'We don't need US to okay Syria talks'

Erdogan and Assad meet in Damascus, Turkish PM hopes initiative will "end with a higher level meeting."

Erdogan makes funny face (photo credit: AP)
Erdogan makes funny face
(photo credit: AP)
Israel does not need a green light from Washington to negotiate directly with Damascus, officials in Jerusalem told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday night. Any direct talks would signify a dramatic change and mark the first public bilateral discussions between Jerusalem and Damascus since peace talks broke down in 2000. Israel, however, had no official response to comments from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he was trying to initiate direct peace talks between Israel and Syria. The Turkish prime minister made the statement after a five-hour visit to Syria where he met with Syrian President Bashar Assad and discussed the mediation efforts. Officials in Jerusalem would only state that holding such Israeli-Syria contacts, if they were to take place, would "be an Israeli decision to take." Assad said the talks "focused on means to activate the process of a just and comprehensive peace." He praised the Turkish initiative and said Damascus would cooperate "in whatever brings security and stability to the region," in a statement carried by Syria's official news agency. "There was a request from Syria and Israel for this kind of an effort, and Turkey will do its best in this regard," Erdogan said on his return to Turkey. "This effort will start among the lower-level [officials] and if they are successful, God willing, they will end with a higher level meeting." The back-channel contacts between Syria and Israel over recent months come despite the Israeli air strike on a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria in September and tension on the border between the two nations. The last round of direct talks broke down in 2000 over the details of Israel's proposed withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Israel wanted to withdraw to the international border, keeping a small strip around Lake Kinneret to ensure its control of vital water supplies, but Syria wanted to advance to the lake, as it did during the 1950s. Erdogan did not mention statements by Syrian officials and media in the past week saying that the Turkish president recently delivered a message from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Syria indicating Israel was willing to give up the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty. Olmert said earlier this month that he had sent messages to Damascus on peace prospects but did not disclose the contents. Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, declined to comment on the reports but said Israel was genuinely interested in restarting talks with Syria, and that both parties knew the expectations of the other side. Olmert has never committed himself publicly to a return of the Golan, but has said on a number of occasions that he was willing to resume peace negotiations with Syria if it dropped its support for Hizbullah and Hamas, and its alliance with Iran. A Foreign Ministry official said that Syrian reports did not present "the full picture" regarding Olmert's position because they didn't address the extent of the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, Olmert's demands and Syria's response. Assad said in an interview with the Qatari newspaper Al-Watan last week that the Turkish mediation over the past year could lay the groundwork for direct talks with Israel. But for now, Assad said, talks would continue indirectly, with Turkey as a go-between, though future talks needed to be brokered by the United States under a new administration. Asked in the interview whether people in the Middle East should expect a resolution in the near future, Assad said: "No, don't, because of the second party [Israel]. I cannot guarantee that." Erdogan said Turkey's mediation was part of wider efforts to bring peace to the Middle East. "I believe that our peace diplomacy will, God willing, make positive contributions to [peace] in Iraq, between Syria and Israel or between Israel and the Palestinians," he said. Turkey has close ties with Israel, Syria and the United States. Syrian relations with the Bush administration are poor, with tensions over Lebanon, Iraq and support for Palestinian terrorists. Assad has said direct negotiations could resume under a new administration that takes over from George W. Bush's in January 2009. Assad hinted in the interview that Syria would not retaliate militarily for the Israeli strike last year on what the US has said was a nuclear reactor under construction with North Korea's help. "Israel wants to provoke Syria and maybe wants to pull Syria into war, but we do not seek war. We were clear on this point and we have other methods," he said. Syria denied it was building a nuclear reactor and said the site hit by Israel was an unused military facility.