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Iranian President Rouhani meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in UN headquarters. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

The Syrian Conflict and the Quirks of Turkish–Iranian Ties

Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi
Commentary, 27 September 2016
International Security Studies, Turkey, Iran, Syria
As Turkey has progressively increased its involvement in the war in Syria, the Iranian leadership’s reaction has been mixed – a result of the different views within Tehran about the future direction of the relationship with Turkey. This internal debate will intensify as the possibility of establishing no-fly zones in Syria has been endorsed by the US.

On August 24, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield, deploying its military 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 in March 2011.

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: Daesh and the Syrian Kurds’ Popular Protection Units (YPG). Once Jarablus was liberated, Turkey’s military forces, assisted by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, continued their advance, pushing deeper into Kurdish-held territories and ultimately forcing the Kurds to withdraw east of the Euphrates.

Despite Iran’s initial endorsement for the Turkish intervention, the prospect that it might neither be short-lived nor limited in scope has raised serious concerns in Tehran.

Iran and Turkey have supported opposing camps in the Syrian conflict: Iran backed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey advocated his departure. Bilateral ties between Ankara and Tehran have, as a result, drastically deteriorated during the past five years.

Since March this year, however, a flurry of visits between the two countries’ officials has indicated a tentative rapprochement, and this only intensified after Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif expressed his solidarity with the Turkish government and condemned the July attempted military coup in Turkey. During a meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Erdogan stressed his gratitude to Tehran for its support during the early hours of the coup.

The main reason behind the two countries’ rapprochement is Turkey’s changing position on the ultimate fate of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. In the past few months, Turkish officials have begun hinting at the possibility of accepting a political transition period in Syria – during which Assad could remain in power – in return for an end to the war. According to Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Assad is ‘one of the actors today, whether we like it or not’, a tacit admission that a political solution to the Syrian war which entails some ‘grace period’ for Assad would now be seriously considered in Ankara.

Another factor that has influenced this tentative reconciliation between Ankara and Tehran is their shared interest in maintaining Syria as an entity. As both countries want to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state, their goal is for Syria to remain united and under a centralised 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, as a result, posing a security threat for both states.

Since Turkey’s intervention in Syria aimed, among other things, at thwarting the Kurdish group’s aspirations to expand its influence in northern Syria and create a mini-state of its own along the border, Iran refrained from criticizing Ankara. In fact, the few comments that emerged in Tehran in the hours after the operation in Jarablus praised Turkey.

However, as Turkey’s operation wore on, Tehran changed its tone. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qassemi, for instance, 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 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, contrasting it with the allegedly effective efforts of Iran, Russia and Syria in coordinating their policies on the conflict over the past year.

What seems to have altered Iran’s stance on Turkey’s military intervention is a growing suspicion about Ankara’s end goals, as well as concern that the new circumstances generated by Turkey’s military presence could skew the regional balance of power. The recent call by US Secretary of State John Kerry for the grounding of all military aircraft over key areas in Syria is likely to further intensify this concern. 

Over the past four years, Ankara has been seeking international support for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria and for a de facto safe zone between Azaz and Jarablus, arguing that this constitutes the only way ‘for the people to return home’, as well as for keeping both Daesh and Kurdish militias at bay. Until recently the coalition forces, led by the US, dismissed the Turkish suggestion; however, recent development have triggered a change in the US position, with the no-fly zone now a possibility.

Iran’s reaction to this prospect has been immediate, with President Hassan Rouhani stating that ‘a no-fly zone (in Syria) will benefit terrorists, who have everything expect for military aircraft’.

Tehran is also worried 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. In Iran’s view, if the no-fly zone is implemented in line with Ankara’s wishes, a Turkish foothold in Syria would translate into an intensification of the fight against Assad’s, as well as Iran’s, forces on the ground.

While Tehran’s leadership is thus continuing its cautious policy of appeasement with Turkey, building on the marginal shared interests in the Syrian civil war and in the shift in the country’s position on Assad, it is also wavering on whether it should instead be wary of a hidden Turkish agenda.

A no-fly zone, coupled with Turkey’s efforts to increase its presence on the ground, would most likely lead Tehran to use its available means to diminish Ankara’s ability to put pressure on the Syrian regime and to boost its position as a key actor in any future decision about the fate of the country.

This scenario would inevitably trigger an escalation of the conflict and make a resolution to the Syrian crisis even more challenging.

A previous version of this article was published in Aspenia Online.


Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi
Senior Research Fellow

Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi is Senior Research Fellow at the International Security Studies department at RUSI. Her research is... read more

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