- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria, Jan. 4 (UPI) — Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Ghoul on Saturday urged the international community to find "a peaceful settlement" of the Iraqi problem and to keep away the specter of war from the region.

"We should all exert efforts to reach a peaceful solution without resorting to war and keeping it away from the region," Ghoul said upon his arrival in Damascus on the first leg of a tour that will also take him to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Ghoul is the most senior Turk since 1993 to visit Syria, its neighbor to the south and one that, like Turkey, also shares a border with Iraq. His 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.

He said his talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa Miro meant to "work hard for reaching a peaceful settlement" in Iraq. Another aim was to consolidate relations between Turkey and Syria which have "a joint history and long borders," he added.

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.

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."

According to political analysts, Syria and Turkey share fears about possible repercussions of a war against Iraq: first, an influx of thousands of Iraqi refugees through their borders and second, the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq which will threaten their security.

Turkey has started to position troops on its border in preparation for the expected wave of refugees. The only Muslim country in the NATO military alliance, Turkey is also 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.

Both countries also fear for their economic interests that flourished with Iraq in the past years within and outside the framework of the U.N. oil-for-food program.

Perhaps most threatening, however, is the prospect of a restive Kurdish population. The Kurds in northern Iraq, protected since the 1991 Gulf War by a U.S.- and British-imposed no-fly zone, met in October to revive its regional parliament. Turkey interpreted the move as a precursor to an independent state — an ambition its fears its own Kurdish population may share. Syria, and Iran for that matter, also have clusters of Kurdish groups within their borders.

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. Ties improved substantially after the two countries signed the Adana security accord in 1998.

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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