Tehran, Iran – Iran has stepped up diplomatic efforts in the face of a warning from Turkey to launch a new military operation in Syria – a close regional ally of Tehran – against Kurdish rebels.
In recent months, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that once military and security preparations are complete, Ankara will attack “terrorist” Kurdish armed groups in at least two Syrian cities near the Turkish border — Tal Rifaat and Manbij.
Erdogan wants to establish a 30 km (18 miles) wide “security zone” and fight the US-backed armed group People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers a “terrorist” group. Ankara says the YPG is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody armed campaign against the Turkish government for decades. The PKK is labeled a “terrorist” group by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.
The US arming of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has ties to the YPG, has frayed relations between Ankara and Washington. The SDF has been at the forefront of the fight against ISIL (ISIS).
Iran opposes the planned Turkish move because, alongside Russia, it is the biggest military supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Iran is pursuing a “balanced” foreign policy as part of President Ebrahim Raisi’s plans to expand ties with Turkey as part of his quest for regional diplomacy.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian struck a soft note during his meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu and President Erdogan in Ankara last June.
“We understand Turkey’s security concerns and are talking about the possibility of a special operation in parts of Syrian soil,” Amirabdollahian told reporters at a joint news conference with Cavusoglu, which prompted speculation that Iran would not oppose a Turkish operation in northern Syria.
But on a trip to Damascus on Saturday, Amirabdollahian told al-Assad that Tehran is opposed to a military solution and believes only dialogue can resolve the situation. Iran will try to mediate to resolve “misunderstandings” between Syria and Turkey, he said.
The US has also opposed the planned military operation – which would build on territorial gains in several other incursions since 2016 – amid fears it could undermine regional stability.
Meanwhile, the SDF have warned that such an operation would undermine efforts to counter ISIL fighters in northeastern Syria, and they would oppose it in cooperation with the Syrian army.
The issue of Kurdish fighters has also been a major sticking point in Erdogan’s opposition to an offer by Finland and Sweden to join NATO while Russia invades Ukraine.
Turkey dropped its opposition just last week after the Nordic countries agreed to stop supporting Kurdish armed groups and extradite dozens of people Turkey considers “terrorists”. Erdogan has said that if they fail to implement their promises, their membership applications will not be ratified by Turkey’s parliament.
While anti-immigrant sentiment is rising in Turkey in the face of new arrivals from Syria, the fight against Kurdish forces also has a refugee-related component, as Erdogan hopes to resettle many refugees in Syria near his border.
“Internalized Kurdish Question”
The forthcoming Turkish military operation comes against the backdrop of next year’s parliamentary elections. Erdogan will seek re-election in the face of economic difficulties, energy concerns, anti-immigrant sentiment and increasing violence against women.
According to Vali Golmohammadi, assistant professor of international relations at Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University, Erdogan has used foreign policy issues to attract voters ahead of elections over the past decade.
“Especially in the last five years, one of Erdogan’s policies has been to internalize Turkey’s security issues regarding Kurds in northern Syria and Iraq in order to win the votes of Turkish nationalists,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that Erdogan’s ally, the nationalist MHP party, holds a sizeable chunk of seats in parliament.
Goldmohammadi, in Turkey’s latest push against Kurdish militants, said Iran has found itself in a “circle of unwanted tensions” and prefers to avoid a clash with Ankara.
“Perhaps Amirabdollahian’s trip to Ankara was significant in that it could help identify sensitivities in bilateral relations that a possible operation by Turkey in Syria could entail so that an unwanted military clash can be avoided,” he said.
“This trip was mostly about conflict management, not conflict resolution.”
At the same time, however, unconfirmed reports suggest that Tehran did talk to its Syrian and non-Syrian allies for a possible military mobilization in and around Aleppo – which is close to Tal Rifaat, the main target of a possible Turkish operation.
Bilateral and regional considerations
On the other hand, Tehran wants to avoid tensions with Ankara as much as possible in order to strengthen bilateral relations.
During his trip to Ankara, Amirabdollahian made Tehran’s offers for the completion of a decade-long cooperation roadmap, a document that was originally set to be signed during a planned Erdogan visit to Tehran in November 2021 but never materialized.
Iran and Turkey are already major trading partners, and Iranians are boosting Turkey’s tourism and housing sectors as they enjoy visa-free travel and have become top property buyers in recent years. Bilateral trade hit a low of $1 billion in 2020 due to international sanctions against Iran following Washington’s exit from the nuclear deal in 2018. By the end of 2021, it had recovered to $5.5 billion.
However, the two countries’ trade volume is a far cry from previous highs of $21 billion in 2012, as Iran’s oil and gas exports have fallen significantly due to US sanctions and production restrictions, issues Tehran is trying to fix in order to address regional issues To strengthen relations despite Western pressure.
However, this is complicated by Turkey’s efforts to strengthen ties with some of Iran’s key regional rivals.
Yair Lapid, who took over as Israel’s acting prime minister, was in Turkey last week amid renewed efforts to normalize relations. The visit also came at a time when Turkey said it had foiled an alleged Iranian plot to kill Israelis in Istanbul, which Tehran has dismissed as “ridiculous”.
Turkey, which desperately needs investment to help its fragile economy, has also recently hosted the leaders of Iranian rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“Conflict of Interest”
The countries Turkey is normalizing with will hope Ankara takes a tougher stance on Iran and assumes a role as a security provider amid expectations of a reduced US regional presence in the future, according to Turkish affairs analyst Yusuf Erim and Editor-in-Chief of TRT World. big.
Iran, he said, wants to keep Turkey neutral and will use the areas of bilateral interest and diplomatic tools at its disposal to do so.
“So I definitely expect more understanding and compromises from Iran towards Turkey, especially in areas that are of major national security concern for Ankara, like Iraq and Syria,” Erim said.
“Turkey wants a bigger role and more influence in the region. If Iran doesn’t create that space, there will be a conflict of interest that Iran’s regional rivals will surely exploit to draw Turkey closer.”
In that sense, he believes that Amirabdollahian’s remarks in Ankara signaled that Iran could to some extent tolerate a new Turkish military operation against the Kurds, but wants to limit its scope through dialogue, which could also open up an opportunity for Iran to target the Kurds to convince YPG to approach al-Assad-led government.
“A scenario where Iran could get the Turks to limit the scope of a military operation while pushing the YPG closer to Damascus would be a huge win for Tehran and the Assad regime,” Erim said.
He added that while an increased Turkish presence in northern Syria is not what Tehran and Damascus want, they could use it to win elsewhere.
“The dissolution and incorporation of the YPG into the regime’s army and relocating its units away from the Turkish border would also have the added benefit of alleviating Ankara’s future security concerns.”