“The international political intervention should target not [Syria's ruling] Baath [Party] but the actors whose proxy war Baath is fighting,” Taha Ozhan of Turkey’s SETA think-tank wrote on Jan. 25, pointing to Russia and Iran. As the chairman of SETA (Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research) — the main civic mouthpiece of Turkey’s deadlocked Syria policy — penned those lines, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was preparing to go to Tehran.
It was a slapdash article reflecting a grudge toward Russia and Iran for fending off regime change in Syria. Four days later, Erdogan was on a completely different track when he told his hosts that he felt like he was at his "second home" in Tehran.
The Turkey-Iran relationship has always been two-sided, but the Syrian crisis upset the balance, threatening the positive side. Erdogan was in Tehran to bolster that side. Back to a “win-win” mode, he set a target of $30 billion in bilateral trade for 2015. In 2013, the trade volume dropped to $13.5 billion from $21.8 billion the previous year. The two sides signed a preferential trade agreement after a decade of negotiations. Under the deal, Turkey will reduce tariffs on certain agricultural imports from Iran, while Iran will do the same for certain industrial goods from Turkey. The two countries agreed also on a road map of enhanced cooperation in commerce, investment, transportation, customs, standardization and transport. Most important, they agreed to establish a High-Level Cooperation Council. The signing of the related accord and the first joint cabinet meeting of the two governments will take place during Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Ankara, expected to take place later this month. However, joint cabinet meetings that Turkey had launched earlier with Iraq and Syria have been forgotten amid turmoil in its regional ties.
Conditional rapprochement on Syria
The main focus of interest during Erdogan’s Tehran visit was the prospect of rapprochement on Syria. Before the cameras, Erdogan and Rouhani largely avoided the Syrian issue, leading to suggestions that the disagreement persisted. Asked whether any ground for cooperation had been found, an official from Erdogan’s entourage told Al-Monitor, “The discussions on the Syrian crisis can be termed as an exchange of views rather than rapprochement.” Some Iranians, like parliament member Emir Huceste, may think that Erdogan has recognized he erred on Syria, but to say that Turkey has come around to the Iranian stance would be a hasty conclusion. Nonetheless, Turkey has certainly shifted to a new track, where it may have to cross paths with Iran at some point.
There are two new realities that could be seen as signs of rapprochement: Turkey has conceded, first, that the Syrian regime has cheated death and the civil war cannot unseat President Bashar al-Assad, and, second, that al-Qaeda has created a problem of terrorism in Syria.
In Tehran, Erdogan stated, “The terrorist groups that are operating under the cover of Islam are in no way related to Islam. We will widen our cooperation shoulder-to-shoulder with Iran in combating terrorist groups.” Rouhani, for his part, spoke of “common views about … terrorism and extremism.”
What the two sides disagree on is the source of terrorism. According to Turkish officials, the Iranians maintain that “Assad’s departure would make no sense without the elimination of terrorist groups, the prevention of their entry [to Syria] and cutting the financial and other support they receive.” In response, Erdogan said: “The terrorist groups emerged under Assad. A government change is a pressing necessity. We disagree with the argument that ‘this cannot happen as long as terrorist groups are there.’ Measures could be equally taken through the formation of an interim government in Syria. The interim government could combat terrorism by means of the Free Syrian Army and at the same time lead the country to elections.”
Asked about any compromise with Iran on Syria, Erdogan said, “I cannot say we have reached an agreement.” He added, though, that the two sides had instructed their foreign ministers and intelligence chiefs to work on the issue. This proposal reportedly came from Iran and the Turkish side accepted. So, here begins the path to compromise. The common discourse of threat regarding the situation in Syria lays the ground for cooperation.
Factors dictating cooperation
Four factors are compelling Turkey to seek partnership with Iran:
- Al-Qaeda-linked or al-Qaeda-like “jihadist” groups breeding on Turkey’s borders pose trouble not only for Syria but also for its neighbors. Turkey has fallen into the situation of Pakistan, which serves as a springboard for the Afghan jihad. Like a boomerang, al-Qaeda has turned on Turkey. On Jan. 28, the Turkish army shelled positions of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as the group attacked the Syrian Turkmen village of Al-Rai near the border. Even though ISIS spokesman Abu Layth said it would not strike back because “Muslims will take Turkey without arms,” security and intelligence authorities remain on alert against possible al-Qaeda attacks.
- The Assad regime regained international legitimacy with the deal on chemical weapons destruction and the ensuing Geneva II process, creating a new climate in which the strongest pressure for a policy change was on Turkey. With Western countries now seeking a way back to Damascus, it is obvious that insisting on the old policy will isolate Turkey and earn it the label of an “al-Qaeda supporter.”
- Turkey fears it will end up on the sidelines if the US succeeds in its dialogue with Iran. As a neighboring country, it does not want to miss the opportunities that the eventual abolition of sanctions on Iran would present. And as the Iraqi scene has already shown, too much regional competition with Iran has a paralyzing effect on Turkish interests. Competition based on cooperation rather than confrontation serves both countries’ interests. Otherwise, destructive old cards like sectarianism quickly come into play. Rouhani stole the show at the UN General Assembly in September and at Davos last month. This is not something that Erdogan, who enjoyed a similar popularity a few years ago, could ignore.
- Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is under pressure at home amid corruption probes and economic alarm. The government can hardly afford further external strain while domestic pressure is simultaneously mounting. In this context, Erdogan’s avoidance of confrontation with the EU in Brussels last month, fresh moves for a settlement in Cyprus and attempts to revive the normalization process with Armenia could be all seen as foreign policy openings — just like his visit to Iran — to balance the domestic pressure that began with the Gezi Park protests and shot up with the Dec. 17 corruption probe. The Gulen community — Erdogan’s former partner, which he has now declared a “parallel state” and an enemy over the corruption probe — is averse to Iran and Shiism. Thus, Ankara’s rapprochement with Tehran creates a psychological effect in the opposite way.
All those compelling factors for Turkey on one side and Iran’s efforts to break its international isolation on the other are leading both countries to look at the glass as being more full than empty.
In this context, the Fars News Agency’s comment was remarkable: “Iran and Turkey are both trying to return to the golden age of their relations after a period of recession in ties due to their differences on certain regional issues, especially over Syria.”
Yet, factors that have had a deviant impact on Turkish foreign policy in recent years such as “big ego,” “confidence explosion,” “interventionism,” “sectarian impulses” and “vengeance” remain resilient. Hence, one should keep in mind that the cooperation track with Iran is a thorny one, too.