Syria, long regarded by the US and Israeli administrations as a key country blocking the way to peace in the region, is ready to resume peace negotiations with Israel, questioning if this Arab country is the real stumbling block to peace and stability in the region.
Syria again announced last week that it is ready to resume Syrian-Israeli proximity talks but that this is only possible under Turkish auspices. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Turkey has shown itself to be an honest intermediary, meaning that indirect talks must be under Turkish mediation and begin in Turkey from the point at which they stopped.
Peace talks ground to a halt in December 2008 after former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered an offensive on Gaza. The decision to raid Gaza came right after Olmert held talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and on the eve of the start of direct peace talks between Syria and Israel. Erdoğan felt personally insulted. In the last meeting between Olmert and Erdoğan, the Turkish leader called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and relayed messages to and from Olmert. But after Operation Cast Lead began in December 2008 and negotiations with Syria were frozen, Erdoğan said Olmert had stabbed him in the back. France has since, though without any results, offered many times to restart the peace talks.
Talks are aimed at a peace agreement between Israel and Syria that includes an unconditional withdrawal of Israeli troops to the pre-1967 border in the Golan Heights and the establishment of diplomatic ties.
Al-Moallem also sent signals to both France and the US regarding the mediation of the conflict, saying that any effort to resume peace talks will consist of helping Turkish mediation.
Turkey's virtuoso diplomacy
In order to estimate if Israel will be ready to allow Turkish mediation for its silent and frozen but protracted dispute with Syria in the near future, it is necessary to look back at Turkish mediation in 2008, when between May and December Turkey made great efforts to bring Arab and Jewish diplomats together for direct talks in just half a year. Turkey's virtuoso diplomacy amazed both sides, despite growing and excellent relations between Syria and Turkey. In this vein, Syria repeatedly considers Turkey the most relevant actor in this dispute and sees the country as the only one that could best serve the interests of the Arab country while mediating.
Israel also welcomed Turkey's role in proximity talks in 2008 and hailed Turkey's mediation as “honest” even at a time when Turkish-Israeli relations were experiencing a huge diplomatic crisis following the Turkish prime minister's walkout of a World Economic Forum (WEF) panel discussion in Davos, Switzerland. In February the Israeli Haaretz daily quoted Olmert, prime minister during the peace talks under Turkish mediation, as saying that Turkey acted with responsibility and fairness in its role as a mediator in the indirect peace negotiations between Israel and Syria.
During Olmert's tenure, Turkey mediated five rounds of talks between Israeli and Syrian officials.
“We can reach an understanding with the Syrians which would change the map in the Middle East. A decision on this issue must be made. It's too easy being angry at Erdoğan, but it would be wise to reconcile with him. He is a fair mediator. We need negotiations with Turkish mediation,” Olmert had reportedly said.
Although the current Israeli government claims that Turkey has lost its neutral position to be eligible to mediate the dispute, it seems there is still room to resume talks if the Israeli government decides to reconcile with the Turkish government or if there is a change in Israeli government.
"A little hope until Turkey-Israel relations get better"
Joshua Walker, a Transatlantic Academy fellow, said he thinks that until Turkey and Israel restore trust and full diplomatic relations, there is very little hope of Turkey being able to mediate in the conflict.
Diplomats from both Israel and Turkey attempted to revamp ties between the two countries following each crisis in the past year, but the latest crisis, in which Israel attacked an international aid vessel on May 31 and killed one American and eight Turkish nationals, almost severed all ties between the two countries. Despite several national and international inquiries that were launched into the raid, no rulings could push Israel to step back, acknowledge its fault and apologize -- Turkey's precondition to restoring ties.
Turkey recalled its ambassador for consultations even before the raid and never sent him back.
In early February of this year, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman urged Syria to abandon its dreams of recovering the Israeli-held Golan Heights. “We must make Syria recognize that just as it relinquished its dream of a greater Syria that controls Lebanon, it will have to relinquish its ultimate demand regarding the Golan Heights,” Lieberman reportedly claimed.
"US to follow Israel's lead"
A senior US administration official declined to comment on the US position on the issue and it was not immediately possible to learn what the existing atmosphere in the administration is. But it is not yet clear if the US views Turkey as a necessary player to mediate the conflict.
Walker said he thinks the US will follow Israel's lead on this, adding that there is also general skepticism in Washington about Turkey's intentions in the area. The timing for these attempts is therefore off from many different angles.
Turkish-US relations also hit a new low after Turkey on June 12 voted “no” during a United Nations Security Council vote on further sanctions on Iran. The fourth round of sanctions was the harshest of all and aimed to push Iran to relinquish its suspected nuclear program.
Similarly, the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said in her response on Thursday to a parliamentary question by a Greek member of the European Parliament that Turkey had recently started to become more assertive in its foreign policy and that this new approach presents a number of potential assets which could turn to the benefit of the EU in a number of areas. Among these are overall relations with the Muslim world; dialogue with a number of key actors in the Middle East; the military capacity for security and peace-making; energy policy; a strong, large and fast-growing market; industrial competitiveness; and innovative capabilities.
"Israel must apologize"
Ashton, however, said the European Commission is of the opinion that it would benefit Turkey and the entire region if Turkey and Israel could return to their traditionally good relations as soon as possible.
Hüsnü Mahalli, a columnist for the Akşam daily and a leading expert on the Middle East, said resuming peace talks between Israel and Syria has a fundamental condition: Israel's urgent apology to Turkey. He assuredly said Turkey would open the doors of dialogue if Israel fulfills its obligations and acknowledges its guilt in the flotilla issue. He also ruled out the possibility that peace talks could be resumed under the current Israeli government.