MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
As the president addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there's growing concern on another front in the region. Turkey, a key ally of the U.S., is rapidly improving its relationship with Syria. Syria and the U.S. are at odds over Lebanon, the Iraq War, Iran, not to mention the Middle East peace process.
NPR's Deborah Amos has this report.
DEBORAH AMOS: This is how Syria's ambassador in Washington Imad Moustapha talks about his country's ties with Turkey.
NORRIS: I think we are going through what you might call as a honeymoon as the best possible relations between any two neighborly countries of the world.
AMOS: Such enthusiasm over Turkey is a worry for the U.S., says Omer Taspinar, a Turkish analyst at the U.S. War College.
NORRIS: The Syrians have a lot to gain. That's why it's definitely in their interest to send a signal they're not isolated, that they have Turkey on their side.
AMOS: And do they?
NORRIS: Yes. Syria is perceived as the underdog against the U.S. So, the more the U.S. says, don't talk to Syria, I think, the more it will become attractive for Turkish public opinion.
U: (Arabic spoken)
AMOS: Which may be why the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad got such a warm welcome on a recent trip to Turkey. With his attractive young wife, the Assads toured the capital with Turkey's president and prime minister. The TV cameras were there as they opened a new Turkish shopping center. The coverage of smiling presidents and their wives surprised even Syrians, says George Sageur, a Syrian-American businessman.
NORRIS: The face of Syria represented by both the president and his wife has been tremendous in Turkey, received very, very well indeed.
AMOS: A marked improvement from tensions a decade ago. Syria and Turkey seemed on the verge of war after Turkey accused Damascus of harboring a Kurdish rebel leader. But that was all before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Now, Turkey and Syria have shared concerns. Both have sizeable Kurdish populations. Both worry about the nationalist goals of the Kurds in neighboring Iraq. Turkey and Syria are both wary of U.S. plans in the region, says Omer Taspinar.
NORRIS: The real impetus behind these visits is the Kurdish question - Turks are very, very much disillusioned with this whole Iraq episode.
AMOS: And Syria has benefited from that disillusionment.
In Damascus, Turkish language classes are now popular for these Syrian Arabic speakers because of expanded trade. Syria's deputy prime minister was in Turkey last week to sign an agreement for a joint natural-gas pipeline.
(SOUNDBITE OF TURKISH LANGUAGE CLASS)
NORRIS: The relationship with Turkey has an economic aspect, but it's also very important for domestic legitimacy.
AMOS: That's Josh Landis, an American academic who writes an influential blog on Syria. He says the new partnership with Turkey has helped Syria's president blunt a domestic problem: Many of Syria's majority Sunni Muslims do not like Assad's close relations with Shiite Iran.
NORRIS: Syria is very unhappy in this Shiite alliance because 80 percent of the country, 75 percent of the country are Sunnis. It's caused a lot of angst amongst your average businessmen in Syria.
AMOS: Turkey is a predominantly Sunni Muslim country. And on the political front, Turkey's moderate politics could offer an alternative to Iran, says Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist and analyst.
NORRIS: If we really want to support moderate policies in the region, if we really want to isolate Iran, we have to give bigger role for Turkey in the region.
AMOS: And this is exactly what Turkey's new government wants, says Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University. He says Turkey's leaders intend to become players in Middle East politics. The opening to Syria is a major move to do just that.
P: I mean, it's quite smart on their part to say, look we have good relations with everybody, everybody can come and talk to us, we will listen to anybody, we will help anybody. This is a way the Turks are pushing themselves up in the region.
AMOS: It's a new role for Turkey, a welcome lifeline for Damascus, and a problem for the United States: Turkey, a key U.S. ally, is reaching out to Syria - which President Bush has called a dangerous regime.
Deborah Amos, NPR News.
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