The perfect intermediary

Turkey has good relations with both Syria and Israel.

Erdogan Gul 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Erdogan Gul 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan visit to Damascus in late April 2008 revealed secret meetings between Israelis and Syria that have been going on under Turkey's mediation for nearly a year. One outcome was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's reported request for Erdogan to convey a message to Damascus that Israel might be ready to withdraw from the Golan Heights as a move toward permanent peace. This recent development should be seen as a continuation of the AKP's long-standing efforts to take an active role in the resolution of conflicts between Israelis and Arabs. For instance, one of the reasons behind Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül's visit to Israel in April 2003 was to carve out a role for Turkey in assisting the US-EU-Russia-UN Quartet in finding a solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and in resuming peace talks. However, Ankara's enthusiasm was not shared by Israel; foreign minister Silvan Shalom said that since Turkey would eventually become part of the EU, its contribution should be through that organization. Consequently, in the corridors of the foreign ministry in Ankara the perception was that Turkey's involvement in the peace process was not wanted. Nonetheless, the AKP (Turkey's Justice and Development Party) persevered in its endeavours and seized another opportunity when Bashar Assad reportedly requested that Turkey act as a catalyst to start unofficial, covert talks with Israelis. Although no result was achieved, a series of meetings - with the participation of Turkish officials - were held between the two sides between September 2004 and July 2006. Similarly, when Hizbullah kidnapped two IDF soldiers in July 2006, Erdogan was quick to respond to US President George Bush and Olmert's requests by sending his chief advisor Ahmet Davutolu to Damascus to ask Assad to use his influence to lean on Hizbullah. WHY IS the AKP, which has never been an ardent supporter of close Turkish-Israeli ties, interested in taking a role in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict? First, the AKP sees Turkey as a key player in the Middle East, and mediating the Arab-Israel conflict would be critical in attaining this objective. Second, it wants to show its major ally, the US, as well as the EU - on whose door it has been knocking for membership for two decades - its instrumental role as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world. Third, the AKP considers it its responsibility to be involved in the affairs of the Muslim world due to its own Islamic roots. The party also endeavours to meet the expectations of its constituents, who are sensitive to developments in the Middle East. At the same time, its religious, historical and cultural links with the region, combined with the AKP's belief that the Middle East thrived under the Ottoman Empire's Millet system, drives its leadership to strive to revive the perceived justice and fairness of the Ottoman period. To this end, advancement of ties with the countries of the region has a special meaning for the AKP. During a speech, Erdogan addressed Arab countries, "not only as friends, but at the same time brothers" - a clear manifestation of the AKP's approach towards the region. Within this framework, the AKP leadership considers its close ties with Israel an advantage in resolving regional conflicts. CAN TURKEY undertake such a daunting mission? Given that only a decade ago Turkey and Syria were on the verge of war because of Damascus' support for the PKK. Turkey's success in transforming hostilities into close ties indicates that Ankara possesses the necessary experience and credibility. After the resolution of the PKK issue following the October 1998 crisis, Turkey not not only ended the two-decade-old conflict with Syria but also significantly improved bilateral relations through a strategy of constructive engagement. Although its approach created strains with the US and Israel, the AKP government believed that stability could be maintained in the region through improvement of political and economic relations, and argued that rather than excluding Damascus, supporting limited reforms in Syria would be the better strategy. Turkey's persistence has paid off as Damascus now perceives Ankara to be a reliable and impartial partner as well as a channel between Syria and the West. While the AKP has gained the Damascus administration's respect and trust in the last decade, it is too early to predict whether it can accomplish its mission and convince the Damascus administration with regard to Israel. The AKP cannot generate a result unless the two parties are willing to make concessions. Nonetheless, the AKP leadership's ability to understand and empathize with Damascus' concerns and to tailor a suitable strategy may provide much better results than any other government's initiatives. The AKP can make a notable contribution to the betterment of Israeli-Syrian relations even if it cannot guarantee complete success. The writer has completed her PhD research on the Turkish-Syrian Crisis of 1998 in Mediterranean Studies Department at King's College London, and works as a political risk analyst in London.