During past weeks and following the failed coup attempt in Turkey, Ankara has taken new actions at domestic and regional levels, which need to be given serious attention. Turkey is considered as the main foreign actor behind the existing developments in Syria.
The Syria crisis could turn into a quagmire for Iran, which is present in that country in a defensive position, if its presence takes a routine turn and priorities, goals and the reasons behind Iran’s presence in Syria are forgotten.
The most important development in Syria during recent weeks has been entry of the Turkish army into the northern Syrian town of Jarabulus. The Turkish army claims that this measure was taken against Kurdish militants and in order to prevent integration of Kurdish regions in northern Syria. Turkey’s blatant violation of the Syrian territory was endorsed by the United States and even started when the US vice president, Joe Biden, was present in Ankara, while Russia did not raise any clear objection to Turkey’s operation too. Therefore, it is almost certain that the United States has been coordinated with Turkey in this regard in an apparent bid to reduce tensions between the two countries after Washington was accused by Ankara of having supported the coup plotters in Turkey. Of course, one of the effects of Turkey’s coordination with the United States was the dwindling importance, and perhaps total termination, of the issue of trilateral cooperation among Iran, Turkey and Russia over the Syria crisis. At any rate, it seems that through coordination with the United States, Turks have been able to get two concessions. One concession was the effort made by Turkey to clear the western shores of the Euphrates River of Kurdish forces with the other one being creation of a protected zone along the Syrian border for about 500,000 Syrian refugees, who as announced by the United Nations, are in limbo in Turkey.
It seems that in order to reduce Turkey’s excitement after the failed coup and prevent any unexpected measures by that country, the United States is willing to reduce Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sensitivity, but not according to Turkey’s conditions and proposals. Therefore, protests raised by high-ranking officials of the White House and the U.S. secretary of defense, on the one hand, and serious opposition of European presidents with Turkey’s plan to expand its presence in Syria beyond Jarabulus toward the town of Manbij and more engagement with the Kurdish militants, on the other hand, show that despite statements of Turkish officials, Ankara’s latitude in Syria is quite limited. Therefore, the new military front opened in the north of the Syrian province of Afrin is not of serious military value, but is meant to send a serious message to Turkey’s Kurds.
Answering the following questions can shed more light on the existing political environment in Syria:
– Should Turkey’s entry into Syrian soil be considered as an ephemeral incident or a determining development in the country’s crisis, which has dragged many other countries into all kinds of coalitions and hostilities for the past five years?
– Are Turkey’s emphasis on the Kurdish issue and its pressure to push Kurds toward the eastern banks of the Euphrates River the main issues in the Syria crisis?
– If, assuming, Kurds are pushed back from the western shores of Euphrates to its east, which force or organization is going to fill their void?
Following the coup and domestic purges, which led to suspension of about 100,000 civil servants as well as army and judiciary officials, the Turkish government is looking for an external enemy in order to cement national unity in the country. Showing Syrian Kurds as a dangerous population followed by Turkish Kurds could be the most desirable option for the Turkish government to encourage and maintain national unity. Therefore, Turkey is trying to demonstrate that the Kurdish issue is the most axial issue in Syria and make other forces, which hope to cooperate with Turkey, show some kind of reaction to this issue.
It seems that only Kurdish forces would be taking position in that region and there is no other effective force to replace them.
Attention to and comparison between priorities of Iran and Turkey in Syria is of importance for the adoption of any future policy on this issue.
Iran’s priorities in Syria since the beginning of the crisis can be listed in order of priority as follows:
– To keep Damascus within the resistance axis
– To support the scattered Shia minority, which is under attack across the region
– To protect Syria’s territorial integrity and prevent chaos along the borders.
Although priorities of Damascus and Moscow can be totally different from the above instances, due to the nature of the coalition among the three countries and because of limitations that exist at the current juncture, they are almost in line with Iran’s priorities willingly or unwillingly.
However, Turkey’s priorities, in order of importance, are quite different, especially at the present juncture, when the country is grappling with a host of domestic and foreign problems. Ankara’s priorities include:
– To prevent establishment of a Kurdish entity along its southern borders,
– Finding a solution for Syrian refugees while, at the same time, solving its problem with Europe within this framework, and
– Determining the fate of the political structure in Syria.
Meanwhile, the United States’ priorities with regard to Syria can be briefly enumerated as follows:
– To restrict or totally annihilate Daesh
– Getting the Syrian city of Raqqah back from Daesh militants,
– To prevent Russia’s military dominance both at international level and in the military theater of Syria.
It is evident that none of the goals pursued by Iran or the “Iran-centered coalition” corresponds and is in line with the priorities pursued by Turkey.
Considering the above facts and conditions on the ground, one can say that for the “Iran coalition” the resolution of the issue of “Aleppo” must be the focus of political and military attention due to its impact on the entire Syrian equation. Therefore, it is true that getting Raqqah back from Daesh is very important, but it comes next in terms of value for Iran. Also, the Kurdish issue cannot be of any priority for Iran under current circumstances. Consequently, if the Kurdish issue is included in Iran’s agenda, it would be a deviation from the main agenda and would only cause the country’s resources to be squandered.
Finally, despite the current ballyhoo and new developments, it seems that pursuing Iran’s priorities with regard to the Syrian crisis and making an effort to resolve the issue of Aleppo either in military way or through negotiations with involved parties, on the one hand, and keeping the door open to reconciliation with opposition groups, on the other hand, should not be superseded by other issues, including the Kurdish issue.
This article was written by Hossein Malaek for Iran Review on Sep 11, 2106. Hossein Malaek is Iran’s Former Ambassador to China and Foreign Policy Analyst.