Monday, February 9, 2009

Israel-Syria Talks Not Over

While George Mitchell might well have cancelled his Sunday trip to Ankara to avoid the possibility of a diplomatic imbroglio involving Gaza, Yigal Schleifer writes that analysts should now be paying attention to what role Turkey might have should the Obama Administration be able to re-initiate Israel-Syria peace talks. More from Schleifer:
Cynics portrayed the Turkish-brokered discussions as something of a ploy that benefited all sides even if they led nowhere. Turkey got to burnish its credentials as an emerging Middle East mediator and show the European Union how much of a strategic asset it could be. The dead man walking Israeli government of Ehud Olmert could turn the focus away from its disastrous war in Lebanon in 2006. Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, could demonstrate that he is not completely under the spell of Iran and that he knows how to make peace overtures. Still, although the indirect talks were on hold at the time of Israel’s recent attack on Gaza, Erdogan has said in interviews that one of the reasons he was so angry with Israel’s actions was that he believed the Syria-Israel dialogue was heading for a breakthrough and that the Gaza attack scuttled that chance.

How close were the two sides to a real breakthrough? In the course of reporting for a recent Monitor story about Turkey’s post-Davos mediation prospects, several analysts I spoke with said they believe the Ankara-brokered indirect talks had already reached a plateau before the war in Gaza. From the Monitor:

“The fundamental issues were not bridgeable by Turkey. For that, you need the United States,” says Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

“The ball was going to come into the United States court anyway, so the current tensions were not a deathblow to the Israeli-Syria negotiations….”

….According to Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat in Turkey and chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society, a group working towards the resumption of talks between the two countries, the departure of the Olmert government after the Feb. 10 elections in Israel means that, from Jerusalem’s perspective, “The existing mechanism [for the Turkish-sponsored talks] has collapsed.”

“From the Turkish side, the mechanism has not only collapsed but we have entered a situation in which I have a lot of doubt that an incoming Israeli government will look at Turkey as a reliable mediator,” he says.

“We took a big hit on the Israeli and Turkish side of the triangle, but we now have an American aspect to this that we didn’t have before. Everyone is waiting for a signal from Obama,” adds Liel.

With everyone waiting for that signal from the United States, the issue now is what role does Turkey play if Washington starts talking to Damascus and tries to push the Syrians and Israeli to start talking again?

Joshua Landis, co director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University and author of the "Syria Comment" blog, warns that cutting Turkey out of the process would be a mistake. Ankara's improved relations with Damascus have helped attenuate the link between Syria and Iran, and if Syria and the US were to start talking, Turkey could act as a "handmaiden," Landis says.

“Turkey is going to help rehabilitate Syria. That is Erdogan's entire strategy: 'It's not that we are siding with Syria and Iran against Israel. It's that we are going to help Obama,” he says.

UPDATE 2/11 -- International Crisis Group has released a report on just how the United States might engage Syria. From the report:
Talks with Israel, although halted due to the war in Gaza and the elections in Israel, might well resume with U.S. participation. Relations with Turkey have become a central element of Syrian foreign policy, offsetting Iran’s exclusive influence and providing Ankara with real leverage. Signs of unease already can be detected in Syrian-Iranian relations; with patience and deft management, they might be substantially transformed.
The report also highlights the constructive role Turkey-mediated talks had in terms of prompting the United States to re-engage Syria.
Ultimately, it took two events occurring in rapid succession – the 21 May 2008 announcement of indirect Israeli-Syrian talks, facilitated by Turkey, and the Doha agreement – to bury the notion of Syria’s isolation. The former development, coming eight years after President Clinton’s unsuccessful efforts to broker an Israeli-Syrian deal, was particularly significant. Though the Bush administration repeatedly had discouraged Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from resuming negotiations, it could not denounce them once they took place. Instead, it welcomed them even as they amounted to a solid and stinging repudiation of U.S. policy. In the words of a senior Turkish official, “our success is the most blatant
indictment of a policy that relies exclusively on sanctions and isolation. The lesson is that it makes far more sense to engage Syria so that it has something to
lose rather than to put it in a no-win situation”.
The report documents American resistance to peace talks, in addition to the American turnabout on Syrian engagement.

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