Cablegate: Turkish Support Emboldens Asad but Provides Best Hope for Coaxing Syria From Iran

DE RUEHDM #0759/01 3010525
O 280525Z OCT 09




E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/07/2029

B. ANKARA 1486

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Classified By: CDA Charles Hunter, Reasons 1.4 b and d.

1. (S/NF) Summary: President Bashar al-Asad's September
16-17 working visit to Istanbul produced agreement on the
creation of a high-level strategic cooperation commission,
visa-free travel between Syria and Turkey, and a Syrian offer
to work to rehabilitate Syrian PKK members. The deliverables
represented a modest step in strengthening bilateral ties,
but they symbolized a deepening of strategic coordination in
which Ankara figures more prominently in Syria's approach to
the region. The October 13 meeting of Turkish and Syrian
ministers in Aleppo and Gaziantep produced an ambitious
action plan in energy, water, trade, cultural, and security
cooperation for PM Erdogan and President Asad to formalize
when Erdogan visits Syria in December. Turkey's methodical
deepening of relations with Damascus offers Syria a strategic
buffer against international pressure and a ready mediator
willing to help Syria mend strained relations with neighbors,
such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and even Lebanon. At the moment,
the SARG is seeking to characterize Turkish-Israeli tensions
as a show of Turkish solidarity with Syria and Palestinians,
while maintaining Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah military
cooperation that has grown significantly stronger since 2006.
The major challenge ahead is to prevent Syria from using
closer relations with Turkey as a means of resisting U.S.
influence and pursuing policies that would make comprehensive
peace less likely. In the long run, Asad's increasing trust
of PM Erdogan offers the best hope of luring Syria out of
Tehran's orbit. End Summary.

Deepening Syrian-Turkish Ties

2. (S/NF) According to Syrian and other diplomatic
contacts, President Asad's September 16-17 trip to Istanbul
was notable for his close personal ties to Turkish PM Erdogan
and for the agreement reached by the two sides to establish a
high-level strategic cooperation commission. As Embassy
Ankara reported in Ref B, the two sides also agreed to
announce agreement on visa-free travel across their shared
border, a measure that had been under discussion since
President Gul's visit to Damascus in mid-May, according to
Turkish diplomats here. Additionally, there were discussions
on how Syria might help to support Turkey's outreach to
Kurdish communities and its efforts to "rehabilitate" PKK
militants. Asad, according to several media reports, agreed
to follow Turkey's lead and provide favorable treatment to
some 1500-2000 Syrian PKK members if they return from Iraq to
Syria, so long as they renounce violence and turn themselves
into Syrian authorities. According to the Turkish Embassy
here, Asad and PM Erdogan discussed the need for Syria to
consider measures that would make Syria more attractive for
Syrian Kurds.

3. (S/NF) Al-Hayat Bureau Chief Ibrahim Hamidi (strictly
protect) reported the one-day meeting on October 13 of ten
ministers from each side began work on a comprehensive set of
bilateral agreements that the Turkish and Syrian Prime
Ministers will formalize sometime in December. These include
deepening of security and intelligence cooperation on
counterterrorism and border security; establishing a joint
oil exploration company; cooperation in electricity
generation; water management cooperation; expanding rail
travel between the two countries; cooperation on port
expansion; expanding natural gas pipelines and
infrastructure; and increasing Turkish investment in Syria.

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These projects will open Syria to increased trade from
Turkish firms, comments Damascus Chamber of Commerce
Secretary General Bassem Ghrawi (strictly protect), at a time
when the Syrian government is struggling to move forward with
economic liberalization. Whereas the Syrian regime is
"taking its time" to evaluate its EU Association agreement,
President Asad remains fully committed to expanding economic
ties with Turkey, even if the opportunities for Syrian
businesses in Turkey are "far less" than Turkish
opportunities in Syria, says Ghrawi.

Turkish-Israeli Row Suits Syria

4. (S/NF) Beyond the promise of economic modernization,
Turkey offers Syria diplomatic support, particularly in
Syria's frustrated efforts to pressure Israel to negotiate a
return of the Golan on its terms. No country emerged more
pleased by Turkey's decision to postpone plans for the
"Anatolian Eagle" military exercise than Syria. Turkish
attempts to downplay the political significance of this
action did little to quell Syrian efforts to exploit the
decision itself and Turkey's criticism of Israeli policies on
three issues: the Golan track, the West Bank (al Aqsa and
settlements), and Gaza. The Syrian Minister of Defense's
crowing on October 13 about a future follow-up Turkish-Syrian
border security exercise grabbed Syrian and regional
headlines. Even as Ankara's rhetoric cooled and avoided
mention of a Syrian-Turkish exercise, Syrian officials,
including President Asad, relentlessly singled out Israel as
the "obstacle" to peace discussions and called on the Israeli
government to "choose between occupation and peace." The
Syrians also called on European partners to play a greater
role in Middle East peace issues and expressed concern about
the gap between U.S. rhetoric favoring peace and the absence
of a workable process to achieve it.

5. (S/NF) Turkey's willingness to "stand up to Israel"
emboldened Syrian thinking, argues Hamidi. "Thanks largely to
Turkey, Syria is now focusing on increasing pressure on
Israel, without bearing the blame for the impasse," he
observed. Turkey's posture, moreover, has led President Asad
to insist that any future Israeli-Syrian peace talks must
return to the Turkish-facilitated process that ended in
December 2008. Israeli PM Netanyahu's assertion that Israel
no longer views Turkish mediation as tenable had little
impact, argues Hamidi. Before, Syria faced Israel alone with
military cooperation from Iran. "Now, Syria has political
cover from Turkey in addition to military support from Iran,"
he contends. Some Syrian officials, adds Hamidi, see Turkey
as providing "strategic balance" to "open-ended" U.S. support
of Israel.

6. (S/NF) Our Turkish colleagues in Damascus claim PM
Erdogan's and FM Davutoglu's critical comments of Israel
should not be taken out of context. At the same time,
Turkish DCM Aydin Acikel notes, Turkey's position is
"strongly supported by Turkish public opinion." Acikel
stresses Ankara wants to repair relations with Israel, but it
nonetheless wants to build confidence with Damascus. Syria,
he offers, has shown every sign it is ready to negotiate
seriously to achieve peace. "The key to changing Syrian
behavior is to make them feel more secure." "Isolation and
sanctions," he contends, "won't work." Acikel bristles at
the suggestion that Turkish criticism of Israeli policies
might reduce the prospects of achieving peace because it
emboldens Syria, provides no incentive for Syria to curtail
its relations with Hizballah and Iran, and makes it less
likely Syria will meet Israeli concerns about Syria's future

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strategic orientation. Acikel claims Turkish policy is
providing Syria "the confidence it needs" to move gradually
away from Iran, "on its own terms." He nonetheless
acknowledges Turkey's critical stand on Israel may diminish
Israeli perceptions of Ankara's even-handedness.
7. (S/NF) Syrian officials are "hearing only part of the
message," observes Orient Center Director Samir al-Taqi
(strictly protect), a contact close to FM Muallim whose 2008
Track-II efforts with the U.S. landed him in hot water with
the SARG, so that he now converses with Embassy staff only
during chance encounters. The SARG cannot disguise its glee
over Turkey's willingness to criticize Israel, he notes. In
fact, Syrian officials are trying to use closer ties to
Turkey and Saudi Arabia to bring Ankara and Riyadh closer to
Syrian-Iranian positions to increase pressure on Israel to
return to peace negotiations on Syria's terms. Still, al
Taqi says, "a few" Syrians realize Turkey alone will be
unable to deliver Israel to the negotiating table. SARG
officials recognize the Turkish-Israeli rift may buy Syria
time and that deepening ties between Damascus and Ankara may
provide an alternative to Iran's constant pressure to
confront Israel militarily. "Nothing but peace itself will
change the dynamics with Iran and Syria," he contends.
Achieving peace, however, will depend ultimately on the U.S.
"That's why we need you to live up to President Obama's
rhetoric (on comprehensive peace)." But until there's
movement on the Golan track, Turkey's stand-off with Israel
affords Syria more space and reduces pressure for it to make
gestures, al-Taqi says.

Turkey Buffers Syria Against Iraqi Charges

8. (S/NF) FM Davutoglu's personal engagement to resolve
Syrian-Iraqi tensions over the August 19 Baghdad bombings
helped to preserve Turkey's relationship with both countries.
Most Syrian observers, however, judge Turkish mediation as
favoring Syria, contends Syrian businessman and former MP
Ihsan Sanker (strictly protect). Egyptian Political
Counselor Adel Ibrahim (strictly protect) concurs. FM
Davutoglu facilitated several meetings with Arab League
involvement, with a focus on Iraqi information intended to
document claims that former Baathist regime elements in Syria
were responsible for the attacks. Many Syrians, adds
Ibrahim, believe the Iranian government worked to convince PM
Maliki that Syria had played a role in the attacks. When the
Iraqi side failed to justify these claims, "the Turks told us
and others" the Iraqi information was "less than persuasive,"
reports Ibrahim.

9. (S/NF) The Turkish government sought to "ensnare" both
sides into a process that would lead to a resolution, but in
the end, Turkey appeared to "implicitly endorse Syria's
position by not backing Iraqi allegations," judges
International Crisis Group representative Peter Harling.
Meanwhile, Turkey signed over 40 memoranda of understanding
with Iraq in late October as part of its bilateral strategic
cooperation council meeting, just as it is likely to do with
Syria when PM Erdogan visits Syria in December. According to
Ibrahim Hamidi, the Turkish played the honest broker and
provided Syria with a way to demonstrate its good faith.
When Iraq insisted on UN involvement and balked at further
talks with Syria because it refused to recognize Baghdad's
information as "credible," Turkey's mediation provided a
"buffer" against further Iraqi allegations. No one, observes
Hamidi, appears to be overly concerned by Syria's refusal to
receive a UN envoy to discuss the August 19 attacks.


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Help With Saudi Arabia

10. (S/NF) According to Turkish DCM Acikel, PM Erdogan
personally lobbied President Asad to travel to Jeddah to
change his decision not to attend the opening of King
Abdullah University of Science and Technology. "The KAUST
visit opened the way to King Abdullah's trip to Damascus, and
from there, closer Saudi-Syrian cooperation across the
region," he argues. Local observers are quick to point out
that Yemeni FM Qirby's October visit to Damascus was one
immediate result of King Abdullah's visit to the Syrian
capital. The SARG's public support of the Yemeni
Government's efforts to deal with breakaway tribes in the
north represented an important gesture to the King, assesses
Syrian historian and commentator Sami Mubayed. Turkey, he
adds, has encouraged the SARG to show solidarity with King
Abdullah on Yemen because it represents a major concern for
Saudi Arabia.

And Lebanon?

11. (S/NF) Turkey has also quietly tried to encourage Syria
to respond positively to King Abdullah on the formation of a
government Lebanon, argues Ibrahim Hamidi. Unfortunately, he
adds, "Lebanese politics involve more variables than just
Syria and Saudi Arabia." Though a number of contacts,
particularly those from Lebanon, have sensed an improvement
in the mood among Syrian officials regarding developments in
Beirut, no one is prepared to say a deal is imminent,
observes Basil Hamwy, Director of Bank Audi operations in
Syria. President Asad noted the "urgent need" for a
consensus government and called on the Lebanese parties to
reach an accord during the October 22-23 visit of Finnish
President Halonen. French FM Kouchner, meanwhile, visited
Beirut on October 23 and credited Syria for not interfering
in Lebanese politics. In a move seen here as overtly
intended to curry favor with Damascus, he publicly put the
onus on the Lebanese parties themselves. Against this
backdrop, Turkish FM Davutoglu has worked behind the scenes,
delivering messages to Syrian officials from Lebanese
PM-designate Saad Hariri, confirms Acikel, who argues Ankara
believes a deal in Lebanon would help Syria. Still, even the
Turks appear less than fully confident that Syria's allies
will be willing to reach a deal. "Aoun is tough, and it's
frankly not clear how closely his actions are connected to
Hizballah or Damascus," comments Acikel.

Nudging Syria Away from Iran

12. (S/NF) Turkey's patient and cautious decade-long
approach to building relations with Syria has generated a
comfort level that few countries enjoy here. The President's
willingness to take Turkish advice and openly defer to
Turkish preferences contrasts with the pro forma
appearances that Asad seems to endure with Iranian
counterparts out of a sense of obligation. Asad undoubtedly
notes, as do we, Turkey's internal stability and its policy
of promoting regional peace versus Iran's domestic problems
and its outward focus on fomenting regional conflict. Asad
no longer makes any pretense of being in the business of
mediating between the West and Iran on the nuclear file, and
his overriding interest is to keep Syria out of harm's way if
Israel ever decides to attack Iranian nuclear sites.

13. (S/NF) To be clear, we assess Syrian-Iranian security

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relations to be stronger
than ever, but Iran's internal divisions and the end of
Syria's isolation have offered Damascus new options. Syria's
growing confidence is evident in its decision to postpone the
signing of an association agreement with the EU, the SARG's
claims (now backed by French officials) that Damascus bears
no responsibility for the Lebanese political stalemate, and
the increased volume and frequency in recent Syrian rhetoric
against Israel. At the moment, Damascus seems content to use
Turkey's support for tactical advantage and as a means of
avoiding strategic choices that would become necessary if and
when it ever signed a peace treaty with Israel. Less clear is
whether the Syrian government would be capable, even it
wanted to, of changing its strategic orientation after three
decades of reliance on Iran and Hizballah. Asad has
indicated Syria will maintain relations with Iran, but
Syria's interest in peace might produce a change in the
nature of those relations, if and when a peace agreement ever

14. (S/NF) Syria would almost certainly never reach this
point of decision without strong GOT influence. While the
U.S. and Turkey generally share the same overriding
objectives of regional comprehensive peace and stability,
Turkish officials here stiffen when we broach the possibility
of closer U.S.-Turkish cooperation to influence Syria on
specific issues (e.g., Iran or Lebanon). Given Ankara's
jealous approach to Syria, one that applies equally to French
and EU efforts to engage Damascus, our challenge is to nudge
the deepening of Syrian-Turkish relations toward strategic
Syrian choices necessary for achieving shared objectives,
even if we differ with Ankara on tactical approaches.

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