Impact of the Tehran visit on Syria Operation
Even though Tehran supports Türkiye’s fight against the terrorist organization PKK on the official level, it makes different engagements in practice.
Impact of the Tehran visit on Syria Operation
The delayed Tehran visit of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan finally happened on July 19, and he paid a one-day visit to Tehran to hold trilateral talks in Astana format, also attended by Russian President Putin. It was known that the Tehran visit was postponed several times due to “technical issues” and was left until after high-level visits from Israel and Saudi Arabia to Ankara. While the economy, trade, energy, environmental problems, and transportation were among the prominent issues in the bilateral talks with Iran, numerous agreements were signed on these issues, and the 30 billion dollar trade volume, that was announced eight years ago, has been re-emphasized. Whereas Erdoğan's emphasis on cooperation in the field of defense industry after his meeting with the Iranian President Raisi was remarkable, the shortness of his meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei did not go unnoticed along with the fact that Khamenei's statements to the press after the meeting was far from diplomatic courtesy and remained ambiguous about terrorist organizations, Karabakh and border integrity. The most striking point about the Trilateral Astana Summit was that President Erdoğan emphasized his disappointment regarding the cleansing of the terror corridor and the work of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva. Erdoğan indirectly implied through these emphases that the existence of a format that does not fulfill its promises on the two main issues mentioned above may be questioned by Türkiye.
Türkiye’s Military Operations and Iran
As revealed in the comprehensive report titled "The Construction of Türkiye Perception in Persian-speaking Countries” prepared by IRAM for the Directorate of Communications, concepts such as "occupation," "expansionism" and "Neo-Ottomanism" attract the attention in the Persian analysis regarding Turkish foreign policy after the Arab Spring. While the nationalist elements in the country put an emphasis on terms such as the Ottomans and the caliphate, more conservative circles make evaluations on the basis of Türkiye’s NATO membership and assess Turkish interventions in the context of regional conspiracy theories. However, Tehran supports Türkiye's fight against the PKK, at least on the official level. Still, it makes different engagements in practice both through official channels and proxy forces. As it has been seen in the Tehran Summit recently, on the issue of Syria operations, Iranian officials and semi-official figures constantly claim that they understand Ankara's sensitivity in the fight against terrorism, but also add that the fight against the YPG can be achieved in cooperation with the Baath regime and with the removal of the USA from the region. Naturally, for Türkiye, it is meaningless to cooperate with a regime that has no political legitimacy or dominance over the field, while it is not an acceptable scenario to wait for the USA to leave the region completely to fight against the YPG.
There are several factors showing that Türkiye's border security operations do not pose an existential threat to Iran and that a strategic counter-step should not be expected from Tehran. These factors include Türkiye's national interests and security priorities, which it has defined independently of NATO in recent years, the unequal balance of power between the Turkish army and the regime and the militias, the international isolation of Iran due to its nuclear activities, and the Israeli sabotages and the social protests that have become permanent within Iran. Moreover, Ankara, despite its hard power, maintains its contacts with Russia, with which Iran has close security cooperation, and patiently insists on diplomatic channels. On the other hand, due to the difficult position of Moscow caused by its Ukraine invasion, Russia approaches Türkiye’s security sensitivities more sympathetically.
Areas of Risk
Nevertheless, undoubtedly, the factors listed above should not be interpreted as proof that Iran-affiliated groups will not respond militarily. In his meeting with Erdoğan, Khamenei made some statements such as “A potential operation to Syria will harm Türkiye.”, “Respect Syria's borders as we respect your border integrity.” and “Terrorists are not limited to a specific group.” which can be seen from an optimistic perspective as a reference to the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army components against the PKK/YPG. These statements and the fact that the content of the meeting was shared with the press immediately after the meeting show that while there is no change in Tehran's political stance, it has started to use a more direct discourse. At a time when Iran has not yet come to an agreement with the USA, and it is exposed to the danger of being isolated regionally, it is unclear whether the use of such a “reckless” discourse is related to the recent statements of Iranian officials that “We have become a nuclear threshold country” or whether it is caused by the reactions towards the recent operations against Iran’s intelligence elements in Türkiye.
In this context, it is seen that militia dispatches have been made to Tel Rifat and Manbij, the Iranian flag has been displayed at certain locations, and an effort is being made to create a mobilization on the grounds of protecting Shiite neighborhoods of Aleppo such as Nubl and al-Zahraa. It seems that Tehran will apply its customary methods, measure Ankara's determination militarily, as we saw in Karabakh recently, it will work overtime diplomatically, and carry out a serious smear campaign through the press. Iran will try to reflect its close military cooperation with Russia, which emerged after Russia’s Ukraine invasion, in the Syrian field. Tehran’s assessments of Türkiye’s domestic policy will also be effective in the degree of harshness of its stance on the field. Similarly, the course of the nuclear negotiations with the USA, which is currently blocked, has the potential to affect Tehran’s attitude towards Ankara. Recent experiences show that when Iran is under international pressure, it approaches Türkiye's security concerns more sympathetically, while otherwise, it shifts to maximalist policies.
In conclusion, the red line of Iran in both Syria and Iraq is a regime change in the capitals of these countries, and Tehran follows a policy that is open to diplomacy, albeit difficult, on remaining issues. Therefore, when Ankara presses the button for an operation by taking the different variables inside and outside of the country into account, the response of the regime and Iran on the ground will not be challenging for the Turkish army, and even if the response includes a military dimension, it will mostly remain on the basis of propaganda and politics. Even though the foreign policy has been tried to be followed more aggressively during the era of the Islamic Republic of Iran, for the last century, it has largely been aimed at gaining autonomy from the foreign powers involved and reaching the borders of the mental empire. Thanks to these policies, Tehran has achieved to gain influence in areas where there are some collapsed/failed states in the last period, but as the recent developments in Iraq reveal, it automatically loses its influence in case the central states get stronger. It will certainly be important in terms of regional balances that Tehran, which has had hard times at home and abroad, adjusts the scale of its response to Ankara's fight against terrorism, especially when Ankara has always been fair in its policies against Iran since the beginning of the revolution.