Turkey Pulse

Intel: Why Ankara is maintaining cautious silence on Soleimani killing

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Officials in Ankara were awake and concerned in the early morning hours of Jan. 3, after a US strike near Baghdad's airport killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani. Yet 18 hours after the strike, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still silent.

Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin called on “all sides to remain calm and avoid steps that will fuel tensions.” Reactions from Ankara were cautious and concerned, with suggestions that tools of diplomacy be used following the killing of Soleimani, who was the head of the Quds Force, a powerful elite branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). A Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement noted, “Turkey has always been opposed to foreign intervention, assassinations and sectarian conflict in the region.” This rather neutral statement took 10 hours to publish.

Why it matters: Since the crisis between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council started, Ankara has been carefully treading against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates while siding with Iran on regional matters. This attack worries Ankara, as it sets a dangerous precedent for its recently accelerated attempts at foreign military intervention. Yet it is also a relief. Soleimani was an enemy both hated and admired by top echelons of the Turkish government.

Ankara’s mindset can best be seen in the Syrian National Army announcement about the US attack, congratulating Arab and Islamic nations for the killing of “terrorists and murderers.” SETA, a pro-Justice and Development Party think tank, shared the statement on social media. A harsher tone could be seen in the reactions of popular cleric Cubbeli Ahmet Hoca on Twitter. These statements reflect Ankara’s relief at the elimination of Soleimani and other officials. As one senior bureaucrat in Ankara said, "This will set the IRGC back a few years, and it will compel Washington to have better relations with us."

Trump’s phone call with the Turkish president the night before the attack was presented as a consultation with Ankara, although there is no credible evidence to back such a claim.

What’s next: Erdogan’s silence and the neutral statements of presidential agencies signal that Ankara is aware of how the risk levels in the region have been heightened. They were caught unprepared and unsure of how to make the best of the situation.

We must watch not only for Erdogan’s words, but also watch who will represent Ankara at the funeral of Soleimani and whether protests against the United States will be permitted in Turkey.

Know more: Check out reporting by Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent Jack Detsch for details on the American perspective.

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Found in: Iran-US tensions

Pinar Tremblay is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and a visiting scholar of political science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She is a columnist for Turkish news outlet T24. Her articles have appeared in Time, New America, Hurriyet Daily News, Today's Zaman, Star and Salom. On Twitter: @pinartremblay

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