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Medvedev Meets With Syrian Leader, Continues Mideast Tour

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has wrapped up a visit to Syria pledging that Moscow will continue to do all it can to advance the Middle East peace process.

Medvedev spoke at the end of a two-day visit to Damascus -- the first by a Russian head of state – during which Iran's nuclear issue and the strengthening of bilateral relations were also on the agenda.

Speaking at a joint press conference with his host, President Bashar al-Assad, Medvedev called for a more active U.S. role in the Middle East peace process, saying the situation in the region risked worsening.

"I see the role of the Russian Federation as using our capabilities to maintain contacts with all the parties in the conflict and other countries. In this sense, Russia is prepared to do its share," Medvedev said.

"But I agree with my colleague that the United States could take a more active position."

Russia, along with the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union, is a member of the international Quartet of Middle East mediators.

In a joint statement, Medvedev and Assad called on Israel to withdraw from the Syrian Golan Heights as well as "all other Arab lands occupied in June 1967."

The two leaders also called on Israel -- which has the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear arsenal -- to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a "non-nuclear state" and become subject to International Atomic Energy Agency control.

"The president of Syria and I both believe that the Middle East should be a zone free of nuclear [weapons], because any other development would cause a regional or even global disaster," Medvedev said.

On Iran's disputed nuclear program, both parties called for a negotiated settlement of Tehran's standoff with the West.

And the Russian president called for "constructive cooperation" with the international community on Tehran's part.

"We talked about Iran, including Iran's nuclear program, emphasizing the right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program while stressing the need for Iran to comply with current nonproliferation rules and cooperate constructively with the international community to reach a mutually acceptable solution," Medvedev said.

Increased Cooperation

The two leaders also discussed ways to develop bilateral economic relations and military cooperation.

In their joint statement, they stated that infrastructure projects, particularly in oil and gas and energy transit, would be the focus of bilateral cooperation, along with aviation and communication, high-tech, and "peaceful use of space."

Russia promised that military cooperation with Syria, which is a major purchaser of Russian arms, would continue subject to their "mutual interests and international obligations."

Medvedev was accompanied by the heads of several key Russian firms or agencies -- warplane maker Irkut (Oleg Demchenko), arms exporter Rosoboroneksport (Anatoly Isaikin), and the Federal Agency for Military Cooperation (Mikhail Dmitriyev.)

Medvedev expressed hope that nuclear cooperation would be increased, without providing further details.

Russian news agencies quoted Assad as saying the discussions touched upon the possibility of building power plants, including nuclear ones, in Syria.

Medvedev's visit came as renewed U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians faced difficulties over Israeli settlement policy in East Jerusalem.

It also came against the backdrop of an 18-month-old suspension of Turkish-led peace efforts between Israel and Syria. Tensions have recently risen since Israel accused Syria of transferring Scud missiles to Hizballah, a claim Damascus denies.

Address To Turkish Parliament

After Syria, Medvedev is due to fly to Turkey later today to meet President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and to address parliament, the Grand General Assembly.

The Kremlin said the highlight of that visit will be the first meeting of a new council for cooperation headed by Medvedev and Erdogan.

Some 25 agreements are expected to be signed during the two-day visit, including a cooperation memorandum to build and service a nuclear power station. That plan has long been in the works but hit a snag last year when a Turkish court canceled a tender won by a Russian-led consortium to build the plant.

Sergei Prikhodko, a senior Kremlin foreign-policy adviser, says agreements to be signed by gas giant Gazprom and state oil firm Rosneft will be among the "most commercially significant" deals to be inked during the trip.

Russia is Turkey's main gas supplier. Moscow wants to build a section of its South Stream pipeline through Turkey's section of the Black Sea to create a new route for Russian gas to Europe. Turkey has agreed to allow Moscow to start surveys in its territorial waters.

In an article he wrote for the Turkish daily "Zaman" on May 10, Medvedev praised bilateral ties, saying they are "approaching the level of a full-fledged strategic partnership."

compiled from agency reports