- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 28, 2011

Turkey on Thursday held out the prospect of closer economic ties if Syria’s president meets demands for reform, even as Western powers warned of sanctions if Syria’s bloody crackdown doesn’t cease.

The escalating efforts of Turkey, NATO’s biggest Muslim member, to work with Syria reflect its close relationship with President Bashar Assad and its view of itself as a model for regional democracy.

In addition, the U.N. nuclear agency on Thursday said for the first time that a target destroyed by Israeli warplanes in the Syrian desert in 2007 was a covertly built nuclear reactor, countering assertions by Syria that it had no atomic secrets to hide.

Previous reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency have suggested that the structure hit could have been a nuclear reactor. Director General Yukiya Amano’s comments Thursday marked the first time that the IAEA has said so unequivocally.

By aligning the IAEA with the U.S., which first asserted three years ago that the bombed target was a nuclear reactor, the comments will increase pressure on Syria to stop stonewalling agency requests for more information about its nuclear activities.

Israel has never publicly commented on the strike or even acknowledged carrying it out. The U.S. has shared intelligence with the IAEA that identifies the structure as a nearly completed nuclear reactor that, if finished, would have been able to produce plutonium for the fissile cores of nuclear warheads.

Syria denies any covert nuclear activity or interest in developing nuclear arms.

Syria’s refusal to allow IAEA inspectors access to the bombed Al Kibar desert site after a visit three years ago and its decision to level the destroyed structure and later build over it have heightened suspicions that it had something to hide.

Meanwhile, tanks rolled into the northern port of Latakia - a key city in the heartland of Syria’s ruling elite - and security forces opened fire on anti-government demonstrators, while heavy shooting rang out again in the southern protest hotbed of Daraa, witnesses said.

In a further blow to Mr. Assad, more than 200 members have quit Syria’s ruling Baath party in the southern province at the center of the uprising to protest the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on opponents, a human rights activist said.

A witness said six tanks rolled into Latakia on Wednesday night and security forces fired on pro-democracy demonstrators, wounding four.

Unrest in Latakia is significant because the province has strong historical ties to Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Latakia is home to a diverse mix of religious groups, with mostly Sunni Muslims in the urban core and Alawites in the countryside.

Turkey shares a 545-mile border with Syria, most of it heavily mined. Some Turkish commentators have warned that refugees might try to flee to Turkey, though there is no sign of such an exodus for now.

Mr. Assad met with a Turkish delegation led by Hakan Fidan, chief of Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency, and Kemal Madenoglu, head of the agency that oversees infrastructure projects, Turkey’s Anatolia news agency reported from Damascus.

The agency said Syrian Prime Minister Adel Safar also was present at the meeting and that Turkey’s proposed contribution to “the reform process in Syria” was discussed. Specialists from the Turkish planning group were expected to visit Syria in coming days to help plan development of infrastructure.

From combined dispatches

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