« There was more than Israel’s contribution to the rescue efforts in the talks as discussions between the Israeli chief diplomat and his Turkish interlocutors touched upon regional issues. » The Arab Weekly reports on February 15, 2023.
Two parallel dynamics seem to have been at play since the catastrophic earthquake which caused tens of thousands of dead and injured in Turkey and Syria.
While Turkey has moved closer to Israel, Assad’s Syria has made new strides towards normalising its relations with the Arab world.
In Ankara, the warm welcome received by Israeli Foreign Minister Elie Cohen on Tuesday, highlighted not only Turkey’s strong appreciation of Israel’s contribution to the rescue effort but also its willingness to use the natural disaster as a springboard for better Israeli-Turkish relations.
Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on Tuesday in Ankara.
It added that “Erdogan and Cohen held a closed-door meeting at the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD)”.
During the meeting, said Anadolu, Cohen “emphasised Israel’s commitment to continue providing support and assistance for the Turkish people as needed.”
Cohen also met his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.
After the meeting, Cohen said “Israel stands alongside Turkey at this difficult time and will continue to assist her through the activities of our forces and by providing humanitarian goods.”
But there was more than Israel’s contribution to the rescue efforts to the talks.
Discussions between the Israeli chief diplomat and his Turkish interlocutors touched upon regional issues.
“At the meeting, I also brought up the issue of the Israeli civilians and the bodies of the soldiers in the hands of the terrorist organisation Hamas in Gaza and we discussed the fight against the Iranian nuclear programme”, said Cohen about his meeting with Erdogan.
“The relations between our countries are important for regional stability and we will continue to work to strengthen them,” he added.
Cohen also announced the resumption of direct Israeli flights to Turkey in the coming days, predicting a 25% increase in tourism this year.
« We will definitely warm the important relations between your important and beautiful country and Israel, » he added, predicting that a million Israelis would visit Turkey in 2023, up from 800,000 who went last year aboard foreign airlines.
In the meanwhile, Assad has been basking in an outpouring of support from Arab states which have normalised ties with him in recent years, notably the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
He also had his first reported phone call with Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, a step he aims to build on, said two Arab officials who met Assad.
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia sent its first reported plane of aid to Assad-controlled Aleppo, a notable gesture from a Gulf state still at odds with Syria’s president. Saudi earthquake assistance had thus far only gone to rebel areas.
The UAE has pledged $50 million in aid to Syria, without saying in which part of Syria it will be spent. UAE support to government-held areas has included a search-and-rescue team, according to Syrian state media.
The UAE foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has also visited Damascus.
Once a backer of Assad’s foes, the UAE has been encouraging other Arab states to re-engage with Damascus, according to two Gulf sources, despite opposition from its strategic ally, the United States.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 as its civil war escalated. But with Assad having defeated many of his enemies, aided by Russia and Iran, some Arab states see re-engagement as a way to counter Shia Iran’s influence, among other considerations.
Assad was heartened by his call with Sisi and said it would be « built upon », according to an Arab official who met Assad, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private. Egypt’s presidency reported the February 7 call with Assad, without giving details.
Sisi, speaking at a Dubai conference, said he had discussed the need to help Syria with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and that Emiratis should be « proud » of their aid effort.
Tunisia, which cut off ties with Syria a decade ago, has said it will strengthen relations with Damascus since the quake.
Assad is hoping « Arabs will rally round Syria » and help « break the siege », a reference to sanctions, said a second Arab official who met him.
But analysts say US sanctions continue to act as a brake on countries seeking to build commercial ties.
The United States, while ruling out re-engagement with Assad, has authorised for 180 days all transactions related to earthquake relief that would otherwise have been blocked by its sanctions on Syria.
The Syrian pound has strengthened since the decision.
The Arab Weekly, February 15, 2023.