Turkey has played down hopes that it would soon be able to broker a peace agreement between Syria and Israel. “We are still at the very beginning of the process,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan on April 28. “Talks will continue to take place through Turkey for a while. When the issue is a little more mature, I hope that the sides will meet with each other” (Today’s Zaman, Turkish Daily News, April 29).
Hopes for a breakthrough had been raised by the April 26 visit to Damascus by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Just days earlier, Syrian Foreign Minister Buthaina Shaaban had told Al Jazeera television that Erdogan had forwarded a message to Syrian President Bashar Assad from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, offering to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for a comprehensive peace settlement (Al Jazeera, April 23). The last peace negotiations between Syria and Israel collapsed in 2000 over a disagreement about the extent to which Israel would withdraw from the Golan, which it has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Following his return to Turkey on the evening of April 26, Erdogan refused to be drawn out on the details of any message Olmert might have asked him to convey to Assad. “I do not know where the media got this from,” said Erdogan, “but a request has been made for negotiations to start between Israel and Syria. Turkey is going to do its best in this regard. The project will start at lower levels and, if it works out, then, God willing, it will be concluded at higher levels.”
On April 28 the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Erdogan would now send his chief foreign policy advisor, Ahmet Davutoglu, to Jerusalem to brief the Israeli government on his talks in Damascus (Haaretz, April 28). However, the Turkish Islamist daily Today’s Zaman quoted unnamed Turkish officials as denying that Turkey had yet to finalize any plans about what to do next. “There are no preparations for a delegation to visit Israel,” the official was quoted as saying (Today’s Zaman, April 29).
Nevertheless, even if brokering a peace agreement between two of the Middle East’s most implacable foes remains a daunting challenge, there is no questioning Turkey’s enthusiasm for the task. Since the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power in November 2002, it has vigorously sought to strengthen Turkey’s relationship with other Muslim countries in the region, particularly Syria and Iran. In a book entitled Strategic Depth, which was published in 2002, Davutoglu argued that the traditional pro-Western orientation of Turkey’s foreign policy had resulted in its neglecting ties with the countries of the Middle East (Ahmet Davutoglu, Stratejik Derinlik, Kure Yayinlari, 2002). The claim is not without justification. There is, however, also little doubt that one of the main driving forces behind the AKP’s efforts to engage with the Middle East is not so much redressing an imbalance as simple Ottoman nostalgia and a tendency to regard the former Ottoman provinces in the region as a natural region of influence for the modern Turkish Republic.
For many hard-line Turkish secularists, the Ottoman Empire was a period of obscurantism and stagnation. Turkish Islamists tend to regard it as a paradigm of multi-ethnic harmony and multi-faith tolerance. Following Erdogan’s return from Damascus, Hakan Albayrak, a columnist on the pro-AKP daily Yeni Safak, which is owned by the father of Erdogan’s son-in-law, lauded the rebirth of what he described as “the 1,000 years of Syrian-Anatolian brotherhood, which fell victim to various kinds of mischief-making, starting with World War I and continuing through to the end of the 20th century” (Yeni Safak, April 28).
Such sentiments are common in the AKP, whose members are often a little bewildered when they discover that most Arabs do not share their happy memories of the Ottoman Empire. Albayrak’s claim of “mischief-making” would appear to be a reference to the nefarious intrigues of Western countries. It conveniently ignored the role that Syria played in supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) during the 1980s and 1990s, until Ankara threatened to invade unless Damascus expelled the organization from its territory.
Similarly, although Turkey is often referred to in the international media as one of the few Muslim countries to enjoy close relations with Israel, a private conversation with an AKP supporter or a cursory glance at the pro-AKP media would be sufficient to demonstrate that most AKP supporters are extremely hostile toward Israel. Indeed, at the grassroots, many are simply anti-Semitic.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to think of a country better placed to mediate between Israel and Syria, not least because of Syria’s increasing international isolation. Whether Turkey can succeed in brokering an agreement remains unclear. It would be ironic, though, if what would be one of the greatest triumphs of Turkish foreign policy came about as the result of misunderstanding the country’s Ottoman past, which has encouraged the AKP to engage with an international pariah and a country that is despised by the majority of the party’s supporters.