By Majid Rafizadeh
October 28, 2019
With Turkey’s recent invasion of Syria — Iran’s staunchest ally — it is critical to shed light on the multifaceted Iran-Turkey relationship. Ties between Ankara and Tehran are more complicated than what is being projected by some policy analysts and media outlets.
The latest developments highlight the notion that the Iran-Turkey relationship is moving from one where the two powers were competing for regional hegemony to one where they are building a more robust geopolitical and strategic alliance, which could have severe repercussions and negative consequences for the region.
Up until Turkey’s latest Syria incursion, for almost four decades the Turkey-Iran relationship could mainly be characterized by competition as they both sought to increase influence in the Middle East. One of the pillars of competition was over Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkish ties with this region and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party have been tense. Turkish authorities closedthe PUK’s office in Ankara in 2017 and deported its representative. The Iranian regime has, meanwhile, builtformidable economic ties with the PUK. The Iranian leaders’ objective was to increase their influence in Iraq through various alliances, while limiting the amount of clout that other regional powers, including Turkey, had over Baghdad.
Another area of competition between Turkey and Iran involved the first phase of the Syrian conflict and the Alawite-dominated state of President Bashar Assad. When the Syrian uprising occurred, Tehran and Ankara were not necessarily on the same page. For Iran, Assad’s government had always been a crucial geopolitical and strategic platform to both create and support Shiite proxies in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah. Iran also wants to utilize Syria as a conduit to deliver weapons and train its proxies. The Turkish government’s relationship with Damascus initially moved in the opposite direction, as it cutoff its diplomatic, political and economic ties with the Syrian regime. Furthermore, from the Iranian leaders’ point of view, Turkey became a major hub for hosting the Syrian groups that oppose Assad as well as Tehran.
However, the dynamic now appears to be changing. Ankara sought a swift military incursion into Syria to allow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to score a quick victory against the Kurds. But there are several reasons why Turkey now appears to be searching for other powerful state actors who have influence in Syria to assist its troops in controlling its “safe zone.”
First of all, it is inimical to Turkey’s interests to be spending billions of dollars in a protracted war with the Syrian Kurds while its economy is suffering. According to the International Monetary Fund’s latest reporton Turkey’s economy, published last month, “Reserves remain low, and private sector FX debt and external financing needs (are) high. Non-financial corporate balance sheets have been stressed by lira depreciation, higher interest rates, and lower growth.” The Turkish currency has lost30 percent of its value against the US dollar and the economy contracted by 2.6 percent in the first quarter of 2019, following a 3 percent contraction in the final quarter of 2018. Inflation is at a 15-year high and the unemployment rate has surged to 14.7 percent. In July, Erdogan firedthe governor of the central bank.
Secondly, Ankara’s incursion could reignite the conflict throughout Syria, which would cause more refugees to flee into Turkey.
Thirdly, after President Donald Trump pulled US forces out of northern Syria, paving the way for Turkey’s invasion, Ankara did not expect such a backlash from America. A bipartisan group of senators stated that they would move“full steam ahead” with legislation to impose new sanctions on Ankara. However, this has been “temporarily withheld” as a result of Turkey’s cease-fire and its deal with Russia to jointly secure the safe zone.
Turkey needs the Iranian regime on its side and the Iranian leaders are more than willing to assist Ankara and intervene opportunistically to advance their own parochial interests. That is why Erdogan last month met his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, along with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. At the time, Erdogan stressed: “We are in a period when we need to take more responsibility for peace in Syria, when we (three countries) need to carry more weight.”
Due to their interests converging, the Iranian regime and Turkey are forging closer strategic ties and a more robust alliance. Through sanctions and political pressure, the international community must disrupt this destructive alliance.