Turkey Syria Sign Free Trade Agreement

DAMASCUS (Reuters)–Turkey and Syria signed a free trade agreement on Wednesday and discussed how to keep Iraq united and stable despite the violence sweeping their neighbor.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan flew to Damascus on a two-day visit aimed at cementing improved ties between the two countries which nearly went to war in 1998 over Turkish charges that Syria was harboring Turkish Kurdish guerrillas.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a landmark visit to Turkey in January to bury the hatchet after years of tension over the rebels and disputes over land and water resources.

This visit comes days after the European Union’s historic decision last week to start accession talks with Turkey. Syria is also seeking closer ties with the EU.

"This visit shows how far our trade–economic–and political ties have developed since President Assad’s historic trip," Erdogan told reporters in Damascus.

Erdogan signed a free trade zone agreement with Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari and discussed possible Turkish investmen’s in Syria and joint agriculture projects.

"The economic and trade ties between our two countries would from now on be governed by the agreemen’s that we have signed," Erdogan said.

He said the deal would allow investmen’s by Turkish firms in Syria–currently at $150 million–to increase rapidly.

Otari said Syria was looking for capital to develop its mainly state-controlled economy. "Our goal at this stage is comprehensive development," he said.

Syrian Information Minister Mahdi Dakhl-Allah said the agreement was expected to double the size of bilateral trade which currently stands at around $1 billion annually.

He said better trade ties with Syria would open up the Arab markets for Turkey. "Syria is Turkey’s gate to the Arab world."

UNITY OF IRAQ

Erdogan and Otari said they also discussed Iraq.

Otari was quoted by the official Syrian news agency SANA as saying during the meeting that the US-led war in Iraq failed to bring peace and stability to the region and freedom and democracy to Iraqis.

The Turkish prime minister also held talks with Assad–which most likely touched on Iraq–where elections are scheduled for Jan. 30 despite an upsurge of violence.

Syria and Turkey–both with restless Kurdish minorities–are worried about any possible break up of Iraq and fear the establishment of a separate Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

Dakhl-Allah said both Turkey and Syria wanted to see a stable Iraq and agreed its unity must be preserved.

Before his visit to Damascus–Erdogan called President George W. Bush and urged him to act against Kurdish separatists operating from northern Iraq–Turkish officials said.

Ankara–one of Washington’s key regional allies–is uneasy with the US-led occupation of Iraq and refused to allow US forces to invade from Turkish soil in 2003.

Syria–which opposed the invasion–is under intense pressure from the United States for allegedly allowing foreign fighters to cross its border into Iraq to join the insurgency there.

Erdogan–who was accompanied by several ministers and dozens of Turkish businessmen–would attend a meeting of Syrian and Turkish businessmen in Damascus on Wednesday evening. He heads to Aleppo in northern Syria on Thursday before returning home.

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