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Assad: Relationship Between Syria, Turkey Evolving to One of Trust - 2004-01-06

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began talks with Turkish leaders Tuesday, the first day of a landmark official visit aimed at improving ties between the once hostile neighbors. Mr. Assad is the first Syrian head of state to visit Turkey.

Speaking at a joint news conference with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the Syrian president spoke warmly of his country's relations with Turkey. Mr. Assad said his three-day-long visit to Turkey was taking place at a time when Syrian-Turkish relations were at their peak.

Ties between the two neighbors, he added, had evolved from an atmosphere of distrust to one of trust. Turkish President Sezer echoed Mr. Assad's sentiment and said no time should be lost in cementing ties with Syria during a period of regional instability. Both leaders pledged to work for peace in the region.

During Mr. Assad's visit, the two countries are expected to sign a series of economic accords, including an agreement to prevent double taxation and another on tourism.

Thorny issues, such as Syria's territorial claims over Turkey's southern province of Hatay and the sharing of the waters of the Euphrates river, which originates in Turkey, were not expected to be discussed. Rather, Turkish officials say the talks will center on issues of mutual concern, including the future of Iraq, the fight against global terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and developing trade ties.

Analysts say the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq has accelerated the thaw in relations between Turkey and Syria. Both countries have restive Kurdish minorities and are therefore strongly opposed to any moves by Iraq's estimated four million Kurds to break away from Baghdad to form their own state.

The visit is termed historic by officials from both countries, and comes five years after Turkey and Syria almost went to war over Damascus's support for Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan and his armed Kurdistan Workers Party, better known as the PKK. The rebel group waged a fierce campaign against the Turkish government in the predominantly Kurdish southeast region.

The relations began to change in October 1998, when the Syrian authorities evicted Ocalan from his long-time haven in Damascus. Ocalan was later captured by Turkish special forces in Kenya and sentenced to life in prison. The same year, Syria signed a security agreement with Turkey, pledging, in effect, to stop supporting the PKK.