Amid growing uncertainties in the geopolitical game over the future of war-torn Syria, the sudden eruption of tension between Turkey and Iran is just another phase of sectarian arm wrestling in the region.
During a recent visit to Bahrain, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the curtain. Talking about the forces that “damaged the Middle East”, he pointed at Teheran, saying: “There is Persian nationalism. We have to prevent this. We cannot just watch this oppression.”
These remarks were followed by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who accused Iran of “wanting to make Syria and Iraq Shia”. Teheran countered when Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi stressed that Tehran’s patience “had its limits”.
“We hope that such statements are not made again. If our Turkish friends continue with this attitude, we will not remain silent,” he said. The Turkish ambassador in Teheran was summoned to the ministry.
The exchange coincides with the rapid visits to Ankara of high-level US officials, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Marine General Joseph Dunford. That Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim met with US Vice-President Mike Pence in Munich, where Cavusoglu’s Iran bashing was heard, is also noteworthy.
Turkey’s efforts in establishing a balance between the two powers is at the very core of the development. Having failed in its support of regime change in Syria, Ankara is in a fierce search mode to prevent what it fears most — an area of Kurdish self-rule along its border. In exchange, it offers its armed forces as some form of political bait to Russia and the United States, hoping to get a place as the third tip of the complex triangle.
Unhappy with the signals of warming of ties between US President Donald Trump and Erdogan, Russia has raised its hand by paying more attention to Kurdish demands. The most recent meeting in Moscow in which Kurdish representatives from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey took part was seen as a counter move by Ankara and a new element for mistrust between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan. The Turkish leader then moved to act much more generously towards the Trump administration.
Not much has been leaked from the meetings between the top US officials and their Turkish counterparts but the focus of Turkish rhetoric has been about an increased role in the Raqqa offensive against the Islamic State. The efforts with Russia to establish a ceasefire west of the Euphrates become complementary to Ankara’s strategy to bring the two big powers onto the same page in blocking Kurds from building autonomy in the entire northern Syrian zone.
Realising how solid Trump is in his view of Iran as the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world, Erdogan has been very swift to shift his well-known policy of confrontation towards Tehran. His move, he obviously hopes, will tip the balances off of Russia’s game making.
Erdogan may be reasoning that if a closer military and diplomatic cooperation to antagonise Iran, which Israel would support in significant ways, would also involve Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani and energy prospects, it would end in a win-win for the United States and NATO and grant Turkey stronger leverage to block the Syrian Kurds’ moves that it sees as an existential threat.
Then, he has also the sectarian — Sunni — element in his bag.
Analysts told the website Middle East Eye that the positions of the US and Russia on Iran clearly affect the stance of regional states like Turkey, but that both Ankara and Tehran need to be very clear about how much trust they wanted to place in Trump and Putin before facing off.
That Erdogan made his remarks on Iran in Bahrain is no coincidence. As Turkish journalist Serkan Demirtas pointed out in the Hurriyet Daily News: “Erdogan’s tour to the Gulf countries, where he had extensive talks with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, should also be regarded complementary to Ankara’s efforts to influence Trump’s future Middle East policies…
“This is a clear attempt to widen a potential Ankara-Washington cooperation with the inclusion of the rich Gulf countries… It’s still early to see this as an intention to create a joint block with Gulf countries against Iran but is sufficient to draw Tehran’s criticism.”
“Iran is extremely disturbed by Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation in Syria and its military presence in Iraq’s Bashiqa,” Erdem Aydin, an expert on Iran at Istanbul’s Bogazici University, told Al Jazeera.
“Iran views Turkey’s military presence in these countries as a significant obstacle in front of its desire to extend its influence in the region.”
Iran also wants to cut Turkey’s efforts to create a Sunni controlled safe-zone in northern Syria at its roots, Aydin explained.
“The escalation of diplomatic tensions between Iran and Turkey came after President Erdogan completed a week-long tour of the Arabian peninsula,” Aydin, who is also a foreign news analyst and editor for CNN Turk, said. “We have reason to believe that Erdogan asked his Saudi and Gulf allies to finance the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria during these visits and Iran was of course disturbed by this development. “
Will Erdogan’s efforts to bring Turkey back into the big game work?
Much, almost all, depends on whether he and Trump strike a bargain.
Even then, they may fall short.
“The perplexing question is how long Turkey will be able to manage the divergent interests of the US and Russia,” wrote Metin Gurcan, a Turkish military analyst.
“Whether Turkey will opt for close cooperation with Russia or the United States in northern Syria is not a routine foreign policy decision but a major one that will certainly determine the route Turkey will be following in years to come.”
One consequence would be a fallout with Tehran. Given how masterfully Iran has played its cards since second Gulf War, the only great certainty is the tightrope walk of Ankara. The cancellation of the Turkish-Iran Business Forum in Tehran, with a potential of $30 billion in trade, is only an early sign.