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Turkey, Syria Push Israel on Occupied Lands

(AP Photo/SANA)
This story was filed by CBS News' George Baghdadi in Damascus

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (in photo, Assad on left, Erdogan on right) said on Wednesday that peace in the Middle East will only be achievable if Israel gives back the territories it has occupied.

The Turkish leader made it clear that Ankara was ready to act as an intermediary to bring Syria and Israel — long-time foes — to the negotiating table.

Turkish-mediated negotiations between Israel and Syria were launched in May last year, during former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's leadership. Syria's motives were to regain the strategic Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, and to re-establish contacts with the United States via talks with the Jewish state.

Israel sought to pull Syria away from Iran's influence, driving a wedge between the country and the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, which are headquartered in Damascus.

Talks broke down earlier in the year when Syria withdrew in protest of Israel's deadly January offensive in the Gaza Strip in January, which left about 1,400 Palestinians dead.

Turkish criticism of the same operation also soured that country's relationship with Israel. In January, an angry Erdogan stormed out of a debate on the Gaza conflict with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

A presidential statement released after Erdogan's meeting with al-Assad said their discussion "dealt with the need for achieving a just and comprehensive peace in the region, which requires a genuine Israeli political will to make peace based on the implementation of international resolutions and Israel's withdrawal from occupied Arab lands, including the Golan Heights."

The leaders met in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.

"Both agreed to continue the work and intensify efforts for the sake of lifting the unjust siege imposed on the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip," an official English version stated.

Assad said earlier this month that there is no "real partner" in Israel to make peace, stressing that a halt to building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank is essential to restarting talks.

Syria says it is ready to resume the talks, but the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems split on whether it should pursue the negotiations launched under Olmert.

Israel's ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has insisted that there is no sense in talking to Syria as long as it continues to support Hamas and Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Center-left Defense Minister Ehud Barak, on the other hand, has argued for the launch of full-blown peace talks with Syria alongside the negotiations with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu was involved in U.S.-supervised talks between Syria and Israel during his previous term as prime minister in the 1990s. The talks, which lasted almost 10 years, collapsed in 2000 when Assad's father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, refused an Israeli offer to withdraw from the Golan but keep several hundred meters on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Turkey, a Muslim-majority secular country, is Israel's main regional ally. The two share strong economic ties since signing a military cooperation accord in 1996.

"We feel a responsibility... Requests to resume the process have started to come. We are working on the issue," Erdogan told reporters at Ankara's airport before leaving for Aleppo, without indicating what country had contacted Turkey.

"We should be ready" to re-launch the talks, he said, adding: "We are determined to do all we can for peace in the Middle East."

Turkish sources speculated that the visit of the Prime Minister to Syria had something to do with the recent visit by Fred Hoff, responsible for the Lebanese and Syrian portfolio in the office of U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell.

Mitchell recently became the highest-level U.S. administration official to visit Damascus since 2005. He acknowledged Syria's clout, declaring that Damascus has a key role to play in forging Mideast peace.

The United States has publicly encouraged Turkey to develop strategic relations with Syria.