Iran draws the line with Turkey on Syria

By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

In a sign of growing Iranian misgiving about Turkey’s role in Middle Eastern affairs, Tehran has decided to throw its weight behind the embattled Syrian regime, even if that translates into a setback in relations between Tehran and Ankara.

Iran’s move is bound to represent a new thorn in ties, with multiple potential side-effects, since it comes at a delicate time when Turkey is pressuring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government to adopt meaningful reforms and to give legitimacy to the Syrian opposition, which has repeatedly held meetings in Turkey.

Over the weekend, Tehran hosted Syrian Oil Minister Sufian Alaw for the signing of a major trilateral Iran-Iraq-Syria gas deal worth billions of dollars, while showering the Assad regime with unconditional praise as the “vanguard of resistance” that was subjected to psychological warfare and Western-Zionist conspiracy.

Articulating Iran’s steadfast support for its key Arab ally, Iranian first Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi used his meeting with Alaw to expel the slightest doubt about Iran’s stance on Syria, by stating that “Iran and Syria are two inseparable countries and allies, and Iran will stand by its friend and Muslim [neighboring] country, Syria, under all circumstances”.

In sharp contrast to Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition, Rahimi dismissed the current unrest in Syria as “guided by arrogant powers and the meddling of enemies”.

Behind Iran’s new Syria move is a calculated gamble that contrary to some Western perceptions, the Assad regime is not completely isolated and still enjoys a considerable mass following. This is reflected in huge pro-government rallies consistently ignored by the Western media, and that with sufficient internal and regional support, Damascus could survive and ride out the current storm.

Assad has been unable to crush the uprising despite a crackdown against ant-government protests in which activists say more than 1,600 people have been killed since mid-March.

A clue to the “new Iranian thinking” on the crisis in Syria and its regional implications emerged in a recent issue of Sobhe Sadegh, the weekly publication of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), written by Reza Garmabehry, that in unmistakable language warned that if Iran had to choose between Turkey and Syria, it would choose Syria. Titled “Iran’s serious position vis-a-vis the events in Syria”, the article implicitly criticized Turkey for serving Western and Zionist interests by siding with the opposition and thus weakening the regime in Syria.

Simultaneously, the IRGC has demonstrated Iran’s hard power by conducting a successful counter-insurgency military campaign resulting in its incursion inside Iraqi territory in hot pursuit of a Kurdish armed group known as PJAK (Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan). This is a fresh reminder to Turkey of Iran’s stability role with respect to the Kurdish problem besetting Ankara, in light of Iran’s considerable clout in Iraq.

This coincides with a new Iranian naval strategy that focuses on “out of area” missions for the navy in “open waters” and with access to foreign ports such as in Syria (see Iran on new voyage of discovery Asia Times Online, February 24, 2011).

According to some Tehran analysts, Iran hopes that Turkey will adjust its Syria policy and rethink its stinging criticisms of the Assad regime.

If this does not happen and the policy contrasts between Iran and Turkey over Syria grow sharper, then we may witness a cooling period between Tehran and Ankara. Turkey is seeking a leading role in the deadlocked Middle East peace process, in light of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s planned visit of besieged Gaza, Ankara’s hosting a Palestinian summit and reports of Turkey’s intention to play a leading role in the upcoming United Nations debates on Palestinian statehood in September.

Much as Iran and Turkey may cooperate at the UN level on the Palestinian issue, given that Turkey-IsraHell strategic relations have remained essentially untouched by various negative developments, such as the murder of nine Turkish citizens on a Gaza-bound ship by IsraHelli commandos, Tehran continues to view with suspicion some of Turkey’s regional moves that may come at Iran’s expense.

Erdogan’s three conditions for normalizing relations with IsraHell – an apology, compensation to the victims and the lifting of the Gaza siege – are considered rather lenient by Tehran, which would like to see the conditions widened to encompass the return of Arab lands, including the Golan Heights.

Assuming the Syria crisis lingers – which would mean more Syrian refugees in Turkey – the pressure on Ankara will likely increase and thus force Ankara to look to Iran for influencing Damascus. After all, contagion from Syria, as compared to Iran’s distance from Syria, represents a minus for Turkey at the moment that adds to its vulnerability.

Playing hardball with Ankara, Tehran’s new determination to stand behind Damascus no matter what in effect confronts Ankara with tough choices: ie, either continue with the current position tilted in favor of the Syrian opposition, and thus earn a substantial setback in relations with Iran, or emulate Iran and refrain from the hard push for reform inside Syria, and thus avoid a broadening of the arc of crisis engulfing Turkey’s regional context.

According to Bahram Amirahmadian, a Tehran analyst who says Ankara has been exploiting “weak Iranian diplomacy”, a more robust Iranian diplomacy is called for to avoid lagging behind Turkey in Middle East affairs. Apparently, the above-mentioned IRGC initiative is intended to address this issue, through a combination of soft and hard power that includes the carrot of economic (energy) incentives in league with Baghdad.

Thus, it is not simply Iran but rather the triumvirate of Iran-Iraq-Syria that Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, has to reckon with.

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