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Assad says improved Syria-Turkey ties should seek end to ‘occupation’

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Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad said Thursday that a Moscow-brokered rapprochement with Turkey should aim for “the end of occupation” by Ankara of parts of Syria, Agence France-Presse reported.

The comment, in a statement from his office, was Assad’s first on meetings between ministers from Ankara and Damascus after more than a decade of enmity during Syria’s civil war.

Ankara became a sworn enemy of Damascus when it began backing rebel efforts to topple Assad at the start of the civil war 12 years ago.

But in late December the defense ministers of Turkey and Syria held landmark negotiations in Moscow — the first such meeting since 2011.

Analysts say Moscow is trying to bridge the divide between its two allies, united by a common “enemy” of US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Ankara describes those forces as “terrorists.”

The defense ministers’ meeting is to be followed by talks between the three countries’ top diplomats, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said during a visit to Rwanda on Thursday.

“For these meetings to be productive, they should be founded on coordination and advanced planning between Syria and Russia,” with the aim of “ending the occupation and support for terrorism,” said Assad, who was receiving Moscow’s envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev.

Since 2016, Turkey has launched several incursions into northern Syria against Kurdish forces that have allowed it to control areas along the border.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — who called Assad a “terrorist” in 2017 — has opened up to the idea of meeting the Syrian leader with whom he had good relations before 2011.

At the start of the Syrian uprising Turkey advised its ally to undertake political reforms and then called for Assad’s resignation.

Some analysts believe that Assad will not agree to meet Erdoğan before Turkey holds a general election — now scheduled for no later than June.

The mooted reconciliation has alarmed Syrian opposition leaders and supporters who reside mostly in parts of the war-torn country under Ankara’s indirect control.

After the tripartite defense ministers’ meeting hundreds of Syrians in Al-Bab, a town controlled by rebel factions long backed by Ankara, demonstrated in protest.

The United States, Turkey’s NATO ally, has made clear its opposition to improving relations with Assad, who State Department spokesman Ned Price called “a brutal dictator.”

Çavuşoğlu on Thursday confirmed he and his two counterparts will gather in Moscow.

“There is no clear date yet, but we will hold this tripartite meeting as soon as possible. Maybe at the beginning of February,” Çavuşoğlu told Turkish reporters during the Rwanda visit.

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