Could the Turkey-Iran Rapprochement Permanently Solve the Syrian Crisis?
Iran evaluated the Arab Spring from its own perspective as an aim to overthrow prevalent dictatorships in the region with democratic systems. While Tehran supported the rhetoric of revolution in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, the country was disappointed by the fact that it did not receive a warm welcome from leaders including Mohamed Morsi and Rached Ghannouchi. This is particularly the reason why Iran did not refrain from criticizing Morsi during his tenure in office. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that, with a delay of a few days, Kayhan, Iranian government’s influential newspaper presented the General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi coup as a “U.S. coup in Egypt.”
Syria was a different issue in many aspects. Since the complexities in Iran following the 2009 elections had not entirely settled down, there was a possibility that demonstrations could also spread to the country. In addition to the domestic imbalances, Iran also had tense relations with supporters of the Syrian opposition. For instance, relations with Saudi Arabia caused Iran to distinguish the Syrian affair from what it termed, an “Islamic awakening.”
Particularly after the peaceful demonstrations that evolved into armed insurrection, Tehran left aside its ambivalent attitude and took the field in favor of the Assad regime. Iran first intervened in Syria through the medium of Hezbollah and its military aides, then heaved a sigh of relief with Russia’s involvement in the war in October, 2015. As it became obvious that the U.S. would not interfere in the Syrian conflict, especially after a Russian jet that violated Turkish airspace was downed, Iran assumed that the Syrian war was almost coming to an end.
In fact, while Ankara and Tehran had adopted similar positions in regards to the Syrian conflict, at least in discourse, this was not recognized due to the heated atmosphere and conflict environment. While both countries alluded to different groups, they both denounced the existence of foreign fighters in Syria, made clear that Syria’s territorial integrity was of vital importance and emphasized that the fate of Syria should be drawn by the Syrian people themselves.
So, what was the main point of disagreement between Turkey and Iran? While on one hand Tehran defended Assad’s participation in the elections which were to be supervised by international organizations, claiming that Assad’s legitimacy was ongoing within the public, Ankara argued the exact opposite. The Turkish administration claimed that Assad had lost his legitimacy and stressed that his participation in the elections would hinder fairness and impartiality. Consequently, as Turkey delayed the dispute of the future of Assad until the later stages of the Astana Talks, this allowed for the positions of Tehran and Ankara to merge closer together.
Iran’s expectation from the Astana process
As briefly stated earlier, Iran never refrained from expressing the belief that the Syrian crisis was an internal security issue. According to this standpoint, defending Syria was more important than defending Khuzestan, so therefore if Iran had not intervened in Syria it would have had to fight within its own territory. It is true that Iran has strived to protect Assad’s seat and reaped considerable acquisitions so far. Nonetheless, Tehran was aware that Syria would never return to its pre-war status and that therefore it would not be able to control the country with the limited forces in hand. For this reason, Iran benefits from the term “useful Syria,” which was coined by Assad, and initiates economic, political and military investments in these areas.
As can be recalled, the Astana process was initiated following the improvement of Ankara-Moscow relations after an apology was issued to Russia in June 2016. Considering the caricatures covered in the Iranian press, which included libelous contents against the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it became clear that Iran was not very pleased with Turkey’s apology. Turkey’s coordination with Russia during the Aleppo operation in December particularly agitated Iran, which reflected its objection to this move by blocking the evacuation operations through its militia in the field. As a result, Iran became an active member of the Astana process, which was officially initiated in January 2017.
As is known, the Astana process is based on the idea of permanently ending the conflicts after a certain period by establishing various de-conflict zones, and so far, the new political system to be formed following the conflicts has barely been discussed. With this, the new draft constitution proposed by Russia in January 2017 did not draw interest from the parties and has been suspended for the time being.
Another important aspect that ought to be underlined when evaluating the Astana process from the perspective of Iran is that the process displayed the breadth the country has covered in the Syrian crisis. In other words, considering the fact that Iran was not invited to the Geneva talks in June 2012, the replacement of Geneva with the Astana process, to which Iran is a guarantor state, can be interpreted as a diplomatic success for Tehran.
Undoubtedly, Iran has been satisfied with Turkey temporarily suspending its insistence on an urgent regime change. This contentment has been reflected in the statements of Iranian authorities and the commentaries covered by the country’s press organs. As a matter of fact, Iranian authorities have tried to inculcate Turkey with this idea for years, contending that the primary threat to Ankara was not the regime but the fundamentalist terror groups and mainly the outlawed PKK. Consequently, Turkey’s present position might be seen as a diplomatic gain for Iran. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s words, “what I say about Syria is not important to me, what the Syrian people say is important,” found extensive coverage in the Iranian media. Therefore, Turkey’s focus on border security, with suffice to bringing immunity to an Idlib-centered Sunni region seems as an acceptable agreement to Iran.
It is also worth addressing the PYD, which is the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, at this point. In actual fact, both the Syrian and Iranian regimes condoned the PYD particularly during the first stages of the Syrian crisis, mainly with an aim to close both the country’s northern borders with Turkey and the groups that Turkey supports. This signified a tactical and temporary cooperation rather than a strategic one.
Therefore, it will not be surprising if Iran adopts a similar stance to Turkey towards the terror group in the upcoming period if the PYD is fully controlled by the U.S. and starts to clash with the regime and the Russian forces as already seen in the example of Deir ez-Zor. This is mainly due to the fact that Iran and Turkey have been following a common line against Kurdish nationalism for nearly half a century. While Iran most certainly perceives the Kurdish movement as a national security threat, following the independence rhetoric, Tehran has not abstained from facing Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Hence, the intense diplomacy traffic that followed the referendum in northern Iraq reflects that there is significant intersection in the threat perceptions of both Iran and Turkey’s national security.
Optimism in Astana talks
There are several other reasons to be relatively optimistic about the Astana process. Despite the gains in the field, administrators in Tehran are experienced enough to know that an absolute victory in the Syrian crisis is not realistic. In particular, the U.S. has lately been working on various scenarios with the aim of troubling Iran. These scenarios include, President Trump’s refusal to confirm Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement and Iran’s possible marginalization from a Russia-Turkey convergence, which will leave Tehran week in Syria. All these possibilities suggest that Iran will endeavor to minimize its problems with Turkey after this stage. Unprecedented military contacts between the two countries over the last forty years can also be evaluated within this framework.
Thus, while Iran was initially against Turkey’s involvement in the Astana process, it seems that Tehran currently supports this process. More, it is evident that Ankara has been gradually diverging from the U.S. since the July 15 coup attempt. This situation has become more apparent as it became obvious that the Trump administration’s policies on the Middle East were not so different from that of Obama’s. Therefore, forces approaching each other in regional politics will want to obtain a tangible result. In a sense, the Astana process will be a practical manifestation of the cooperation between the three parties and different opportunities for cooperation might emerge providing that the process succeeds. As part of this process, all actors have to make various sacrifices, as was displayed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s emphasis on President Erdoğan’s leadership during his latest visit to Turkey. During this visit Putin also indicated that the Astana process would have failed without Erdoğan’s personal initiative.
Another positive aspect of the Astana process for Iran is the chance it offers to focus on the nuclear crisis, an issue that has lately simmered as the Trump administration keeps taking slow yet determined steps to void the nuclear agreement, at least in practice. Iran’s reduction of targets and getting along with the regional forces will surely favor the country in such a period. For this reason, the country started developing an attitude that is open to all kinds of cooperation with Turkey, including military and economic cooperation. Tehran’s downshift might also affect Turkey-Iraq relations. Baghdad’s latest statements on Turkey have probably been approved by the Tehran administration, and under the present circumstances, Iran will regard Turkey, which has close relations with Russia, as lesser of two evils in the face of the possibility that a trio comprising Saudi Arabia, Israel and United Arab Emirates might be effective in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, the Astana process is likely to confront several serious challenges. First of all, it is not very certain how the armed groups in Idlib will be evacuated. The profound presence of al-Nusra in the region and the possibility that some groups on friendly terms with Turkey might be targeted by Russia or the regime indicate the fragility of the process. But more importantly, it is certain that there will be serious debates about how the new political system will be formed at the end of the process. As for Iran, the administration assumes that Assad will preserve his seat at least in the short term after this phase, and that the basic “red lines” will be protected during the permanent changes afterwards. In addition, Iran does not rule out the possibility of a new conflict through Hezbollah and cannot figure out how far it could trust Russia in such a case. The fact that Russian air defense systems failed to function during various attacks from Israel over the past year has strengthened the rumors that Russia’s policies on Syria are guided by Israel. Thus, if this is the case, a violent war between Israel and Hezbollah seems quite possible in the last act of the Syrian crisis.
Iran, to a large extent, considers itself in a successful position in regards to the current state of the Syrian crisis. Firstly, the legitimate opposition at the onset of the crisis has so far declined and fallen apart. Secondly, the countries supporting the opposition withdrew their support for various reasons and started acting through the YPG (People’s Protection Units). As occurred in the 1991 Iraq war, they are building a safeguarded separatist zone for the following phase. The current political map is acceptable for Iran as nearly all major cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Latakia are controlled by the regime and the region is not likely to be affected by an imminent threat providing that the U.S. remains outside out of the equation.
Meanwhile however, Iran may face two major risks in the current phase: an extensive Israeli attack and second, the incrimination of Trump’s crackdown on the country. In consideration of such possibilities, it is apparent that Tehran is striving to develop and maintain sound relations with Moscow and Ankara. In addition, the recent referendum and subsequent developments in its aftermath have allowed Iran to form a new front with the central Iraqi government and Turkey. Therefore, it is fair to state that, in light of regional developments, the Turkish-Iranian rapprochement, which came into being following the Qatar crisis, is likely to continue in this trajectory for a while.
This article was first published in The New Turkey on October 23, 2017.