Turkey has decided to pick up a quarrel with Iran. It all began with President Recep Erdogan’s sudden outburst on February 14 in the first leg of a regional tour of Gulf States – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — when he said, “Some people want both Iraq and Syria to be divided. There are some that are working hard to divide Iraq. There is a secretarian struggle, a Persian nationalism at work there. This Persian nationalism is trying to divide the country. We need to block this effort.”
Tehran hit back by accusing Turkey of supporting terrorist organizations “to destabilize neighbouring countries.” And there has been much back and forth in mutual recriminations since then. The spat makes a mockery of the “trilateral alliance” between Russia, Turkey and Iran that Moscow has been promoting at the recent Astana talks on Syria. The Russian Foreign Ministry had announced as recently as February 16 that Russia, Turkey and Iran have formed a tripartite operational group to stabilize the ceasefire in Syria. The most puzzling aspect is that this is happening just when the Syrian peace talks began in Geneva today under UN auspices.
But then, there is always a method in Erdogan’s madness. Succinctly put, Erdogan’s outburst reflects an overall frustration that Iran has greatly outstripped its traditional rival Turkey in expanding its influence in both Iraq and Syria. The Iranian militia played a big role in taking Aleppo city and vanquishing the rebel groups supported by Turkey.
Turkey had fancied that it would play a similar lead role in wresting control of Mosul from the hands of the ISIS. But to its great consternation and anger, Iran has wrested that role too. The latest reports show that Iraqi forces have stormed Mosul airport. Iraq (and Iran) opposed any role for Turkey in the liberation of Mosul.
Conceivably, with an eye on the new US administration’s reported plan to create an anti-Iran alliance in the region, Turkey is repositioning itself. There are several developments pointing in this direction. The US and Turkey have been holding a series of top-level meetings through the past fortnight since President Donald Trump made his first phone call with Turkish President Recep Erdogan on February 7. The American visitors to Ankara since then included CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and US senator who heads the Armed Services Committee John McCain.
Meanwhile, Erdogan has undertaken the tour of the GCC states, which aimed at harmonising Turkish stance on Syria with Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s. (During Erdogan’s tour, Turkey and Saudi Arabia signed a defence agreement.) Ankara has noted that in the past fortnight there have been important visitors from the US to the Gulf region –CIA chief Pompeo, Senator John McCain and Defence Secretary James Mattis. Pompeo conferred on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz the CIA’s George Tenet Medal for his exceptional contributions in the fight against terrorism. It doesn’t need much ingenuity to figure out that the US is promoting a Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran.
Equally, Ankara and Washington are edging toward a mutually satisfactory resolution of a discord that had set them apart in the recent past – fate of Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Trump administration may act to curb Gulen’s activities, while Erdogan may no longer press for his outright extradition to Turkey.
However, one other contentious issue still remains unresolved – US military support for Syrian Kurds. This is a non-negotiable issue for Turkey, which considers the Syrian Kurdish militia to be an affiliate of the separatist Kurdish group PKK. Turkey and the US are actively discussing at the moment the modalities of a Turkish military operation aimed at liberating Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of the Islamic State. The Turkish Prime Minister Binaldi Yildirim discussed the Raqqa operation with the US Vice-President Mike Pence in the weekend at the Munich Security Conference. It will be a major military operation with tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery. Turkey seeks US Special Forces’ participation, which will also serve the purpose of deterring Russian intervention, apart from weakening the Syrian Kurds’ drive to create an entity in northern Syria.
Without doubt, the capture of Raqqa will be much more than a symbolic event. Raqqa determines how much of Syria will be under control of Syrian regime. Clearly, Erdogan hopes to project Turkish power right into Damascus and have a big say in Syria’s future. Yildirim sounded upbeat after meeting Pence. See a report in the pro-government Turkish daily Yeni Safak – PM Yildirim: Turkey, US turning over a new leaf.
Suffice to say, Erdogan seems confident that the Trump administration is viewing Ankara once again as a “strategic partner and a NATO ally” (as Trump indeed told him). Just another 5 days remain in the timeline given by the Trump administration to the Pentagon to prepare a comprehensive plan to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But Turkey is already acting as if it had a preview of the Pentagon plan.
A lengthy dispatch from Damascus by Xinhua underscores that Turkey’s journey back to its American ally also coincides with the “re-emergence of the Gulf states as the backers of the rebels” and with a growing probability of US putting boots on the ground in Syria — all in all a “remilitarization” of the Syrian conflict. Read the insightful report titled Spotlight: Gloomy outlook shadows Syrian talks in Geneva.