Turkey lobbies Syria to help defuse Mideast crisis

ANKARA, July 4, 2006 (AFP) – Turkey has sent a special envoy to meet with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in a bid to convince Damascus to help defuse a mounting crisis between Israel and the Palestinians, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said here Tuesday.

Gul declined to give details about the mission of the envoy — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief foreign policy advisor Ahmet Davutoglu, saying only that he returned to Ankara Monday.

"What we are trying to do is to contribute to efforts to prevent further escalation in this problem," Gul told reporters.

Before sending the envoy to Damascus, Erdogan spoke over the telephone with US President George W. Bush, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as well as Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Gul said.

Syria is under fire for sheltering leaders of the Palestinian movement Hamas, which Israel holds responsible for the capture of an Israeli soldier last week.

Israel has threatened to kill Hamas leaders, including its political supremo Khaled Meshaal who lives in exile in Damascus.

Turkish-Syrian relations have significantly improved in recent years after a long period of animosity.

Ankara believes it can use the thaw as leverage to help ease Middle East tensions, drawing also on its close ties with both Israel and the Palestinians.

Erdogan on Saturday condemned the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier, but harshly criticized Israel’s offensive in the Palestinian territories as a disproportionate response.

Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted party angered Israel in February by hosting a Hamas delegation led by Meshaal, for what officials described as an effort to put pressure on Hamas to renounce violence.

Non-Arab Turkey has been Israel’s chief regional ally since 1996 when the two signed a military cooperation accord, much to the anger of Iran and Arab countries.