DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – Turkey’s prime minister arrived in Damascus Saturday for talks with Syria’s leader on rising prospects for Syrian-Israeli peace after signs of progress in Turkish mediation between the two Mideast foes.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was originally here to open a Syrian-Turkish business forum. But his visit has gained added significance with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s announcement that he received an Israeli offer of a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty.
Assad has said that Erdogan passed on the message that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is ready to return the Golan and that he’s looking to discuss the details with Erdogan. The two were to meet later in the day.
Turkey has close ties with both Israel and Syria as well as with the United States.
Assad also said in an interview with the Qatari newspaper al-Watan published Thursday that Turkish mediation over the past year could lay the groundwork for direct talks with Israel.
Erdogan did not mention the Golan issue before his departure, but he did say that Turkey was trying to get the leaders of Syria and Israel together, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.
“In the first place, we are thinking of getting officials appointed from both sides together. If this yields positive results, efforts will begin to bring the leaders together,” Erdogan said. He 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,” said Erdogan.
The recent developments suggested some progress in back-channel contacts between Syria and Israel, despite heightened tensions between them over the turmoil in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and over a September airstrike by Israel against a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria.
Israel and Syria’s last round of direct talks broke down in 2000 over the details of Israel’s proposed withdrawal from the Golan, which it seized in the 1967 Mideast War.
Israel wanted to keep a small coastal strip around the Sea of Galilee to ensure its control of the lake’s vital water supplies, a demand Syria rejected.
Olmert said earlier in April that he 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 is genuinely interested in restarting talks with Syria.
Olmert has never committed himself publicly to a return of the Golan, saying only he is willing to resume peace negotiations with Syria if it drops its support for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said this week that Syrian reports do not represent “the full picture” of Olmert’s position because they don’t address, for instance, the extent of the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, Olmert’s demands and Syria’s response.
In his newspaper interview, Assad did not disclose details. He said his country may hold future direct talks with Israel, but not until a new U.S. administration that can broker such negotiations takes office.
Syria’s relations with the Bush administration, which leaves office in January 2009, have been poor in the last three years because of disputes over policy in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinians.
The Bush administration said this week that North Korea was secretly assisting work on a nuclear reactor in Syria, adding that the facility destroyed by Israel in a September airstrike was not intended for “peaceful purposes.” Syria has scoffed at the reports, insisting the target was an unused military facility.
A front-page editorial in the government newspaper Tishrin, which reflects official thinking, suggested Saturday that the U.S. campaign against Syria may have been intended to undermine the peace efforts.
“Was this American escalation intended to prevent any effort to relaunch the peace process and return to the negotiating table? We don’t rule that out,” the editorial said.