On the Expanding Turkey-Iran Cooperation in Syria
Despite numerous western mainstream media predictions about possible conflict of interest between Iran, Turkey and Russia in Syria, this conflict hasn’t happened. On the contrary, prospects and possibilities of cooperation continue to increase as the war in Syria nears its end. Its latest illustration can be found in the case of Idlib where Iran did not object or confront Turkey’s concerns, but accommodated these concerns, reflecting how prudent Iran is in terms of keeping the alliance alive, an alliance that, over the past two years, has served interests of all of the participant countries. One primary reason for the continuation of this cooperation is the way their interests continue to converge, not just in Idlib, but also in other hot areas of Syria, such as the northeast, where the US forces and the US backed Kurdish militias are active and are yet to handover the region to Syria. But the US, as John Bolton revealed a few days, intends to stay in Syria as long as Iran stays.
While this probably means that the US aims to continue to fight its war with Iran in Syria, it also opens another possibility of cooperation between Turkey and Iran in northeast Syria. While Turkey’s source of discomfort is the continued US support for Kurdish militias, which Turkey considers terrorists, Iran, too, sees these groups as US proxies, likely to be used to disrupt and damage the gains they have made in Syria. Iranian leaders have recently voiced how important it is to rid areas to the east of Euphrates of the US influence. This makes Iran a natural ally of Turkey, which, too, has been seeking to achieve this goal, which is also the underlying source of persisting tension in the US-Turkey relations.
With Turkey and Iran focusing on the SDF held territory; therefore, the prospects of jointly confronting the US have certainly increased. Ironically enough, it is the US itself that continues to give both Iran and Turley all the reasons to converge. For instance, when John Bolton says that the US will not leave Syria as long as Iran does the same first, it means that the US will continue to patronize Kurds, Turkey’s primary enemies, which further implies that Turkey cannot think of counting on the US support for militarily eliminating Kurds and pushing them away.
On the contrary, that Turkey will be taking action in northeast Syria was clearly expressed by Erdogan soon after he clinched a deal on Idlib. To quote him, “Turkey will take action east of the Euphrates River in Syria and impose secure zones as it has done in the northwest of the country.” And, as the most recent developments indicate, Turkey’s parliament has endorsed the mandate for Turkish military’s action against Kurds in Syria.
For Iran, there cannot be a better scenario for cooperation with Turley than there is now. What the renewal of this mandate means (Turkey has been renewing this mandate ever since 2014) is that Turkey is continuing with its policy of not normalizing its relations with the US and that it intends to remain attached to Sochi process of Syria’s reintegration as a sovereign state. The importance of Sochi framework cannot be denied since Turkey itself used the same platform to get its Idlib approved by Russia, Syria and Iran, including Hezbollah.
There are, of course, some gray areas as well. A lot of things depend upon how well Turkey manages Idlib. Turkey’s failure to fulfill its part of the deal would only make a Russian-Iranian offensive inevitable, which, if happens, will put Turkey in a difficult position vis-à-vis both Iran and Russia and Astana and Sochi peace processes. The question is: in the wake of a full scale offensive in Syria, and in the wake of Turkey being again burdened with refugees, will it continue to cooperate?
On the other hand, the fact that the US sanctions and tariffs have caused Turkish lira to fall 40 per cent against US dollar means that prospects of Turkey-US relations getting on a positive trajectory are very grim, which means that Turkey will find it extremely difficult to alienate itself completely by ending its cooperation with Iran and Russia in Syria.
Besides it, mood in Turkey remains overtly anti-US. When he opened Turkish parliament’s session this week, Erdogan not only lambasted the US’ Syria policy and its reliance on weaponising Kurds, but also attacked the “warped mindset that uses a priest being prosecuted for his dark ties to terrorist organisations as a pretext to impose sanctions”.
With Turkey, therefore, unlikely to change its course in Syria, prospects of its cooperation with Iran in northeast Syria remain brighter than those of confrontation and conflict. And unless there occurs a major policy reversal in Washington towards Turkey, which in extremely unlikely to happen under the Trump presidency, this cooperation will continue a lot more smoothly than meets the eye.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.