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Turkey aims for clout as regional mediator

Back-channel discussions between Syria and Israel are being facilitated by Turkey, which has close ties to Israel and growing ties to Syria. The United States is supportive of the effort.

By Yigal SchleiferCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 6, 2008

Contested Turf: An old Israeli tank sits in the Golan Heights, which Syria wants back.

Baz Ratner/REUTERS

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Drawing on its close ties with Israel and growing closeness to Syria, Turkey is working to position itself as a key regional mediator in the Middle East.

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Last week, Israel and Syria revealed that Ankara had stepped in to fill a diplomatic vacuum by facilitating back-channel discussions between the two states.

That effort received a boost Sunday from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said that the United States would back such a peace initiative. She qualified her support by stating that Damascus needed to rethink its policy toward Lebanon.

Turkey's bid, analysts say, is part of a larger plan to improve its relations with neighbors and take full advantage of its location and historical Ottoman ties to play a larger role than it has in previous decades. But many questions remain about its ability to establish itself as a heavyweight quite yet.

"Turkey has become one of the pollinators, one of the actors on the circuit. It's hard to think of anyone else who can visit the wide variety of countries, from Israel to Iran, that Turkey can," says Hugh Pope, Turkey analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based policy and advocacy organization. "I don't think there are many diplomats visiting Tehran who have just visited Israel, and that's a valuable role."

In an April interview with Qatar's al-Watan newspaper, Syrian President Bashar Assad said an Israeli offer to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for permanent peace was delivered to him through Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Israeli officials have confirmed Ankara's role in reaching out to President Assad.

"To a certain extent, [the Turks] have succeeded in increasing their visibility and importance in the region, and people have responded to that. They have achieved something," says Henri Barkey, an expert on Turkey at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University.

Facilitating between Syria and Israel "gives you an idea of how much the [Turkish government] wants to be a player in the region," he adds. "They do see themselves as a major part of the region. That is a big shift from previous governments, which wouldn't have bothered with this."