Ten Turkish ministers head to Syria

After snubbing Israel, T

Less than a week after Turkey informed Israel that it was unwelcome in the Anatolian Eagle military exercise, 10 Turkish ministers are scheduled to travel to Syria on Tuesday to take part in a meeting of the newly formed Turkey-Syria High Level Strategic Cooperation Council. The council was established last month in Turkey at a meeting between Turkish foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his Syrian counterpart, Walid Moallem. At that meeting, the two countries - which were on the verge of war over a border dispute in the 1990s - agreed to do away with visa requirements for visitors to and from both countries. Among the Turkish ministers who will meet their Syrian counterparts on Tuesday are Davutoglu, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yildiz and Interior Minister Besir Atalay. Turkey forged a similar strategic cooperation agreement with Iraq in August, and - according to Israeli government officials - this is part of Syria's new overall strategy to "rebrand" itself and forge much stronger ties with the Muslim and Arab world. According to the officials, Ankara is keen on being seen as the "bridge" between Iran and the West, as well as between Syria and the West. For that purpose, according to this reasoning, it is trying to forge closer ties with both countries, something evident by its swiftly developing relations with Damascus, and its recent calls against sanctions on Iran. Likewise, Turkey is very keen on serving as a mediator between Syria and Israel, as well as Israel and Hamas. It is for this reason, government officials said, that Ankara was so annoyed at Israel this summer when it refused to allow Davutoglu to enter Gaza from Israel for talks with Hamas officials, and then return for talks in Jerusalem with Israeli officials. According to the officials, Turkey had wanted to create the impression that it was mediating between Hamas and Israel, an impression Jerusalem was eager to avoid. Davutoglu said in an interview with CNN on Sunday night that Turkey's decision to bar Israel from the military exercise did, indeed, have to do with Gaza. "We hope that the situation in Gaza will be improved, that the situation will be back to the diplomatic track. And that will create a new atmosphere in Turkish-Israeli relations as well," he said. "But in the existing situation, of course, we are criticizing this approach, [the] Israeli approach." Meanwhile, the Turkish Foreign Ministry released a statement Monday that included a veiled threat to Israel not to make too much of the Anatolian Eagle incident. According to the statement, which appeared in the Turkish press, "the Anatolian Eagle is one of the concerted drills of the Turkish Air Forces which has been held regularly since 2001 with international participation." "The first two stages of this year's exercises were conducted successfully. But the international part of the third stage, which was scheduled to be carried out on October 12 and 23, was cancelled in consultation with the other participating countries. But, the exercise is continuing as a national event. Therefore, it is not correct to impose political meanings to Turkey's decision to cancel the international part of the multi-national Anatolian Eagle air defense exercise." According to the statement, various assessments and comments that have appeared in the Israeli media and attributed to Israeli authorities were unacceptable. "We call on Israeli officials to act with common-sense in their statements and attitudes," the statement said. While official Israeli spokesmen have refrained for the most part from commenting on the incidents, various statements from anonymous officials extremely critical of Turkish policy to Israel have appeared in recent days and, judging by the Turkish statement, have rattled the Turkish authorities. It is precisely to avoid this type of situation, one official said, that both the foreign ministry and defense ministry have instructed their officials not to comment on the matter, and the only attributed statements being made are - for the most part - ones praising the relationship. For instance, Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a statement Monday saying "Turkish-Israeli relations are strategic ones and have existed for dozens of years. Despite peaks and valleys, Turkey continues to be a central actor in our region. There is no reason to be dragged into words of harsh criticism against it." Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon made similar comments the day before. Nevertheless, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima) called Turkey's cancellation of the joint military exercise a "troubling" development. Citing the victory of the Islamic-rooted AKP in the last two Turkish general elections and Ankara's harsh criticism of Israel for Operation Cast Lead, he told Army Radio that there had been "cracks" in relations between the two countries over the last few years. However, he said that matters needed to be "kept in proportion," stressing that there was no "cut-off" in Jerusalem-Ankara ties and that Israel must ensure that "the issue doesn't escalate."•