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Global Geopolitics

OP-ED: What to Make of the Latest Iranian-Turkish Row

HAWAII, U.S., Aug 14 2012 (IPS) - Turkish-Iranian relations have been rocky since the deepening of the Syrian imbroglio, but the latest row suggests a new low.

In no uncertain terms, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu expressed displeasure with recent harsh statements coming out of Tehran regarding Turkish culpability in the quagmire Syria has become.

The Turkish leadership was particularly upset with the recent remark by Iran’s chief of general staff who has said that “it will be its turn” if Turkey continues to “help advance the warmongering policies of the United States in Syria”.

Seeking Turkey’s help for the release of some 48 Iranians kidnapped by the insurgents in Syria, Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi tried hard to soften the angry language that is coming out of Iran’s hawkish foreign policy wing. Davutoglu nevertheless warned him “in a frank and friendly manner” against blaming Ankara for violence in Syria.

On the ground, the reality in Syria is taking its toll on the relationship. Along with the exchange of unprecedented accusations, Iran has reportedly decided to suspend a visa-free travel arrangement with Turkey.

This arrangement, in force since 1964, was suspended last week under the pretext of concerns for the run-up to the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which will commence at the end of August in Tehran. It will be reinstated after the NAM meeting in September, but the reasoning has been treated with suspicion by the Turkish press.

Meanwhile, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç slammed Iran, implying that the recent surge of terror attacks in Turkey’s Southeast has Tehran’s backing.

“We have received information that Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists infiltrated from the Iranian side of the border and that they were stationed in the Şehidan camp (in Iran) and crossed into Turkey from the region of Harkuk in northern Iraq,” he said.

What explains Iran’s most recent vocal offensive against Turkey and the Erdogan government’s testy response?

Tehran has been unhappy with Ankara’s role in supporting the insurgency in Syria. But assessing that Erdogan’s Syria policy is not that popular at home, Iran seems to have made the decision to highlight the dangers of what it considers to be a Turkish policy of reckless involvement in the Syrian crisis for Turkey itself and eventually for the political standing of the Justice and Development Party.

Tehran is not that off the mark regarding the unpopularity of Erdogan’s policy and as such, there is a method in the madness of offending a government that in Erdogan’s words “stood by Iran when no one was at its side”.

Tehran is banking on the fact that with the spilling of the Syrian crisis into Turkey, Erdogan’s Islamist government will be facing increasing criticism from secular forces for supporting the insurgency against the Assad regime without thinking carefully about the implications of Syria’s disintegration as a country.

Tehran is also banking on the belief that in a contested political environment like Turkey’s, public opinion matters.

Tehran’s logic in assessing Erdogan’s domestic vulnerability on his Syrian policy is simple. Bashar al-Assad’s fall may make Iran a loser in the proxy fight over Syria, but Turkey will be an even bigger loser if the motley crew of forces that have come together to dislodge Assad end up destabilising the borders that were imposed by external forces in the first half of the twentieth century.

The Turkish border with Iraq was negotiated with the British government in 1926 and was established with Syria in 1938 when, after the expiration of the French mandate, the people of the border province of Hatay voted to be a part of Turkey rather than Syria.

While Iran may eventually lose a key ally in Assad and find its position weakened in the region, it is Turkey that has to deal with its own angry Arab Alevis residing near the Syrian border (and potentially the much larger Turkish and Kurdish Alevi population frightened by aggressive Sunni acts), opportunistic Kurdish nationalism, and the mayhem that refugees invariably bring into border areas.

Erdogan’s fierce response can also be understood with this domestic dynamic in mind. In fact, Erdogan has already issued other angry responses against the domestic critics of his Syrian policy, at times even calling them traitors for questioning his efforts.

He took a dig at the Iranian leadership’s own domestic problems when he said last week that “250,000 Syrians have left the country (Syria). Is this not the responsibility of Iran? Yet, before Iran takes responsibility for the situation in Syria, it must first hold itself accountable (for its own). We always take responsibility for our actions.”

But Iran holding itself responsible will not solve Erdogan’s Syria angst at home. Syria is a major domestic issue in Turkey with real concern regarding the potential materialization of some form of a Kurdish entity in northern Syria and the emergence of a Syria mired in an ethnic and confessional civil war with different groups controlling different regions.

Given these dynamics, Iran’s verbal and diplomatic offensive, including the national security adviser Saeed jalili’s very public meeting with Assad in Damascus, can be understood as having several objectives in mind.

First, it is intended to make a public case that Assad’s fall is not imminent as portrayed by his opponents. The intended message is that Assad may be in trouble, but pushing him out of power requires more than the current militarised approach.

Second, Iran hopes to highlight the dangers of continued support for the removal of Assad through foreign-backed armed insurgency without any political framework that takes into account the interests of Assad and his supporters. The policy has so far failed to remove the regime but even if it does succeed, it will underwrite the country’s disintegration with no one having control over the regional implications.

Third, Tehran is making the case that the resolution of the Syria problem will be not be possible without Iran’s involvement.

It is noteworthy that Tehran’s assessment of Ankara’s predicament is not that different from many assessments in the United States regarding the threat that the lengthening of the conflict poses for neighbouring countries. In the United States, however, the spectre of the conflict spinning out of control has mostly led to calls for increased support for the insurgency in order to remove Assad and end the conflict as soon as possible.

Unlike the United States, Iran does not have the resources to become directly involved in the expanding Syrian conflict. But it is trying to capitalise publicly on the costly but so far unsuccessful attempt to dislodge Assad. And for now, it is Turkish public opinion that is being conceived as a battleground.

Given the powerful allies that are prodding Turkey to remain committed to hastening the end of the Assad regime, Tehran’s play is a pretty weak one. But Erdogan’s Syria policy is also turning out to be a gamble that will only be redeemed if Syria does not disintegrate as a country.

*Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai’i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran.

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