ERDOGAN, SARKOZY TO DISCUSS MIDDLE EAST IN DAMASCUS

Today's Zaman
Sept 2 2008
Turkey

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will attend a quadripartite
summit in Damascus this week with French, Syrian and Qatari leaders
convening to discuss Lebanon and the situation in the Middle East,
Turkish officials said yesterday.

Erdogan had earlier announced that he would visit Damascus on
Sept. 4 for a working visit, coinciding with a landmark trip
by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Sept. 3-4 to the Syrian
capital. News reports in the Arab media said Paris was the sponsor
of the meeting. Emir of Qatar Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani
and the president of host country Syria, Bashar Assad, will also
attend the talks, which will review the situation in Lebanon and the
Syrian-Israeli peace talks, currently mediated by Turkey, government
spokesman Cemil Cicek confirmed after a Cabinet meeting yesterday.

Sources said Assad, a personal friend of Erdogan, wanted the Turkish
prime minister to be part of the talks because of his contributions
to peace efforts in the Middle East. Foreign Minister Ali Babacan is
expected to accompany Erdogan in Damascus. Syria and Israel announced
in May that they were holding indirect peace talks mediated by
Turkey. Despite having held several rounds of talks so far, a process
of direct talks seems unlikely to start soon.

Sarkozy's visit to Damascus is another step the French leader is
taking toward normalizing ties with Syria and bringing Damascus back
into the international fold by reversing a policy of exclusion that
has in recent years alienated the country from the West. Sarkozy,
whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union,
was the first Western leader to reward the Syrians by welcoming Assad
to the launch of a new Mediterranean Union in France and as a guest
of honor at the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris last month.

Qatar is the holder of the term presidency of the Gulf Cooperation
Council, and Syria is the term president of the Arab League. Turkey
is a member of none of the organizations but is preparing to sign a
strategic dialogue document with the Gulf Cooperation Council today
in Jeddah. The document will be signed during a visit by Babacan to
Jeddah. Turkey has also been invited to attend Arab League meetings
although it is not a member of the group, and diplomatic sources
say efforts are under way to establish an institutional relationship
between Ankara and the Arab League.

Turkish diplomats say the invitation for Turkey to attend the talks
confirm Ankara's standing as a bridge between the East and the West
and added that Erdogan has been invited because Turkey is trusted by
both sides. Though the main agenda is the Middle East, the Damascus
talks are also expected to touch on the situation in the Caucasus
after the brief Georgian-Russian war in August, following a Georgian
offensive in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Erdogan is also expected to have bilateral talks with leaders
attending the quadripartite summit, though no details were immediately
available. Erdogan and Sarkozy rarely meet, and relations between
Turkey and France are tense over staunch French opposition to Turkey's
membership in the EU. Cicek said he hoped progress in Turkey's
accession process would also be discussed in Damascus.

Before flying to Jeddah, Babacan will host Russian Foreign Minister
Sergey Lavrov today in Ä°stanbul for talks on the situation in the
Caucasus. After attending a foreign ministerial meeting of the Gulf
Cooperation Council in Jeddah, Babacan will head to Damascus to attend
the quadripartite summit on the Middle East there.

On Friday, Babacan will attend an informal meeting of the EU foreign
ministers in France. His last stop before winding up the week will most
probably be Armenia. Foreign Ministry officials remain tightlipped
on whether President Abdullah Gul will accept an invitation from his
Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarksyan, to watch a World Cup qualifying
game between national teams of the two countries on Sept. 6, but
Erdogan suggested over the weekend that Gul will go to Armenia and
that Babacan will be accompanying him.

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