‘Hidden gains’ of president’s visit

DAMASCUS – President Costis Stephanopoulos yesterday wrapped up a three-day official trip here, a visit which above all highlighted Athens’s «hidden political gains» that have resulted from a much-belated strengthening of Greek-Arab relations by Simitis’s government. «Greece has always stood on the side of the Arabs on all questions, without any contest, without any doubt. This has been similar to the stance of Arabs toward Greece,» said Syrian President Bashar Assad during a joint news conference he held with his Greek counterpart, while declaring that Greek-Syrian relations are «very strong.» «I would like to thank the Syrian government and you personally for your positive stance on issues that are sensitive for Greece and Cyprus before all international organizations, and particularly in the Islamic Council,» Stephanopoulos underlined in his turn during an official dinner that the Syrian president held on his behalf. The Greek president added during the news conference that during their talks, «it was ascertained that no problem whatsoever existed between the two countries.» The declaration of an intention by both sides to undertake efforts to re-establish a sea link between Volos and Tarsos and to improve economic ties were the only decisions reached on the economic front, a result of a lack of serious preparatory work undertaken on behalf of the Greek government for the trip. Besides, Prime Minister Costas Simitis – who has been at the country’s helm for the past six years – has yet to visit an Arab country. Once again, with this visit Stephanopoulos, who invited President Assad to pay a return visit to Athens, attempted to cover at least some of the vacuum in the ruling PASOK party’s foreign policy. Terrorism talks The two sides, though, shaded their remarks on terrorism with different colors. «There must be a clear definition of terrorism and differentiation between that and the legal struggle against invasion and occupation,» remarked President Assad in his speech at the dinner, while underlining that Syria immediately denounced and condemned the criminal act of September 11. «To our surprise, there was a reversal in the theoretical meaning and it appeared that some perceive the war against terrorism as a war against people who struggle to reclaim their rights. For example, in a strange way all actions by Israel which fit the description of state-sponsored terrorism in its worst form are deemed acceptable, and even justified and encouraged.» «Our side made clear that actions carried out in the context of a struggle for freedom and which target unarmed civilians are not permitted,» Stephanopoulos stressed, thereby clearly distancing Greece from the Palestinian suicide attacks against Israeli citizens. Golan Heights While the Greek president didn’t hesitate to condemn the suicide attacks carried out by Palestinian militants, he also went on to criticize the Israeli reprisals. «The continuing destruction of houses and infrastructure by Israel is a particularly negative element, and such acts lead the Palestinian people to despair. There is a fear that the continuance of this policy could lead to greater turbulence, which could possibly destabilize the entire eastern Mediterranean,» Stephanopoulos said. The Greek president went on to note that there can be no peace «until the Golan Heights return to your country, where they truly belong,» adding that «we support the creation of an independent Palestinian state.» Stephanopoulos’s talks with the Syrian leadership over the weekend were held in a highly positive climate, while of particular significance was the president’s meeting with representatives of the Greek community of Syria and with Ignatios, Patriarch of Antioch. Yesterday, Stephanopoulos toured archeological areas and returned to Athens last night.

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