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Assad Becomes First Head of Syria to Visit Turkey - 2004-01-06

Syrian President Bashar Assad is in Turkey for 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.

Mr. Assad, who is accompanied by his wife and several cabinet ministers, was to meet with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, on the first day of a three-day trip, which will also take him to the country's historical and commercial capital, Istanbul. The two countries are expected to sign a series of economic accords including an agreement to prevent double taxation.

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.

Turkish officials say areas of mutual interest such as Iraq, the fight against global terrorism, the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and developing trade ties will constitute the main points of discussion.

The visit is being termed historic by officials from both countries. Five years ago Turkey and Syria almost went to war over Damascus's support for Kurdish separatist rebels fighting in southeastern Turkey.

Turkey's threats of military action against Syria followed the signing of a military cooperation agreement between Turkey and Israel in 1997. Analysts say the strategic alliance between Turkey and the Jewish state played a major role in forcing Damascus to take Turkish threats of military action seriously.

In October 1998, the Syrian authorities evicted Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan from his long-time haven in Damascus, leading to his capture by Turkish forces in February 1999. At the same time, Syria signed a security agreement with Turkey pledging, in effect, to stop supporting the separatists.

Relations between the two countries have been steadily improving ever since. Analysts say the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq has accelerated the process of political thaw between Turkey and Syria. Both countries have restive Kurdish minorities and both are strongly opposed to any moves by Iraq's estimated four million Kurds to break away from Baghdad to form their own state.