Israeli-Syrian peace talks postponed

No new date set for meeting; French President scheduled to visit Damascus on Wednesday.

Turbowicz 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Turbowicz 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is scheduled to visit Damascus on Wednesday, a trip Israel had an indirect role in making possible because of its indirect talks with Syria, at a time when - ironically - the Israel-Syria track seems frozen. Turkish sources said Monday that there was no new date scheduled for the fifth round of indirect talks in Turkey between Syrian and Israeli negotiating teams, a round that was originally scheduled for last week, then postponed until this week, and now tentatively set for next week. Turkish sources told The Jerusalem Post last week that it was likely that the talks would be postponed until after Sarkozy's two-day trip to Damascus. The Syrians have expressed interest in US and French co-sponsorship of the talks, something which Sarkozy would like to see. In a speech to French ambassadors last week, Sarkozy said it was because Syria knew that France had excellent relations with Israel and the US that "Damascus wanted France to shoulder this unprecedented responsibility in due time." He said this would be discussed during his visit. The US, meanwhile, has shown no interest in involvement. Sarkozy's visit will be the first by a French leader to Damascus since former president Jacques Chirac cut ties with Syria following the assassination in February 2005 of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, a close friend of Chirac. Diplomatic officials have said that Israel's decision to hold indirect talks with Syria gave a certain degree of "diplomatic cover" for Sarkozy to make overtures to Assad, with the argument being that if it was okay for Jerusalem to talk with the Syrians, then it was also okay for France. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also scheduled to visit Damascus this week, expected to visit there on Thursday, the day that Sarkozy leaves. This has led to speculation that Erdogan wants to ensure that Turkey maintains its central role in the Israel-Syria talks. Turkish sources, however, said that the hastily scheduled Erdogan visit was likely connected more to the Russian-Georgian crisis, than to the Israeli-Syrian track. Turkey's decision to allow US warships through the Bosporus Straits to the Black Sea was slammed by Russia, and Moscow's displeasure was translated into long delays for Turkish exporters at the Russian border. Turkey hit back Monday, subjecting Russian imports into Turkey to additional searches. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is scheduled to arrive in Istanbul on Tuesday for a meeting that will focus on the rising tensions, and Erdogan's visit to Damascus - which is supporting Russia in its conflict with Georgia - is expected to focus on that issue. Regarding the Israeli-Syrian track, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev denied reports in the Arab media that the continued postponement of the fifth round of indirect Israeli-Syrian talks was related to Syria's recent request from Moscow for state-of the-art missiles. "We want to continue talking with Syria and have no design to tread water and stagnate," Regev said. "We want to continue to move forward." There was also some speculation that the delay in the talks was due to a bureaucratic problem. Olmert's chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, headed the Israeli delegation but quit his post in the beginning of August, just after Olmert announced his intention to resign following the Kadima primaries. Olmert at the time asked Turbowicz to stay on and deal with the diplomatic issues he had been heavily involved in, primarily as a liaison with Washington and heading the talks with Syria. The legal aspects of Turbowicz working as a volunteer, or setting up a new framework for him in the Prime Minister's Office, have not been resolved and are being dealt with by the attorney-general, giving rise to speculation that the talks will be delayed until this is sorted out. One senior diplomatic official, however, said that it is not the bid for Russian missiles, nor Turbowicz's status that was holding up the talks, but rather the realization by all sides that with Olmert on his way out, and a new government in the US soon to be coming in, this is not a propitious time for serious negotiations since no one has real authority to make critical decisions.