- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria, Jan. 3 (UPI) — Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Ghoul is due in Damascus Saturday for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad about the possible U.S. war on Iraq and its aftermath, diplomatic sources told United Press International Friday.

The sources said Ghoul, who will be accompanied by a high-ranking delegation, will also meet with Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa Miro to discuss bilateral relations. Ghoul is the senior-most Turk to visit Syria since 1993.

The one-day visit is being described as significant due to the tension in the region over the prospects of a U.S.-led war on Iraq to topple President Saddam Hussein.

A team of weapons and scientific experts from the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency are currently in Iraq inspecting sites believed may conceal proscribed weapons of mass destruction. Iraq says it has already complied with U.N. and armistice requirements that it shut down any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs after the 1991 Gulf war.

U.N. Resolution 1441, passed unanimously by the Security Council on Nov. 8, sent inspectors back to Iraq after a four-year hiatus and promised "serious consequences" if Iraq did not cooperate. Syria, as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, voted for Resolution 1441 in what it said was an effort to avert war — and faced strong Iraqi condemnation for its support.

A political analyst said that at the end of their talks, Ghoul and Assad were expected to reiterate their "support of the U.N. inspection and the need to wait for their completion as well as to return to the international organization for any decision to hit Iraq."

Syria and Turkey fear a showdown with Iraq would harm their economic interests and curb gains made due to the U.N.-imposed embargo on Baghdad and the U.N. oil-for-food program.

Syria opposes any strike against Iraq and has refrained from clearly stating that it supports ousting Saddam and changing his Baath regime. It has always emphasized the need for "a (regime) change from inside Iraq."

Ties between the two countries were strained after Syria accused Baghdad of being behind a wave of violence that swept Syria in the early 1980s.

Turkey, which fears a war against Iraq, has started to position troops on its border in preparation for thousands of refugees expected to flee Iraq in the event of a war. The only Muslim country in the NATO military alliance, Turkey is undecided on letting the United States use its air bases, offering logistical support and allowing some 95,000 U.S. soldiers to cross from its territories into northern Iraq.

Washington has promised Turkey financial assistance that would compensate losses it could suffer because of a war on Iraq. Indeed, Turkey has suffered severe economic damage as a result of a decade of sanctions against Baghdad — around $30 billion in lost trade, according to government estimates.

It also has concerns about its own restive Kurdish minority, some of whom want an independent Kurdistan. Kurds also live in Iraq and are protected from Saddam by the U.S.- and British-enforced no-fly zones.

Syrian-Turkish relations were strained in 1998 after Ankara amassed troops on the Syrian northern border in protest against Damascus providing shelter to Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the separatist Kurdish Workers Party. The tensions were defused after the signing of the Adana security accord.

But border and water disputes remain.

Syria refuses to recognize Turkish sovereignty over the disputed Alexandretta district and Turkey has not signed a final accord over sharing the waters of the Euphrates River. A 1987 agreement that provides for Turkey to pump 500 cubic meters per second to Syria, which in turn channels half to Iraq remains in force, however.

Turkish officials believe Assad was "serious in solving all the existing problems with Ankara but the Old Guard (in Syria) is preventing this," an analyst in Damascus said.

The analyst added, however, that when Assad assumed power in July 2000 after the death of his father, President Hafez Assad, he pledged not to relinquish any part of Syrian territory.

As for settling the water dispute, Turkey "will not sign any final accord over the Euphrates River for reasons linked to the Middle East conflict," said a Western diplomatic source. "Such an agreement would be within the framework of a comprehensive peace between the Arabs and Israel in line with an announced U.S. plan."

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