Iran, Syria and Iraq: Turkey’s challenging triangle?
26 January 2012
(This article was first published at Middle East Online and republished under Idrees Mohammed’s permission)
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Turkey is facing a difficult period with respect to ties with its triangle of neighbors: Iran, Syria and Iraq. Their current domestic situations and foreign policies are now endangering Turkey’s own domestic stability and foreign policy. A polarization now appears to exist in this regard and the triangle of Iran, Syria and Iraq’s Shiite population maintain somewhat similar attitudes vis-à-vis Turkey. The major reasons behind this state of affairs are regional power rivalries, conflicting attitudes towards the Arab Spring, and a mutually held stance in relation to the West. Developments currently unfolding within the triangle are now seen by Turkey as a cause of grave concern that will be difficult to overcome.
Prior to the Arab Spring reaching Syria – at which point it then became Turkey’s nightmare, an amalgam of Turkish political, economic and security interests in Syria were well protected thanks to the AKP’s foreign policy. Furthermore, Turkey was increasingly engaging Syria in international politics and positioning itself as the principle interlocutor between it and the West, thereby distancing Syria from Iran’s sphere of influence while increasing its own importance to western countries and the international community. Ironically, Turkey’s excellent relations with Syria also helped it to develop ties with Iran and Iraq. Such developments explain why Turkey initially strained every nerve to shield the Syrian regime. Currently, however, Syria’s continuing refusal to accede to Turkish demands has made bilateral relations increasingly tense, to the point where Turkey has lost confidence in the Syrian regime.
Amid this complex environment Turkey has striven to consolidate its regional clout, approaching the United States and coordinating with western and Sunni powerhouses over Syria. During a major tour, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to sell Turkish secularism to the changing countries of the region, encouraging them to benefit from the Turkish model, while at the same time making an extremely controversial geo-strategic decision by agreeing to host the early warning radar of NATO’s anti-missile system. Turkey has also liaised closely with influential western and Gulf countries, declaring its support for the anti-Syrian regime protestors and expressing Turkish dismay at the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
Such attitudes are in clear conflict with Iran’s policy. Contrary to Turkish efforts to spread the Turkish experience of secularism, Iran had scrambled, trying to seize developments in the Arab world by likening them to Iran’s Islamic Revolution. While Turkey has officially declared that hosting the NATO system does not target Iran, Iranians believe they are in fact its main objective and that its primary beneficiary is the “Zionist regime.” In addition, Iran values Syria’s survival as a matter of the utmost importance and is trying to do whatever is necessary to protect it.
Syria is Iran’s greatest strategic regional ally, and Iran, together with segments of Iraq’s Shiite, with whom it shares religious connections, has made strenuous efforts to protect Syria’s regime. Turkey, meanwhile, struggles to find a workable alternative.
This spidery network with its alarming developments and uneven ties to Turkey is dangerous as many Turkish interests – primarily those concerned with security and economic concerns, are located within-
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– the triangle. Yet it holds key mechanisms to Turkey’s foreseeable future.
The triangle’s cooperation on questions of security is crucial to Turkey. Iran, Iraq and Syria share the volatile Kurdish issue with Turkey and each can play a part in lighting and quenching its fires. In the past, both Syria and Iran were reportedly accused of assisting Turkish Kurds in their struggle against the Turkish state. Indeed, Turkey could only capture the PKK leader after Syria withdrew it backing for him. The nature of relations between Turkey and these countries is very important to Turkey’s security concerns.
While Iran is still a crucial energy partner for Turkey, both Syria and Iraq are budding markets for Turkish goods and are its gates to the Arab world. Until recently, Turkey and Syria enjoyed good trading relations, Syria being the transit country for Turkish goods. However, as the rift between them widens Turkey plans instead to use Iraq for the exportation of its products to regional markets.
The current crisis in Syria and the turmoil in Iraq loom very large in Turkey. It is deeply concerned that its worsening relations with Syria will result in it losing Syrian cooperation and any crackdown will result in inter-sectarian tension triggering a flood of refugees, including the Kurds, into the demographically mosaic Turkey. In conjunction with that, the status of Syrian Kurds – should they obtain greater rights – would be improved, making Turkish Kurds more jealous and motivating them to increasingly demand rights.
With regard to Iraq, the political instability in Iraq endangers the power-sharing process, deepens mistrust among the political factions and widens ethnic and religious division, prompts inter-sectarian violence and threatens Iraq’s territorial integrity. While Turkey has for years defended the territorial integrity of Iraq, the current potential for its reality is frighteningly clear.
Iran wields influence over Iraq, Syria and the nationalist and fundamentalist forces inside Turkey, where, reportedly, it is able to neutralize and mobilize them. In a series of threats Iran has accused Turkey of adopting the Western stance towards it and Syria, and demanded that Turkey shift its policy towards favoring Syria or face difficulties from neighboring and domestic forces.
On the one hand Iraq’s attitude towards Syria appears, to be influenced by that of Iran, and Iranian support for Syria buttresses the regime’s confidence vis-à-vis Turkey. On the other hand, intelligence has warned that a Quds Force may plan to attack the US embassy or consulate in Turkey. Iraq’s turmoil has become apparent and recently the Turkish embassy in Iraq came under attack. Despite the fact that the intention is not to hold any side accountable for that, the late events took place amid the increasingly chilly atmosphere between Turkey and the triangle.
The developments in Iran, Syria and Iraq, the rise of tension between them and Turkey and the process of fence mending are Turkey’s major current challenges. Though Turkey is ready to do whatever is necessary to resume talks on Iran’s nuclear program, the ties between Turkey and Iran remain uneven. Nevertheless, Turkey needs to gain Iranian cooperation over Iraq and Syria to protect its interests and because it cannot afford losing allies. On Iraq, the political factions should be encouraged and pushed for keeping a broad-based government. Syria remains a special case.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Idrees Mohammed is finishing his MA in international relations at Warsaw University. He is an observer of Turkey’s foreign policy.
You can follow him on Twitter at @IdreesMohammd.
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