Turkey and Iran after Ankara’s intervention in Syria

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As Turkey has progressively increased its involvement in the Syrian conflict over the past few weeks, the Iranian leadership’s reaction has been mixed, signaling an ongoing conversation among the centers of powers in Tehran about the direction in which the relationship between the two countries should move.

On August 24, Turkey launched operation “Euphrates Shield”, deploying its tanks and its army to Jarablus, a border town in Northern Syria. Despite Turkey’s longstanding involvement in the conflict, this constituted its first full-scale offensive operation into Syria since the war started. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the incursion, coordinated with the US-led coalition, was meant to confront the "terror groups which constantly threaten" Turkey, i.e. both the Islamic State and the Syrian Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG). Once Jarablus was liberated, with little resistance from Islamic State fighters, Turkey’s military forces, assisted by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, continued their advance, pushing deeper into Kurdish-held territories and ultimately leading the Kurds to withdraw east of the Euphrates.

The move seems to indicate Turkey’s intention to establish a longtime presence on the ground, aiming at creating a de facto safe zone in Syria (between Azaz and Jarablus) which would keep both the Islamic State and Kurdish militias at bay. The establishment of a buffer zone, which Ankara has been unsuccessfully negotiating with coalition forces over the past two years, and the prospects that the Turkish intervention might not be short-lived and limited in scope, however, have raised serious concerns in Tehran.

Given that Iran and Turkey have supported opposing camps in the Syrian conflict, with Iran backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey advocating his departure, bilateral ties have drastically deteriorated during the past five years. Since March, however, a flurry of visits between the two countries’ officials has indicated a tentative rapprochement. This only intensified after Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif expressed his solidarity with the Turkish government and condemnation of the attempted military coup (even before it failed), back in July.

The main reason behind the two countries’ resumption of ties is Turkey’s shifted position on Assad’s fate. In the past few months, Turkish officials have in fact hinted the possibility of accepting a transition period during which Assad could remain in power. According to Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim he is in fact “one of the actors today, whether we like it or not”.

Another factor that has influenced a timid reconciliation between Ankara and Tehran is their shared interest in the Syrian conflict. As both want to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state, their goal is for Syria to remain united and under a centralized government. A partition would empower an autonomous Kurdish region in the north of Syria, thereby fueling aspirations of separatism among Kurds in Iran and Turkey and, thus, posing a security threat for both states. Over the past weeks, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Iranian counterpart, Zarif, agreed to keep closer contact on the issue of Syria’s territorial integrity.

Turkey’s intervention in Syria aimed, among other things, at thwarting the Kurdish group’s aspirations to expand its influence in Northern Syria and creating an autonomous mini-state of its own along the border: it is thus not surprising that Iran refrained from criticizing Ankara. In fact, the few comments that emerged in Tehran in the hours after the operation in Jarablus praised Turkey. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qassemi, for instance, stated that “fighting terrorism is an international responsibility, and it is necessary for regional countries to confront this evil phenomenon through joint cooperation.”

As days passed and Turkey’s intention to establish a longtime presence in Syria became clearer, however, Tehran changed its tone. Qassemi himself argued that the fight against terrorism “cannot and should not be used as a justification for violating the territorial integrity of another country by conducting military operations against that country without coordination with its central government, and by overlooking its national sovereignty.” He continued by stating that “the expansion of conflicts in the north of Syria will result in more killings of innocent civilians. The Turkish military must immediately stop its operations in Syria.” Alaeddin Borujerdi, the head of the Majlis’ National Security Committee, dismissed the value of Turkey’s interventions, confronting it with the effective efforts of Iran, Russia and Syria in coordinating their policies on the conflict over the past year. The Iranian media also stressed Turkey’s “double standards in relation to terrorist groups,” accusing the country of fighting against “the domination of Islamic State terrorists and Kurds in northern Syria through supporting terrorist forces known as the Free Syrian Army.”

What seems to have altered Iran’s stance on Turkey’s military intervention is a growing suspicion towards Ankara’s end goals, as well as the concern that the new scenario could skew the balance of power.

Firstly, Tehran worries that, by maintaining a long-term presence on the ground, Turkey could significantly increase the rebels’ chances of regaining territories under the control of the Syrian regime in the provinces of Hama and Aleppo, thus intensifying the fight against Assad’s, as well as Iran’s, forces on the ground.

Furthermore, Iran fears that, by establishing a foothold for itself in Syria, Turkey would manage to put the Syrian regime under pressure, a move which would boost its position as a key actor in any future decision about the fate of the country, especially if the de facto safe zone gains international support.

While Tehran’s leadership is thus continuing its cautious policy of appeasement with Ankara, building on the marginal shared interests in the Syrian civil war and in the shift in Turkey’s position on Assad, it is also wavering on whether it should instead be wary of Turkey’s hidden agenda, pushing back against the country’s efforts to increase its presence on the ground. The direction in which Iran will take its bilateral ties with Turkey will inevitably affect the evolution of the conflict, as well as the terms for a potential resolution to the  war and the shape of a new Syria.