Would Iran Confront Turkey in the Idlib Frontier?
Iran's Military Advisory Center (MAC) in Syria, which is regarded to have close relations with the Syrian Command of the Quds Force, published a statement through the Lebanese News Agency U-News against Turkey on Feb. 29, Saturday. In the statement, the MAC reaction against what it asserted was the Turkish Army’s targeting of the positions of the “axis of resistance”.
Since a Turkish Commando Unit was targeted in Syria’s Idlib province, leading to the martyrdom of 36 soldiers, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) have been conducting an operation with armed drones against the Damascus regime and its allies; so far neutralizing 31 Shiite militias including one Iranian national, 9 Hezbollah militias and 21 from the Fatimiyyun and Zainabiyoun brigades.
In their published statement, Iran's MAC in Syria said: “Since the time we have been in Syria, the Turkish Army bases have been within our range of fire. However, in accordance with the Astana Agreement, neither the committees nor the forces of the resistance have attacked the Turkish Army positions. We have thus far refrained from targeting any Turkish center in the region.” In the continuation of this, which was published both on the U-News Agency and the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency, the Center said: “In order to annihilate the terrorists and protect Syria’s territorial integrity, we will continue to stand by the Syrian nation, its government and the Syrian army. We invite everyone to think rationally about the risks and consequences of attacking Syria.”
Voicing its reaction with this statement and thereby stressing that the TAF bases are “in the range of fire,” could Iran run the risk of confronting the Turkish army directly?
Before answering this question, it must be underlined that, similar to other developments in Syria, it is quite difficult to evaluate the situation of a military conflict zone of a frontier such as Idlib involving various actors. Therefore, in order to base the analyses on an objective foundation, it is necessary that we take into account the strategic interests of the actors in question alongside the daily developments in the field. The strategic interests of the actors in the Idlib frontier can be enumerated as follows:
• Considering the strategic interests of Turkey, Iran and Russia, it can be suggested that Idlib is indispensable for Ankara. Having been hosting 3.7 million refugees, Turkey would not allow any violations of its national interests along with another large-scale humanitarian crisis, which would trigger a new migration wave. In addition, Turkey’s opening up its borders to refugees would allow terrorist groups to get mixed in the wave, which would bring greater risks of security. Moreover, Turkey's stepping back in Idlib could have the consequence of encouraging Iran and Russia to move forward into and endangering not only Idlib but other regions now being secured thanks to Turkey's Operation Peace Spring.
• It is evident that Iran wants to guarantee the survival of the Assad regime. Iran wants to prevent any threat to the Syrian regime by eliminating the dissidents of Syria on the ground, and consequently Iran aims at the maximization of the regime’s gains. In addition, considering the possibility of the YPG joining the Syrian army, Iran aims to use the YPG to capture the last stronghold which the Assad regime failed to obtain on its own.
• Iran and Russia have different priorities in Syria; while saving Assad is Tehran’s redline, he is not indispensable to Moscow. Russia’s aim is to keep control over the Syrian ports and strategic air bases thanks to the agreements made with the regime and its military existence on the ground. Russia’s second aim is to eliminate the Syrian opposition forces most of which it defines as “jihadist”. With regard to these points, the critical importance of Idlib for Turkey in comparison to its significance to the other actors becomes evident and this situation indicates the possibility that Ankara could risk war. Accordingly, this analysis seems to be vindicated by the decisive stand Turkey has taken after the recent attack on Turkish soldiers.
Iran’s strategy in Idlib
From Iran’s perspective, Tehran seems almost paralyzed in the face of the developments taking place in the Idlib frontier. We can at this point say that Iran is not sure about supporting Assad in the north. The circumstances paralyzing Iran can be enumerated as follows:
First of all, Russia, for now, has backed off from supporting Assad in the Idlib frontier. Having potentially lost the protective umbrella of the Russians, Iran has failed to initiate the option of deploying the Shiite militias, currently stationed in the southern regions, to the north Syria. As a result, Iran failed to strengthen its presence against Turkey on the ground. The biggest reason behind Russia’s back-step is that Moscow sees Ankara’s determination and the Turkish army’s operational capacity. Accordingly, having lost the air supremacy and political support provided by Russia, Iran had to withdraw. Putin’s statement, "We are not going to fight against anyone," means that Moscow is unwilling to take the risk of confronting Ankara.
Secondly, the Iranian regime is both internally and externally cornered. The U.S. "maximum pressure" campaign has isolated Iran and brought its economy to the brink of destruction. The administration’s weakness in the face of crises occurring in the country, primarily that of the epidemic of coronavirus, has further impaired the legitimacy of the state. With its agenda of alleviating its international isolation and needing Turkey’s support particularly in the economic field, Iran would not like to lose Turkey. Moreover, observing the rifts in Turkish-Western relations due to the double standards imposed on Turkey, Tehran would want to use this window of opportunity and actualize the potential of cooperation with Ankara.
In order to see Iran’s assessments of the developments in the Idlib frontier, the analyses of the IRGC-affiliated regional experts were examined and some points are as follows:
• In its strategic plans, Iran did not consider Turkey’s capacity to conduct such an effective and decisive military operation.
• Iran thought that Russia would have become involved in the conflict and that the Russian army would have halted the TAF.
• It is felt by some in Tehran that Russia conducted the attack on the Turkish convoy intentionally. In this way, having estimated the potential conflict of interests in sharing the spoils of Syrian war with the Iranians, Russia pitted Iran against Turkey with the purpose of exhausting Iran’s capacity in the north.
• The survival of Assad is not a primary priority for Russia. Moscow is aware that Iran has infiltrated into Assad’s inner circle. Regarding this, Russia aims to undermine the Quds Force’s well-embedded extensions in Damascus indirectly by undermining Assad.
• Considering Turkey’s determination and the changing military balance in Turkey’s favor, confronting the Turkish army in northern Syria, and particularly in the Idlib frontier, will not only be fruitless but also lead to serious casualties for Iran and its Shiite proxies.
• The fact that Hezbollah is unable to counter Turkey and that the reactions against Operation Spring Shield comes not from Tehran but Iran's Military Advisory Center in Syria can be interpreted as a sign that Iran will not seek the escalation of the conflict in Idlib.
• From Iran’s viewpoint, there are many fields where Tehran and Ankara have common interests. The prospect of Russian domination over a post-war Syria would be a result not desired by Turkey or Iran. An Iran impaired with coronavirus and paralyzed by sanctions might be suggesting that Russia will pose a bigger problem in Syria over time. Besides, considering the Israeli attacks on Shiite militias in Syria, it becomes evident that Iran has to preserve the current level of relations with Turkey.
• That the Iranian minister of foreign affairs invited Turkey and Assad for a tripartite meeting while keeping Russia away from this process indicates that Tehran and Moscow are at odds with respect to Idlib. By trying to bring Ankara and Damascus together, Iran wants to make sure that Turkey will not be targeting the Syrian regime again, or in other words, it wants to guarantee the survival of the regime.
• Finally, the projections above assume that Iran will act as a rational actor and will prioritize its strategic interests in the face of future developments. With Operation Spring Shield in progress, if Iran’s militias and proxies in the area take position against the Turkish army, it is not difficult to foresee that the Shiite militia would suffer heavy casualties in northern Syria.
This article was first published in 5.3.2020 at Anadolu Agency.