2. Will Assad’s Athens Visit Generate Meeting with Sharon?

Syrian president Bashar Assad is on his way to Athens for a state visit beginning Monday, December 15. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Athens sources report that Greek foreign minister Georges Papandreou entertains high hopes that a sparkling diplomatic breakthrough will attend the visit, bright enough to eclipse the drabness of Greece’s six months as president of the European Union.

He therefore urged prime minister Costas Simitis to spare no effort to give the Syrian president a splendid reception to impress its European Union partners and, still better, to use the visit as a lever to broker a meeting between Assad and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

“This is our big chance to stage a dramatic turnabout in relations between Damascus and Jerusalem,” said Papandreou. “What if Assad and Sharon should start talking in Athens?”

Simitis embraced the plan with enthusiasm.

The next step, according to our sources in Athens, was an approach from the Greek foreign minister to Sharon through Greek and Israeli go-betweens with a request to send a message for the Greeks to place in the Syrian president’s hands as soon as he steps off the plane in Athens.

Sharon agreed. His letter to Assad was delivered at the Greek foreign ministry Thursday, December 1. In it, Sharon declared himself ready to meet Assad at any place at any time, openly or in secret, to work together on a face-to-face understanding. The usual Israel rhetoric calling for Syria to withdraw its sponsorship of terrorists was absent from the note.

Israeli emissaries were instructed to stay in Athens until early next week in case Greek diplomacy came up with a positive reply.

At the same time, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East experts note that, regardless of all these discreet comings and goings, Bashar Assad has quite different fish to fry in his visit to Greece. He hopes it will be followed up with a state visit to Ankara in January, for him a trip of vital significance.

No Syrian president has ever paid a visit to Turkey lest it be interpreted as the concession of Syria’s claim to the disputed Alexandretta, most of which is ruled by Turkey.

On the other hand, Assad understands that a rapprochement with the pro-Muslim government in Ankara and the chance of political, military and economic pacts between the two governments could be the key to creating a bloc able to confront the American presence in Iraq and perhaps offset or even downgrade the Israel-Turkish alliance.

As a token of his willingness to talk tangible friendship, the Syrian president last month surrendered to Turkey all 22 Turkish terrorists who escaped to Syria after two rounds of suicide attacks were carried out on Jewish synagogues and British sites in Istanbul.

To prepare opinion at home for his leap to Ankara, Assad found it politic to go the long way round and reach Turkey via Athens.

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