Israel, Syria and Turkish mediation
By Yehonathan Tommer
It was revealed in late May that Israelis and Syrians have been conducting secret, mediated peace talks in Ankara over recent months.
The Israeli and Syrian teams sit in separate rooms and Turkish messengers shuttle position papers and bridging proposals between them. A fourth round of indirect talks was held in Ankara in late July. A fifth round was mooted in August. No face to face talks yet have been held by senior officials, ministers or leaders.
Each side is interested in doing so and both could switch to direct talks at any moment, according to Dr. Alon Liel, a former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and a principal back-room facilitator of the Turkish role.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he says, is strategically committed to a settlement which can help him break out of his country’s international isolation and rehabilitate Syrian ties with the European Union and the United States after a new American president takes office next January.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seeks a favourable long-term settlement of the bilateral and security issues on the Golan Heights, including agreed arrangements for continued Israeli economic enterprises and civilian movement after a full withdrawal. Israel also seeks a Syrian undertaking to restructure its regional ties to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas as they affect the security of Israel’s borders with Lebanon and vis-à-vis a future Palestinian state over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Syria does not accept a quid pro quo here, says Liel. However, in the last five years Damascus has slowly realised that the Israeli public links a settlement on the Golan Heights to a new regional order. While presently difficult for the Syrians to sell this to their domestic public, Israel expects Syria to change its behaviour, he adds.
However, Professor Eyal Zisser, Syria expert at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, is much less optimistic about the talks’ prospects. He views Syria’s conduct in the negotiations as “highly problematic” and says the Syrians are “parsimonious about their gestures to Israel and parsimonious about their public relations.”
Zisser doesn’t question their seriousness in entering the Turkish-brokered talks. “The point is whether the price Israel must pay in withdrawing from the Golan Heights is worthwhile if Damascus does not reciprocate with a fundamental change in Syria’s ties to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.”
Israel must insist on this political linkage, says Zisser. “If Israel is going to withdraw from the Golan Heights, it wants to be assured that Syria does not attack it on its other borders through Hezbollah and Hamas proxies. But the Syrians resist this linkage. Practically, they are not willing to alter their existing pro-Iranian orientation.”
Liel agrees that this is the key sticking point, but hopes the problems can be resolved. “It is unthinkable in a peace agreement with Israel that Syria should maintain a quiet border on the Golan Heights, but continue to shoot at us from other borders (Lebanon and Gaza). Israel expects Syria to agree to curtail its military and intelligence support for all hostile activity on all of Israel’s borders,” he says. “Discussions on these matters have to wait for direct talks to open between the leaders.”
Severing Syria’s 30-year-old ties with Iran is a sticky issue, concedes Liel. Damascus is heavily dependent on Iranian military and economic assistance and Iran massively invests in Syrian infrastructure, telecommunications and roads. Any talk of loosening ties has already aroused Teheran’s displeasure and could lead to growing tensions with Damascus if a new Western orientation is not viably subsidised by massive European and American investments.
Zisser is skeptical that the Syrians are even interested in such a new orientation. “The Syrians have been unhelpful to the Americans and downright un-conciliatory,” he says. Instead, after the war in Georgia, Syria turned to Russia to improve its bargaining position against Israel. “They are exploiting Moscow’s tensions with the US over new spheres of influence in Europe and former Soviet bloc republics by asking for long range Russian surface-to-surface missiles and other advanced weaponry that threaten to alter the strategic balance of power with Israel in the Middle East.”
Syria can also drag out indefinitely the Turkish-mediated talks in Ankara, manipulating them as a launch pad to rebuild its standing as a respected peace-seeking member of the international community, says Zisser, noting Assad’s red carpet welcome in August by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“No breakthrough in the Turkish talks is likely between the US presidential elections in November and possible Israeli elections by mid May 2009. This could change,” he speculates, “[only] if Bashar Assad makes history like [Former Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat or a strong Israeli leader replaces Olmert and brushes aside domestic opposition to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights without a Syrian guarantee to revise its ties with Iran and militant, anti-Israel Islamic organisations.” He concludes, “Neither scenario is on the horizon.”
Turkey’s Peacemaking Role
Turkey sees itself as a central regional player effectively bridging Europe and the Middle East. The ruling, centre-right Justice and Development Party upholds traditional Muslim values but is also committed to the nation’s secular institutions. Prime Minister Tayyep Erdogan enjoys strong personal ties with Israeli leaders. His relations with Syria’s Assad have blossomed since bilateral conflicts with Damascus over water, territory and Kurdish autonomy were resolved almost a decade ago.
Nimrod Goren, a Hebrew University researcher specialising in Turkish regional peacemaking, says, “Not surprisingly, as a Sunni Muslim country, Turkey has long considered itself eminently suited to facilitating peaceful solutions to conflicts between Israel and the Muslim world. Ankara especially aspires to resolving the conflict between Israel and Syria and Israel and the Palestinians. Its leaders are suspicious of Iran’s ambitions for hegemony, but Ankara is also keen to resolve the confrontation between the US and Iran on nuclear issues.”
The Turks have tried from time to time to establish their influence with the Palestinians by promoting business initiatives in the West Bank. Turkish representatives have participated in the six-country Temporary International Presence in Hebron since its establishment in 1997 at the request of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Turkish troops have also participated in the UNIFIL peace keeping force in Lebanon following the Second Lebanon war in August 2006, points out Prof. Ofra Bengio, research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Centre for Eastern and African Studies.
Turkish officials angered Israel by inviting Hamas boss Khaled Meshaal to Ankara immediately after the Palestinian elections in January 2006. But Ankara generally upholds the Quartet conditions on recognition of the militant Islamic organisation and from time to time they have condemned Hamas attacks against Israel, notes Bengio.
“Turkish mediation in the Syrian-Israeli conflict enjoys broad popular domestic support. If Ankara succeeds, the trade-off boosts its international status as a force for regional peace and stability and improves its leverage for acceptance to the European Union,” says Goren.
Iran has little influence with Turkey, with whose leaders it maintains cool but correct ties. It can’t derail the talks by tempting or blackmailing Ankara with economic benefits, however much it is displeased with Turkey’s regional peace efforts, notes Bengio.
“Ultimately, direct Syrian-Israeli negotiations will have to wait for an active American involvement. Turkey’s role will not end then. Ankara can continue to take a leading role – chaperoning the relevant parties to facilitate the process to [a] successful end,” says Bengio.
US President Bush could energise the current talks by posting a White House representative to the Ankara talks ahead of the presidential elections, recommends Liel. “This would signal a favourable American policy change and allow his successor to swiftly put a team together to move forward direct negotiations between Syria and a future Israeli government.”