The intense exchanges afoot between Ankara, Damascus and Tehran in recent months burst into the open Tuesday, Aug.5 at the south Turkish Aegean resort town of Bodrum, when Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan entertained Syrian president Bashar Assad and a large party of notables. This is revealed by Middle East sources.
Assad came fresh from his triumphant talks in Tehran three days earlier. The two leaders’ Aegean lunch was followed on cue by Tehran’s announcement that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would visit Ankara for talks with president Abdullah Gul on August 14.
Screened by his role as broker of indirect Syrian-Israeli peace talks, Erdogan had been busy raising the Syrian president’s credentials from international pariah to respected regional player and partner in the secret dialogue between the United States and Iran.
This was not a solo venture into backdoor diplomacy. The Turkish prime minister was quietly cheered on by US president George W. Bush and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert were also in on the ploy.
Sarkozy put the plan to them both in mid-June when they visited Paris. He asked Assad to mediate between Iran and the West on the nuclear impasse, a role which Assad was happy to accept. He made a point of snubbing the Israeli prime minister to show how far he had gone up in the world. Olmert went along with his part of the plan, indirect peace talks with Damascus, heedless of warnings from his intelligence advisers that he was being set up to serve Iranian and Syrian interests at Israel’s expense.
Assad may be sitting pretty internationally but his regime at home is far from steady, DEBKAfile’s Middle East sources report. The large party he brought to Turkey was led by foreign minister Walid Mualem, the leading proponent of a pro-Washington foreign policy, and its fiercest opponent Buthaina Shaaban, who is especially resentful of any sort of dialogue with Israel.
That sharp division in Assad’s immediate circle has not been bridged.
Assad’s affectionate talks in Tehran Saturday were clouded by the assassination earlier in the day of a most trusted aide, Brig. Gen. Muhammad Suleiman, his key liaison agent with Tehran, Pyongyang and Hizballah. There are signs in Damascus pointing to Suleiman having fallen victim to internal rivalries in the Assad regime, which would show his murder up as another symptom of a storm brewing up in Damascus.
The three lead players in this emerging scenario are now poised on a threshold with a number of options:
1. The Erdogan-Assad talks may end without agreement on the next moves.
2. Assad may have brought with him Tehran’s reply to the six-power incentives offer for suspending uranium enrichment, delivered three days late. Thus, instead of addressing its reply to the European Union foreign affairs executive Javier Solana, spokesman for the US, EU, UK, France, Russian, China and Germany, Iran would be relaying it through Assad to strengthen his position.
3. The next round of the trilateral discussions begun by Assad at Bordum will take place during Ahmadinejad’s visit to Ankara.
4. Assad will brief Erdogan on the next steps planned on the Syrian-Israeli track following the go-ahead he received in Tehran from Iranian leaders.
5. Assad’s large entourage in Turkey may signal a surprise development.