Starting in 2007, Turkey brought together Syrian and Israeli officials for a series of indirect talks in Istanbul that Ankara hoped might lead to direct negotiations. Initially secret, the talks’ existence was made public by Israel and Syria in early 2008. [For some background, take a look at this article of mine in the Christian Science Monitor.]
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….”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 Israelis to start talking again?
….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.
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.