Turkey Working to Calm Israel-Syria Tensions

ANKARA - Israel should not view Syria as a branch of Iran because Tehran and Damascus differ on regional issues, Turkish officials trying to jump-start peace talks between Syria and Israel told Haaretz this week.

Amid rising tensions between Israel and Syria, the sources added that peace with Syria is easier to achieve than an agreement with the Palestinians.

The officials said they were encouraged by recent statements by Syrian and Israeli decision-makers, and described Syrian President Bashar Assad's recent statements on the chance of resuming negotiations as particularly positive.

The Turkish diplomats noted that Assad refrained from reiterating his former insistence on picking up where the last round of talks ended. Several Israeli prime ministers had agreed to meet the Syrian precondition of a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Israel conquered from Syria in 1967.

The Turkish officials drew further encouragement from Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara's statement Tuesday that his country will not go to war over the Golan. The officials described the "peace-oriented propaganda efforts" on both sides and the "positive rhetoric."

With regard to Syria's complicated relationship with Iran, the Turkish officials said that Assad's regime should not be viewed as subject to Iranian control. They noted that Syria and Iran disagree on many key issues such as the future Palestinian state, Lebanon, and whether to pursue peace talks with Israel.

The Turkish sources said proof of this was that Syria had actively encouraged the Mecca Agreement signed by the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah in February. Damascus pressured then prime minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas to sign the deal despite Iranian resistance to the terms.

The Turkish mediators are operating under the assumption that the prospect of renewed peace talks between Israel and Syria is more achievable than a permanent agreement between Jerusalem and the Palestinians. The Turkish foreign office views the Palestinian problem as a three-layered predicament, with each level entailing its own difficulties.

Ankara perceives the border dispute between Israel and the Palestinians as a regional multinational problem. The question of the Palestinian refugees and the right of return is perceived by the Turks to be an Arab, national problem. The holy places and the dispute over jurisdiction there is viewed as a religious conflict.

So the Turkish foreign ministry regards the Israeli-Syrian dispute as much more solvable because it relates to a simple territorial issue - control of the Golan Heights.

Turkey is therefore opposed to the American-imposed containment policy against Syria, Hamas' Gaza regime and Iran. Ankara argues that bundling these three states together as one axis could create a unified and defiant front against moderate interests and drive Syria and Hamas to further cement their relations with Iran.

Turkish officials believe the internal Palestinian dispute between Hamas and Fatah is not yet solvable. The Turks nonetheless recognize that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas cannot offer Israel any viable solutions without securing Hamas' support first. For that reason, Turkey decided to maintain its contact with Hamas - in contrast with the Israeli and American stance.

"The United States may ultimately realize that Turkey's stance was the right one, just as it reached the conclusion of engaging in dialogue with Iran over the situation in Iraq," a Turkish official said.