Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a one-day visit to Syria, which involved discussions on Turkey’s mediator role between Israel and Syria. Erdogan and the Syrian President Bashar Assad discussed bilateral relations, regional developments and Turkey’s peacemaking role in the region. Assad requested Turkey’s mediating services and Erdogan announced Ankara’s readiness to facilitate the Israeli-Syrian talks. They also agreed to initiate a "high-level strategic council" to bolster economic, political and cultural ties. Moreover, Erdogan addressed a large audience at the University of Aleppo, where he was warmly received. He praised the normalization of ties between Ankara and Damascus and argued that there is a need to address other problems in the region. He called for the re-launching of Israeli-Syrian talks on the basis of the restoration of Syria’s rights (www.cnnturk.com, July 22).
Turkish diplomats facilitated indirect talks between Syrian and Israeli delegations, which appeared to be the most viable effort in recent years. Following Israel’s offensive against Gaza in late December, its relations with both Syria and Turkey became more strained. Syria suspended talks with Israel to protest against Israel’s military action. Ankara’s growing criticism toward Tel Aviv and the severing of their bilateral ties also led to questions over Turkey’s role, as Israel’s government had reportedly lost trust in Ankara and questioned its future as an impartial peace broker (EDM, January 30). As a result, these indirect talks moderated by Turkey came to a premature end.
Erdogan’s visit came against the background of renewed international efforts to refocus on the stalled peace process in the Middle East. The United States and European countries have intensified their work recently to bring Israel and Syria to the negotiating table, but substantial differences remain between both parties. Syria wants to start negotiations on the precondition that the Golan Heights will be returned. Assad earlier maintained that the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was willing to return the Golan Heights in full. "Only when he declared this to Erdogan did we start the indirect talks," Assad added. However, he blamed the breakdown in the talks on Israel’s unwillingness to commit to an agreement on the definition of borders. He also expressed his willingness to see a more proactive U.S. involvement in the issue (www.ynetnews.com, March 25).
U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell visited Israel and Syria in an effort to resume peace talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered to start the talks without preconditions, meaning he would not "commit in advance to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights." Mitchell relayed this message to Assad, who rejected it and emphasized that the talks should start from the point at which they were suspended. Asad underlined that an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights would be the basis of any future talks. Whereas Assad conveyed to Mitchell his willingness to resume indirect talks under Turkish mediation, Netanyahu reportedly opposed this proposal by pointing to Ankara’s position during the Gaza crisis (Haaretz, June 21).
In contrast to Syria, Israel wants to avoid opening any talks based on the precondition of withdrawal. Moreover, the Israeli side constantly emphasizes that as long as Damascus does not end its support for Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel will have difficulties in commencing negotiations with Syria (Jerusalem Post, July 20).
Fred Hof, an adviser to Mitchell, also held talks in the region last week, but reportedly he could not convince the two parties to change their positions (Hurriyet Daily News, July 22). Since that trip came on the eve of Erdogan’s visit, the Turkish press speculated that Hof was gauging the parties’ interest in Turkish mediation (Sabah, July 20). Mitchell is also scheduled to visit the region later this week (www.state.gov, July 20).
It is difficult to establish whether Erdogan’s visit was indeed planned in accordance with American diplomatic contacts, but there is a growing convergence between Turkish and American initiatives. Since Mitchell’s visit to Turkey (EDM, March 2), the need for coordinated action between Ankara and Washington toward the Middle East has been emphasized by both sides. During his visit to Turkey, President Barack Obama also acknowledged Ankara’s role in the region and heralded a new era of cooperation between the two countries, which he called a "model partnership" (EDM, April 7).
However, such abstract titles require more concrete definition, and Ankara perceives its mediator role as a means to revitalize its relations with Washington and give substance to the new era of partnership. Through its new openings in the Middle East, Ankara has developed important diplomatic assets to address the challenging issues in the region. As one Turkish scholar, Bulent Aras, points out, through its constructive role in the Palestine and Syria issues, Turkey can not only facilitate a solution but also make the "model partnership" a reality (Sabah, May 27).
For Ankara, a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, among other factors, depends on the resolution of Israel’s twin problems with the Palestinians and Syria, and the integration of Damascus within the international community. In Ankara’s view, given Damascus’s deep rooted connections and leverage in the region, Syria holds a key role for developing stability in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. For instance, in Ankara’s view, without resolving Israeli-Syrian relations in a manner that is agreeable to all parties, and ending the diplomatic isolation of Damascus, it will not be easy to limit the perceived influence of Iran over Damascus.
How Israel will respond to Turkey’s renewed mediation offer remains to be seen, particularly considering that Erdogan appeared to support Damascus’s position on the restoration of Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Since his appointment as Obama’s special envoy to the region, Mitchell has held talks with Turkish officials and heard Ankara’s perspective and concerns on this issue. It will be interesting to observe if he will now exert pressure on Tel Aviv to give the Turkish mediation efforts another chance.