Iran engages with Turkey where US and Russia dither

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made an extraordinary statement during an interview with the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper on Wednesday. He ‘tweaked’ the assessment by the Defense Ministry in Moscow a couple of days earlier that Turkey could be planning a military intervention in Syria.

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Lavrov is of the view that the mobilization on the Turkish side of the border constitutes only “minor provocations” and he exuded confidence that Washington will not allow “such reckless plans” to materialize.

To be sure, the Syrian tale is taking an interesting turn. Moscow relentlessly piles pressure on Turkey, while Washington does nothing to give relief to its NATO ally. Both US and Russia view the Syrian Kurds as allies in the war against the Islamic State, ignoring Ankara’s insistence on regarding them as ‘terrorists’.

Unsurprisingly, Turkish rhetoric is equally nasty toward both Washington on Moscow. If on Tuesday Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu threatened Russia with another ‘Afghanistan’, on Wednesday, President Recep Erdogan took the pants off Uncle Sam for the dalliance with Syrian Kurds.

Meanwhile, Syrian Kurds themselves rubbed salt into the Turkish wound by capturing on Wednesday a strategic air base and a town in Aleppo province in northern Syria, dealing another mortal blow to the Turkish supply lines for Syrian rebel groups. The Kurdish operation enjoyed US backing and Russian air cover.

The moment of truth has come for Erdogan. But then, it is going to be a problematic decision. The point is, hairline fractures have appeared on Turkey’s ruling party, Justice and Development Party (AKP), which Erdogan controls. There are signs of a mutiny against the Sultan.

Ostensibly, it is about Erdogan’s authoritarian ways and his obsession with a presidential system with all executive powers concentrated in his hands. But then, there are wider ramifications, too.

Some of the dissidents have voiced criticism of Erdogan’s military crackdown on Kurdish separatists and argue for a political settlement. By the way, Turkish Islamist leader Fetullah Gulen (who lives in America in exile) holds sway over vast swathes of the AKP and Erdogan suspects a hidden ‘American hand’ behind Gulen’s campaign to discredit and weaken him. At any rate, Gulen also advocates a political solution to the Kurdish problem.

Suffice it to say, Erdogan has two options. One option is to have a course correction, which will mean reconciling with the AKP dissidents and ensuring a national consensus for his policies, such as on Syria.

The second option will be to crack the whip at the dissenters and drive them out of the AKP. Erdogan knows how to use the state machinery to silence critics and detractors. And most Turkish politicians have something to hide.

What will be Erdogan’s likely course of action? It is a safe bet that he realizes that once he allows dissension within the AKP, the flood gates will open and the lava flow may ultimately devour him.

Besides, he sees no reason to climb down. He is intensely conscious of his personal charisma and he enjoys a massive electoral mandate.

Now, this is where Syria and the Kurdish problem come in. It may become useful for Erdogan to whip up nationalist sentiments and create xenophobia to press ahead with his domestic agenda.

Moscow and Washington do not seem to comprehend Erdogan’s calculus today. But Tehran does.

What prompts Tehran to re-engage with Turkey by scheduling a high level exchange at this point after a gap of several months is nothing else than the acute awareness that Erdogan is badly cornered and that can have dangerous fallouts for regional security.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ibrahim Rahimpour is one of the longest serving career diplomats in Iran’s Foreign Service. He held talks in Ankara on Wednesday with the Turkish foreign ministry.

But, apart from his vast diplomatic experience, what helps Rahimpour to undertake such a sensitive mission is that Iran studiously steered clear of acrimony with Turkey through all these difficult months when their respective interests in Syria virtually collided.

Thus, Tehran ignored on the one hand Erdogan’s occasional barbs, while also refusing to identify with the Russian rhetoric demonizing him. The Iranian leadership instead kept offering mediation to reconcile Moscow and Ankara.

Tehran anticipated that the need would arise at some stage to re-engage Ankara. Rahimpour’s statements in Ankara on Wednesday suggest that in Tehran’s estimation, the die is not cast yet in terms of a Turkish-Saudi alliance in the Syrian conflict.

As Tehran sees it, the Saudis lack the capability to put boots on the ground in Syria and Ankara should be savvy enough to know that the brash leadership in Riyadh is only bluffing. Sure enough, Iran senses that there is a window of opportunity to engage Turkey in serious discussion over Syria.

Iran’s trump card, of course, is that it has a convergence of interests with Turkey over the Kurdish problem. Tehran is confident Ankara too remains conscious of this commonality of core interests despite their recent estrangement.

Rahimpour framed the proposition thoughtfully and with sensitivity, while speaking in Ankara on Wednesday:

  • Kurds are our historical friends. And we want them to continue their existence in prosperity and happiness within the states they live in. Our region is not strong enough to bear new crises. We hope Kurds in other countries will enjoy full citizenship rights as Kurds in Iran do. And if we defend the territorial integrity of Turkey and Iran, we do the same for Iraq and Syria as well.

This is, quintessentially speaking, like extending a warm invitation to Turkey to ponder over how it still has much more by way of shared interests with Iran than what all their differences over Syria might add up to.

Rahimpour underscored that Iran and Turkey are on the same page on the Kurdish question and Ankara can count on Tehran to do all that is necessary to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdistan anywhere on the region’s map – be it inside Turkey or outside Turkey or along Turkey’s borders or in its neighborhood.

Tehran’s message addresses the first circle of the Turkish concerns in Syria and at the same time offers the basis for the two countries to work together.

The Iranian initiative serves a big purpose at the moment by introducing a regional platform that allows Erdogan to career away from the ‘militarization’ of Turkish policies on Syria. Rahimpour brought in the analogy of the P5+1 talks with Iran to drive home the point.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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