DAMASCUS (Reuters)–The leaders of Syria and Turkey tackled Lebanon and Iraq on Wednesday–during a state visit by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer. The trip has created unease for Turkey’s top ally–the United States.
Sezer–whose decision to visit Syria also drew criticism from some Turkish political analysts who argue it sends the wrong signal–said after the talks that he was happy with Syria’s pledge to pull out its troops from Lebanon.
Turkey–which has seen a big thaw in ties with Syria after years of tension–stayed relatively quiet as the United States and the European Union piled pressure on Damascus to withdraw.
"The importance of the continuation of efforts toward preserving Lebanese stability and national unity has been emphasized," Sezer said after official talks with President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria agreed to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon after many Lebanese blamed it for the February assassination of a Lebanese former prime minister. Syria denies any role.
The US ambassador in Ankara–Eric Edelman–then publicly urged Turkey to join the "international consensus" on Syria–in commen’s interpreted by the Turkish media as a call to Sezer to cancel or postpone his visit to Damascus.
Sezer has been careful in the run-up to the visit to stress the importance of Turkey-US ties–already strained by the Iraq war and its aftermath–and Turkish media said the president would deliver a strong message to his Syrian hosts.
Assad has publicly hailed Sezer’s decision to go ahead with his trip as evidence that NATO member Turkey is ready to stand up to the United States on issues of national interest.
Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari said Sezer’s "insistence on this visit" embodied Turkish support for "just causes."
Turkish nationalists insist Turkey must not be seen to bow to US pressure over Syria–but some Middle East experts have criticized Sezer’s decision to visit Damascus.
"[Sezer’s trip] seems nothing but sailing in the open seas without a compass," wrote Cengiz Candar in the conservative daily Dunden Bugune Tercuman–arguing Turkey lacks a coherent strategy for dealing with the Middle East.
Assad and Sezer said they were in agreement on the preservation of the territorial and national unity of their mutual neighbor Iraq.
"Views were identical between our two countries on the importance of (Iraq’s) sovereignty and the preservation of its integrity both in terms of land and people," said Assad.
Assad called for the "widest possible participation in the political process under way [in Iraq] in a manner that guarantees the widest possible participation."
Turkey–Syria and Iran’share the same concerns about the turmoil in Iraq and fear it could lead eventually to the creation of a Kurdish state in the north of the country.
This–they say–would fan separatism among their own Kurdish populations–leading to regional instability.
Assad said Damascus appreciates Turkey’s "constructive role in seeking to achieve a just and comprehensive [Arab-Israeli]peace."
Uniquely in the region–Turkey has strong security ties with Israel–Syria’s arch-foe–but under the Islamist-rooted government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has tried to build better ties with Arab countries and with Iran.