Syria: We held exercise with Turkey

Turkish-Syrian cooperati

Even as Israel sought to tamp down tension with Ankara over its decision to refuse IDF participation in a joint military exercise this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of using phosphorous bombs on Gaza's children. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, meanwhile, revealed Tuesday that Turkey and Syria had held military maneuvers last week - the same week Ankara canceled the annual Anatolian Eagle exercise because the IDF was to participate. "One week ago, Syria and Turkey carried out maneuvers near Ankara," Muallem said, according to Al-Jazeera. "This is important because it refutes reports of poor relations between the military and political institutes in Turkey over its strategic relations with Syria." Muallem's comments came on the same day that 10 Turkish cabinet ministers traveled to Syria for the first meeting of the newly formed Turkey-Syria High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. It was the second military exercise between the two Muslim countries since April. At that time, Defense Minister Ehud Barak termed a joint drill between Turkish and Syrian soldiers on their shared border a "disturbing development." The United States criticized Turkey on Tuesday night for refusing IDF participation in the drill. US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that "as to the question of whether there was a government that was invited to participate and then removed at the last minute, we think it's inappropriate for any nation to be removed from an exercise like this at the last minute." He was asked whether that was what happened, and if Israel was the spurned country. He confirmed both. According to a report in the Turkish newspaper Sabah, Erdogan made reference to the canceled military exercise with Israel (and NATO forces) by stating, "While in some countries children are provided with comfort, peace, [and] the most advanced education and health opportunities, other children are faced with poverty, destitution, helplessness, war, conflict, weapons of mass destruction and phosphorus bombs. We are forced to heed the sounds of persecution. "Iraq was occupied," Erdogan said. "Baghdad and Basra were bombed while all of humanity watched as it was broadcast live on their television. It was the same when phosphorus bombs were rained on innocent children in Gaza - the whole world, all of humanity, watched from their comfortable chairs and their safe havens. However, as all this was happening, unfortunately from time to time in international discussion platforms, the term 'Islamic terror' began to be used, and efforts were made to place blame on the Muslims and Islam." Erdogan slammed Israel for its actions against Palestinians in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead last winter. The Turkish premier was a caustic critic of Israel both during and after the offensive. His statements Tuesday did not budge Israel's leaders from their policy of not decrying recent Turkish actions and comments, and the country's top echelon continued to praise the relationship. Barak, currently on a visit to Prague, said during a speech there on Tuesday that the Anatolian Eagle maneuvers had not been canceled, but postponed. And then, for the second time in as many days, he reiterated Israel's "strategic ties" with Turkey, and Ankara's importance in the region, adding that because the relationship was important to both sides, it would not be harmed by the recent tension. Another Israeli government official, however, was less charitable to the Turks, saying in response to Erdogan that "the Turkish government must decide whether it wants inflammatory diatribes, or pragmatism and cooperation for the benefit of Turkey. This choice must be clear and unambiguous." According to Israeli officials, despite Erdogan's comments, Israel has received messages from Turkey in recent days urging it not to blow the matter out of proportion, to "let the wave pass" and not cause "collateral" damage to the multifaceted Israeli-Turkish relationship. In addition to a diplomatic side, that relationship also has strong tourism, economic and military components. There are still many elements of the relationship that can be preserved, and getting into a public spitting match with the Turks at this time would only lead to a slippery slope that would harm Israel's interests, the official said. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that "the direction Turkey is taking is not good, growing closer to Syria, Hamas and Iran. It raises questions." Vice Premier and Regional Cooperation Minister Silvan Shalom advised Ankara to "regain its composure." Syria, meanwhile, praised Turkey for refusing to participate in the military exercise alongside Israeli forces. Speaking at a joint press conference in Aleppo with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, Muallem said it was "natural" for Syria to welcome the Turkish decision. "The Turkish decision was made because of Turkey's position toward the Israeli aggression against the Gaza Strip" in December and January, he said, adding that Damascus welcomed the cancellation, "because Israel always attacks the Palestinian people, maintains an embargo on Gaza and rejects any Turkish effort to resume [Syrian-Israeli] peace talks." Muallem added that "we encourage such cancellations as long as Israel is continuing its aggression and occupation [of Arab territories]." Davutoglu said Erdogan would visit Damascus at the beginning of December. In Lebanon, a senior Hamas official, Ali Baraka, said Turkey's actions underlined its "responsibility" toward the Palestinians. AP contributed to this report