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Syria/Turkey: Common Interests In Iraq Help Rebuild Bilateral Ties

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad concluded a three-day visit to Turkey today that contributed to a growing rapprochement between the two countries.

Prague, 8 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Syria and Turkey appear to be bridging their differences and restoring bilateral ties just five years after Ankara threatened to invade its southern neighbor.

Signs of rapprochement were apparent during a three-day visit to Ankara this week by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. His visit -- the first to Ankara by a Syrian president -- concluded today.

Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer told reporters yesterday that he and al-Assad reached a unified position on the common interests of both states -- most notably, their mutual opposition to the emergence of an independent Kurdish state out of northern Iraq.

"We have evaluated the latest developments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq issues," he said. "We have found that we share similar approaches on defending the soil and national unity of Iraq and its re-entry into the international community, as well as supporting the international efforts for reconstruction."

Talks on 6 January between the two presidents brought calls for increased cooperation to help achieve regional peace. Yesterday, al-Assad built on that spirit when he met with the chief of the general staff of Turkey's armed forces and with the Turkish foreign minister.

James Ker-Lindsay, a specialist on Turkish foreign affairs, is executive director of Civilitas Research, a private, political-risk consultancy based in Cyprus. He told RFE/RL today that the strengthening of Syrian-Turkish ties on the basis of their common interests in Iraq is an "enormous development."

"[The Kurdish question] is really a very important and interesting area of joint interest between Turkey and Syria," Ker-Lindsay said. "Both countries have made it very clear that they intend to see, and they hope to see, a unified Iraq continue into the future. Syria also runs the risk that by promoting any sort of Kurdish separatism, they will open up a problem for themselves in so far as there is a Kurdish population in Syria."

Ker-Lindsay explained that the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in the region could pose a threat to both Turkey and Syria because it might bolster separatist sentiments among their own Kurdish populations.

"There is a great deal of concern about the prospect of breakup in Iraq -- that some sort of Kurdish state could be established in northern Iraq which would then form the basis for any further enlarged Kurdish state, and [that] the region's Kurds might see this as a homeland upon which to build their respective parts and add on their respective parts," he said. "So, I think this is one of those areas where we can see a quite clear coming together of interests of the current leadership in Syria and in Turkey to try to prevent this from happening."

But Ker-Lindsay says the impact of improved ties between Ankara and Damascus will not be limited to the Middle East and Iraq. He says the development also is likely to help Ankara's goal of achieving membership in the European Union: "I think it's an important symbol in terms of Turkey's relationship with Europe. One of the key concerns that many people have expressed about taking Turkey [into] the European Union is this issue that, by taking Turkey into the EU, one extends the borders of the EU right to the Middle East. And this could obviously create all sorts of problems in terms of Europe's relations with the Middle East. What happens if relations between Syria and Turkey, for example, are bad? How does this involve the European Union? So, I think, obviously, [these developments] are very positive for the European Union."

Further, Ker-Lindsay says improved relations with its neighbors could enhance Turkey's potential role as a diplomatic liaison between Europe and the Middle East.

"Another interesting aspect of this, of course, is that [the rapprochement with Syria] comes very much in parallel with the efforts over the past five years to improve relations with Greece. Many have taken this as a symbol that we are seeing a far more responsible Ankara -- a far more responsible Turkey -- which realizes it does have a very important position to play within the wider region of the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, southeast Europe, and is learning to look at building constructive ties with its neighbors."

Still, Ker-Lindsay says it is unlikely that NATO-member Turkey would be able to foster the kind of diplomatic breakthrough on Israeli-Palestinian relations that has been beyond the reach of the so-called "Quartet" of the EU, the United States, the United Nations, and Russia.

"Turkey as a Muslim state, being such a strong supporter of Israel -- they have extremely close ties in the military area," Ker-Lindsay said. "Plus also, Turkey does view itself as playing some sort of moderating role in the Middle East disputes. It takes a very close position to that of the European Union's line in support of the road map for peace, which is the official Washington line, as well. But obviously, at the moment, with tensions being what they are on the question of Israel-Palestine, I don't think it is particularly realistic to expect that Turkey can step into the breach and succeed where the Quartet has failed."

The low point of relations between Syria and Turkey came in 1998 after Ankara accused Damascus of harboring Kurdish separatists of the PKK, who were waging an armed separatist campaign in southeastern Turkey. Those tensions began to ease after Syria agreed to stop harboring PKK guerrillas and expelled PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Most analysts and independent observers conclude that Syria's expulsion of Ocalan -- which led to his eventual extradition to Turkey -- was the turning point in diplomatic relations between the two countries.

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