This article was published in Arab News on August 22, 2017.
Turkey and Iran seek common ground
The Iranian Chief of Staff Gen. Mohammad Baqeri visited his Turkish counterpart Gen. Hulusi Akar on Aug. 14, and a day later he met Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Baqeri was followed to Ankara by the Russian Chief of Staff Gen. Valeri Gerasimov, and the US defense secretary Jim Mattis will visit this month.
The dates and the order of the visits cannot be pure coincidence: Turkey may have wished to clearly explain to its friends and allies its position on various critical issues with a view to avoiding unnecessary misunderstandings. It may also be aspiring to obtain a strong negotiating position in the talks with Mattis in order to pre-empt the occupation of Idlib by the US-supported Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The talks covered almost all issues that have military implications, the foremost being the Kurdish issue.
Their positions on this subject are not identical but they are at a bridgeable distance. Iran has made it clear that it opposes the independence referendum that the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq is planning to hold on Sept. 25. Turkish leaders disagree with the timing of the referendum rather than its substance. With genuine efforts, these two positions could be molded into one.
Turkey is staunchly opposed to the proclamation of autonomous Kurdish cantons in various Syrian provinces that the Kurds call Rojava (Western Kurdistan). Iran is more focused on an uninterrupted supply line to the Lebanese Hezbollah. It is not clear whether it may accept some sort of autonomy for Kurds, municipal or federal, within the territorial integrity of Syria in exchange for this supply line.
In the Syria chapter of the bilateral talks, Turkey and Iran have both convergent and divergent interests. Iran strongly supports the continuation of the Assad regime while Turkey vehemently favors its immediate removal, though it toned down its insistence after the international community gave higher priority to the fight against Daesh.
Iran considers as terrorist all groups that are considered as such by the Syrian government, while Turkey supports some of them, such as Ahrar Al-Sham, and trains and equips others such as the Free Syrian Army.
Iran opposed Turkey’s military operation Euphrates Shield in Syria as “an unacceptable violation of Syrian sovereignty.” During his visit to Bahrain on Feb. 14, Erdogan said: “There are some that are working hard to divide Iraq.”
The interests of Ankara and Tehran in Syria diverge, but they have enough in common to form a bridge.
Despite these divergent interests and reciprocal recriminating statements, Turkey and Iran are both worried because Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which was previously known as Jabhat Al-Nusra, gradually gained control of the north-western Syrian city of Idlib. It gained two additional advantages by ousting, on July 23, another Salafist organization supported by Turkey and Qatar, Ahrar Al-Sham, from the border crossing point at Bab Al-Hawa.
They both are worried by HTS’s success, but for different reasons. Turkey’s main concern is that the organization it used to support, Ahrar Al-Sham, may disintegrate and some of the groups in it may join HTS. This would severely restrict any Turkish role in Idlib. Therefore Turkey will probably seek to enable Ahrar Al-Sham to regain control of the city, while Iran’s preference is to expel both of these organizations and other smaller fighting groups from the city and transfer its control to the Syrian regime.
Talks with Gen. Baqeri also covered Turkish-Iranian cooperation in the adjacent Syrian province of Afrin, where Turkey announced its intention to carry out a military operation to dismantle the autonomous canton proclaimed on Jan. 29, 2014, by the YPG and its political branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
On the Russian-Iranian front, the successive visits to Turkey by their military chiefs of staff may facilitate the elimination of remaining hurdles in expanding the de-confliction zones to Idlib. Turkey was not fully on board because of its misgivings about the scope of the opposition fighters to be targeted by the guarantors of the de-confliction agreement.
It is a good omen if this means more openness and predictability in Turkey’s relations with its friends, neighbors and allies.
In view of Turkey’s isolation in recent years, it is not easy to tell how far cooperation with Iran could go. Strategic cooperation does not seem to be on the agenda of either, but tactical cooperation in Syria and on the Kurdish issue is possible and even plausible. Given the strongly entrenched position of Iran and Russia in Syria, this cooperation will be possible if Turkey makes steps toward that common position.