Erdoğan meets Assad in Bodrum for peace talks

August 06, 2008, Wednesday/ 19:15:00
Syrian President Bashir Assad, accompanied by his wife, Asma, as well as an official delegation, arrived yesterday in the Aegean resort town of Bodrum for talks with Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan on regional peace efforts.

The Assad couple was welcomed at Bodrum Airport by Erdoğan and his wife, Emine, as well as their daughter Sümeyye, before being hosted at a luncheon at the luxurious Rixos Hotel. Assad’s visit to Bodrum on the Aegean coast comes a week after Israel and Syria wrapped up a fourth round of Turkey-mediated indirect talks in İstanbul without succeeding in moving on to face-to-face negotiations.

"Erdoğan invited him, and they have issues to discuss, such as peace talks," a government source, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

Last week a source close to the talks said the two countries would hold the fifth round of indirect talks in Turkey in mid-August, after failing to move on to face-to-face negotiations in another indirect meeting last week. The source said he also expected a sixth round in September, but did not specify whether that round would be face-to-face.

The negotiations center on the fate of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Damascus demands the return of all of the Golan. Israel, in turn, wants Syria to cut its ties with the Jewish state's main foes: Iran, the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. Syria has so far refused to do so.

Turkish officials fear domestic political issues in Israel, where Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is due to step down shortly, will make it more difficult to move to direct talks. Assad and Erdoğan have met frequently and are known to have a friendly relationship. Trade ties have also grown between the two neighboring countries.

President Abdullah Gül, a former Turkish foreign minister, and Erdoğan have over the past few years sought to boost Turkey's role as a regional problem solver in the Middle East.

Officials from both the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Ministry declined to elaborate on the content of talks between Erdoğan and Assad -- in line with Ankara's tightlipped policy in an ongoing mediation effort between Israel and Syria. In Damascus, meanwhile, a Syrian presidential source denied certain Turkish reports alleging that Assad was in Bodrum on a family vacation in Turkey.

Back in the summer of 2005, Erdoğan had invited Assad to vacation in Turkey as his guest. The invitation came despite US pressure at the time to isolate Syria, which it said was supporting the insurgency in Iraq and suppressing democratization in Lebanon. The Turkish policy of cultivating good ties with Syria had then strained relations between Turkey and the United States, with some in Washington questioning Ankara's foreign policy direction in the Middle East. The invitation was at the time introduced to the public by Erdoğan's office as "part of the prime minister's efforts to encourage the process of democratization in the Middle East."

However later, a senior visiting Syrian official said that the Assad couple also wanted to visit Turkey but explained that it was not a Syrian tradition for the president to vacation in another country. These remarks coming from the then Syrian deputy foreign minister, Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, when he paid a brief working visit to Ankara in July 2005 were interpreted at the time as reflecting Damascus' expectation of receiving an invitation from Ankara for an official visit and not for a vacation.

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