Is Iran Turkey's last hope in Syria?

by Gokcan Aydogan    


In Syria and Iraq, establishing a new equilibrium and creating new diplomacy channels have gained momentum as Islamic State and Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (Al Nusra) are on their way to defeat. Most analysts believe that the defeat of the Islamic State is imminent, and so real problems lying deep down in society are beginning to emerge in no uncertain terms as the fight against Islamic State has brought new players into the game. With the so-called Gulf Crisis, Qatar has been brought under control with an embargo. It’s crime? According to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain, the alleged support of extremist groups, namely Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. Iran is aware of the fact that pressure on Qatar by Saudi led countries is to put an end to its influence in the region.

The strategy to drive Iran into a corner includes not only diplomatic moves and sanction threats but also military actions. In Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria and Shiite populated areas of Saudi Arabia, military and diplomatic measures have been launched by the Gulf countries, and the United States, in order to break the influence of Iran in this region. Conversely, Saudi Arabia has been forced to break down its support for Jihadist-Salafist organizations in Syria after having a few meetings with the U.S. behind closed doors. Thus, the face of awaiting conflicts in Syria is unknown. The new sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S. and the European Union after reports, some with legitimate concerns and others unfounded, claimed that Iran might be developing a ballistic missile program have only further increased tensions in the region.

But the more these actors, including Russia and the U.S., involve themselves in Syria's conflict, whether in the name of ousting Assad, defending him, or fighting against the Islamic state, the more it becomes clear that what people on the ground desire for their future will be overshadowed by the conflicts of these states.

Iran's forces in Iraq,  through proxy militias like the Jerusalem Brigade and the so-called PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces), have already captured Mosul and Tal Afar, and as they advance towards the Syrian border around Sinjar, they headed to Deir ez-Zor to rendezvous with the Syrian Arab Army under Assad. The duo has already worked together to take control of the territories of Homs, Palmyra and south of Raqqa with the Syrian army. And at this stage, Iran's plans for an energy pipeline and a secure military corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean and to Beirut seem probable, should the correct diplomatic channels be opened for such a project. Iran already has a military corridor to Mediterranean coasts (Tehran to Latakia). Recently, it has been moved to 225 kilometres south to avoid a buildup of US forces that have been assembled to fight Islamic State.

There only seems to be one impediment barring their efforts to expand their scope of influence: Kurdish forces. The plans of Iran seem to be threatened by two obstacles: the independence referendum pushed by Iraqi Kurdistan and the efforts for the Syrian Democratic Forces' to construct a democratic nation*.  

Although Northern Syria's and Iraqi Kurdistan's approach to future plans is quite different, the common point in both is now to be perceived as a threat by Iran.

And this is how as of late, a historic rapprochement has perhaps, forced a secret alliance between Iran and Turkey. For the first time since 1979, the chief of staff for Iran's armed forces, General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri came to Turkey for a series of meetings. Turkey claimed that they discussed the Kurdish Question, and how to stamp down Kurdish guerilla forces.

In a way, the rapprochement makes sense. It is true that both countries fund, support and arm opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, and it is also true that their agendas in the region can be almost entirely counterposed to each other. But they also share a similar motivation, Turkey's anti-Kurdish sensitivity coincide with Iran's plans to gain strength in the region. Turkey's ambition to cancel the independence referendum and to attack Qandil and Sinjar in Mesopotamia, and Afrin in the Levant, may have facilitated the alliance between Turkey and Iran.

Turkey wants to keep its influence over its proxy forces in Idlib and hold onto territories it has taken under control with Euphrates Shield until the end. But to be able to do that, it must always try to create new battlefronts to weaken Kurdish militias, especially since territories under Turkey's control are stuck in between the cantons of Northern Syria. That's why, operations against PJAK, Iranian affiliate of PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) were reflected in the press from the Turkey-Iran meetings.  

However, Iran denied they would work on joint operations. The denial cannot be read as the end of an alliance. It just shows Iran's position for the solution of "Kurdish problem" in the region. Iran might increase the frequency of operations against PJAK, but this will mainly be for show.

Taking into account the positions in Kirkuk, Erbil, Hasaka, Qamishli and Aleppo, operations against the "the heart of Kurdish forces", Qandil, seem unlikely since they might open the doors for Kurdish forces to obstruct Iran's plans in Iraq and especially, to compromise its machinations in Syria. For this reason, even after a series of very important meetings, all the public received from the meeting was a declaration that Turkey and Iran will cooperate to fight Kurdish forces, and then a subsequent denial from Iran that co-operations against PJAK, PKK would occur. The only public declaration of common ground was both of their expressed full support for calls to cancel the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq.

The knot of struggles between all actors will almost certainly disentangle after Deir al-Zor in Syria is captured. And after Deir al-Zor, Idlib will remain the only problematic territory for most forces in the region. For in Idlib, as Foreign Affairs Magazine has recently reported, “Jihad has won” since an Al-Qaeda affiliated group, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham, succeeded in overrunning society. This poses a number of problems, which might make the prospect of intervention in Idlib a possible necessity in the near future. If this is decided by regional powers, Erdogan will have to turn his back on Jihadist groups and to focus his attention instead on holding onto the territories that were occupied by the now concluded Euphrates Shield operation. Euphrates Shield, the operation which funded Free Syrian Army forces and included the Turkish military to attack both IS and the YPG, is now over. But Turkey’s influence in the region remains.

Turkey decided that the YPG (Democratic Union Party) in Northern Syria was on the same moral plane as IS. It did everything it could to neutralize the influence of Kurdish forces in northern Syria.  It allegedly even helped Jihadist groups (some experts have claimed that this has extended to the Islamic State), but none of this has ruined the plans of Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces to achieve their goals. What Turkey should be thinking of next, is what to do after its major losses in Syria.

* In Northern Syria, the PYD (Democratic Union Party) claims to follow the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan -- a cofounder and ideological figurehead of the PKK -- and renounce the quest for a state in favor of constructing what they call a multi-ethnic, democratic nation.  In theory, their strategy is to construct two systems, democratic confederalism -- a form of direct and federated democracy-- and democratic republicanism, which ensures that existing states adhere to international standards of human rights and civic rights. In practice, the circumstances of war make this a difficult task.