Historic Turkey visit for Syrian leader

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is to fly into Turkey on Tuesday for a three-day groundbreaking visit.

    Al-Asad will hold talks on improving ties and security cooperation

    Turkish officials say the visit will mark a new beginning in ties between the two neighbours who nearly went to war just five years ago. 

    The visit - the first of its kind by a Syrian president - comes against the backdrop of a spectacular rapprochement between the countries since 1998 when they signed a landmark security agreement and averted a serious conflict.

    "This visit is very important because it is the first time a Syrian president is coming to Turkey. I am sure this visit will open a new page in Turkish-Syrian ties," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told the CNN-Turk news channel on Sunday.

    Al-Asad is scheduled to meet President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara for talks on how to further boost ties and increase cooperation in security matters. 

    "This visit is very important because it is the first time a Syrian president is coming to Turkey. I am sure this visit will open a new page in Turkish-Syrian ties"

    Abdullah Gul,
    Turkish Foreign Minister

    The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding in mid-December to help each other in combating crime and terrorism, in the wake of a wave of car bomb attacks in Istanbul which killed 62 people, including the bombers.

    The agreement followed Syria's surprise gesture of handing over to Ankara 22 Turks wanted for questioning over the November bombings against two synagogues, the British consulate and the offices of a British-based bank. 

    The flurry of cooperation between the two countries stands in stark contrast to the tension which poisoned ties in 1998. 

    The two neighbours came to the brink of war that year when Turkey threatened military action if Syria continued to shelter Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan and his fighters, waging an armed campaign for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey's southeast. 

    Tension eased in October 1998 when Ocalan left Damascus, his long-time safe haven, and Syria pledged to stop harbouring the rebels. 

    Bilateral ties have further warmed in the wake of the US-led war in Iraq.

    The two countries, as well as Iran, share concerns that any move towards self-rule by the Kurds in northern Iraq could spark unrest among their own Kurdish minorities. 

    Middle East peace

    Al-Asad will be the first Syrian leader
    to visit Ankara in 17 years

    Al-Asad's visit comes after the United States, a NATO ally of Turkey, last month approved legislation that aims to punish Syria for alleged ties to terrorists, tacit support for insurgents in Iraq, and efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction. 

    Another issue likely to be discussed during the visit is the stalled Middle East peace process. Turkey, a staunch ally of Israel since 1996, has on several occasions offered to help mediate between the different parties to launch talks to settle the long-running conflict.

    Economic ties will also be high on al-Asad's visit during which the two sides are expected to sign cooperation agreements on preventing double taxation and encouraging investments. 

    The president will also go to Istanbul, Turkey's financial capital, for meetings with Turkish business people on Thursday.

    Before al-Asad, the last Syrian leader to go to Turkey was Prime Minister Mustapha Miro who predicted a "brilliant future" for relations between the two states during his visit last July. He was the first Syrian premier to visit Turkey in 17 years.



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