least to smooth over and be sure of its Turkish front," columnist Fikret Ertan wrote in Turkey's Zaman daily, pointing to U.S. pressure on Damascus after the Iraq war.

The visit is sensitive for Turkey's wider foreign relations.

A British newspaper quoted Assad on Tuesday as defending his country's right to acquire weapons of mass destruction so long as it faced "aggression" from Israel.

In an interview with CNN Turk television on Monday, said that his country had proposed a U.N. Security Council resolution to remove all weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East, but said the United States blocked the measure.

"The important thing is that all initiatives are taken on a general scope. I mean it should also encompass Israel. Because when we talk of weapons of mass destruction we should think of WMDs owned by Israel. Because in our region, Israel is the only country that possesses WMDs. So when we talk about getting rid of WMDs we must start with Israel," Assad said.

Some Turkish analysts said Ankara should beware of getting too close to him at the possible expense of good relations with Washington and Tel Aviv.

"Let Bashar Assad's 'historic' visit stay low profile," commentator Cengiz Candar wrote in the Turkish Daily News.

Turkish newspapers said the timing of a deal approved by the Israeli cabinet on Sunday to import Turkish water was far from coincidental in the light of Assad's trip.

The Sabah daily said strains had emerged with Tel Aviv over the role of its Mossad intelligence agency in northern Iraq, which Turkey's powerful army regards as its strategic back-yard, and the deal was intended to reassure Ankara.

The thaw between Turkey and Syria began in 1998 when Damascus expelled Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan, whose PKK guerrillas had for years used Syria as a base. Then, Damascus acted only after Turkey threatened war.

Analysts say the current spirit of rapprochement is more genuine, although old suspicions still linger over Turkey's southern Hatay region, which is claimed by Damascus.

The two countries share fears that Iraqi Kurds could try to firm their existing autonomy into statehood, stirring separatist demands by Kurds in Turkey and Syria. U.S. authorities say the creation of any Iraqi Kurd entity is up to Iraqis alone.

Assad told CNN Turk that building any Kurdish or other ethnic entity in Iraq would cross a "red line" for all Iraq's neighbours.

"Any action that would lead to the disintegration of Iraq would not just affect Iraq and Turkey as many people think. Such an action would also affect the neighboring countries and even those beyond," Assad said. "Of course we would be very worried about any initiative that would break the unity of Iraq. Be it in the north or in the south. Because we think that when one piece of the rosary falls apart, the whole thing falls apart."

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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