Assad Urges WMD Ban During Landmark Turkey Visit

ANKARA (Reuters)–Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued fresh calls for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction during a landmark Turkish visit on Tuesday–but defended his right to acquire them against Israeli "aggression."

Assad–seeking to cultivate better relations with Turkey after decades of frostiness and a near war–said Ankara–which has close ties with nuclear power Israel–as well as the United States–had backed his appeals.

"I see that the Turkish side is looking warmly on this–and embraces it in principle," Assad–making the first official trip to Turkey by a Syrian head of state–told reporters.

Turkish officials declined to comment on his remarks–but said Ankara agreed a Middle East free of nuclear–biological–and chemical weapons would be a good thing.

In a British newspaper interview on Tuesday–Assad said it was natural for Syria to find means to defend itself because it was exposed "from time to time…to Israeli aggression" and that weapons of mass destruction were readily available in the world.

Syria denies US charges that it already has such weapons.

Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967.

Last October–Israel bombed an alleged training camp for Palestinian militants near Damascus in its first air strike inside Syria in almost three decades.

CHILLY RELATIONS FOR DECADES

Relations between Ankara and Damascus have been chilly for decades due to rows over territory–shared water resources and Syria’s long-time tacit support for Kurdish separatists fighting in southeastern Turkey.

The two countries came to the brink of war in 1998–before Damascus expelled Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Assad’s three-day visit was designed to fan a spark of cooperation kindled last November when Syria handed over 22 people suspected of involvement in a wave of deadly suicide bombings in Istanbul.

"We have moved together from an atmosphere of distrust to one of trust. We must create stability from a regional atmosphere of instability," said Assad.

Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer echoed the Syrian leader’s concern over the region.

"No time can be lost in replacing the atmosphere of enmity–distrust–and instability which unfortunately prevails in our region with one of peace–stability–and prosperity," Sezer said.

Assad brought his wife–baby daughter–and toddler son on the trip–which was expected to be a charm offensive.

"Syria wants at least to smooth over and be sure of its Turkish front," Fikret Ertan wrote in Turkey’s Zaman daily.

The two countries share fears Iraqi Kurds could try to firm their existing autonomy into statehood–stirring separatist deman’s by Kurds in Turkey and Syria. US authorities say the creation of any Iraqi Kurd entity is up to Iraqis alone.

In an interview with CNN Turk television on Monday–Assad said building any Kurdish or other ethnic entity in Iraq would cross a "red line" for all Iraq’s neighbor.

Some Turkish analysts said Ankara should beware of getting too close to Syria at the possible expense of good relations with the United States and Israel.

"Let Bashar Assad’s ?historic’ visit stay low profile," commentator Cengiz Candar wrote in the Turkish Daily News.

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