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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 January, 2004, 12:11 GMT
Syria: In search of new friends
By Gerald Butt
Middle East Analyst

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad needs all the friends he can get. He knows better than most that the Middle East has changed out of all recognition in the three-and-a-half years since he came to power after the death of his father.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Assad is seeking to defuse the increasing pressure on Syria
Former President Hafez al-Assad, during his three decades as Syria's leader, was largely content to sit in his palace in Damascus and pull strings to influence events in the region from afar.

But his son does not have that luxury. Since the 11 September 2001 attacks in America and the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria has looked increasingly vulnerable.

As the young Syrian leader said on arrival in Ankara, "our region is going through a bad period."

In seeking to improve ties with Turkey, Mr Assad is showing the kind of tactical vision of which his father would be proud.

Channel to the outside world

As a member of Nato and an ally of Israel, Turkey could provide an important channel of access to the wider world at a time when American pressure is building up.

President Assad will have to travel much more extensively than his father ever did, in an attempt to build up a circle of influential friends around Syria - before it is too late.
While President Assad will hope that closer ties with Ankara will temper and eventually balance the latter's military ties with Israel, he will also be discussing matters of common concern to Syria and Turkey.

In 1998, the two states were close to war when the Damascus government was giving shelter and support to Kurdish separatists from Turkey.

Today, all that is forgotten.

Instead, Turkey and Syria are anxious about the possibility of Iraq's Kurds acquiring autonomy - or, still worse, independence - in the north of Iraq.

The two countries fear that such moves would encourage similar aspirations within their own Kurdish communities.

US and Israel

But of still greater concern to Mr Assad are the intentions of the United States and its major ally, Israel, in the weeks and months ahead.

The Bush administration continues to accuse Syria of providing support to international terrorism and of failing to check the movement of Islamic militants across its border into Iraq.

The Syrian leader has already reacted to the various accusations made against him, insisting that his country is playing its part in the war on terror.

He has also suggested the resumption of peace talks with Israel after a four-year break - on condition that all occupied Arab land be handed back and that the issue of the elimination of Syria's weapons of mass destruction be linked to the removal of those in the Jewish state.

Winning friends

In his talks with Turkish leaders - and those of other nations in the coming weeks - President Assad will point to the contrast between his positive suggestions for peace and what he regards as the Sharon government's negative decision to expand the Jewish settlements on the occupied Golan Heights.

The Syrian leader, with the real threat of US military force being used against him, knows that he alone is not in a position to convince or persuade the Bush administration of the justice of his case.

Equally, he is aware that sitting back and doing nothing in Damascus will not help him win over those who might have an ear in Washington.

In the new Middle East, President Assad will have to travel much more extensively than his father ever did, in an attempt to build up a circle of influential friends around Syria - before it is too late.


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