Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Syrian crisis not leading towards open Turkey-Iran conflict | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page
Media ID: 55299676

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad burn a Syrian independence flag, which is used by the opposition, during a demonstration at the Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, April 20, 2013. Source: Reuters/Anis Mili

Despite the fact that the relationship between the two countries has recently become more complicated and ambiguous, the Turkish-Iranian—or if you prefer, the Ottoman-Safavid—struggle is well-rooted in history. Conflicts of interests between the two countries may have arisen in the past; however, Turkey and Iran always managed to arrive at mutually-satisfying compromises.

Despite the two major regional players’ disputes over Syria, which continues to threaten their relationship, it is hard to consider the situation in the country as a decisive point that will determine the nature of the relationship between Ankara and Tehran. Aside from their political competition, strategic benefits and economic interests have a more significant impact on decision makers in Turkey and Tehran.

In spite of the economic sanctions imposed on Tehran, Turkish-Iranian investment was worth approximately USD 20 billion in 2012 . With the permission of the West, Turkey managed to obtain an exemption on Iranian oil sanctions, importing around 100,000 barrels per day (bpd). This is something which relieved Iran from the burden of looking for new importers. Significantly, Javad Owji, CEO of the National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC), announced that Iranian gas will be exported from the gas fields in Fars to Europe through the Turkish territories, according to Iran’s Mehr News Agency.

Aside from their strength, these figures have deep economic and political indications. It is impossible for Iran to dispose of Turkey when Ankara is vital for Tehran’s economy and its exporting of oil and gas. According to Owji, Iranian gas exports generate USD 10 billion per year.

As for the strategic side, the issue is more complicated. Tehran is able to play the Kurdish card, particularly on the Turkish-Syrian borders, to exert pressure on Ankara. Moreover, Turkish prime minister Erdogan’s recent attempts to reconcile with the PKK aims to reduce the Iranian ability to exert such pressure. This is not to mention Turkey and Iran’s shadow battle to secure influence in Iraq. Therefore, one can say that Turkish-Iranian relations must be judged on more than the situation in Syria.

What is even more significant is the Arab region, which has provided Ankara and Tehran with more room for competition. After the Arab revolutions, both countries emerged as saviors from the chaos and political instability, rushing to woo the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated regimes which came to power in the Arab Spring states. These Brotherhood regimes came to realize that Islamic rule will not come full circle unless the Syrian crisis is resolved via Iran and Turkey. as well as the Western and Eastern blocs. Hence, these new ruling powers will link the two major players in the Syrian situation.

In a statement to Iran’s Sharq newspaper, the Turkish ambassador to Tehran said: “The Syrian crisis will not be resolved without Iran and Turkey; it will be difficult to reach a solution with Iran excluded.”

Russia and Germany are insisting that Iran attend the prospective Geneva 2 conference, while France strongly opposes this. Despite all this, Iran—thanks to the Russian Bear using the Syrian regime to dig the last of its claws into the Middle East—will certainly play a major role in the upcoming negotiations. Even following Erdogan’s visit to the US, Turkey seems to share the same view. This is something which highlights Turkey’s conviction that Iran remains an important player that cannot be excluded, nor confronted.

Even though it considers Syria under Assad as an extension of its territories and a passage to southern Lebanon and its military arm Hezbollah, Tehran will be able to deal with any regime—and particularly an Islamist one—that come to power in Syria after the fall of the Assad regime. It will do this in precisely the same way it dealt with the Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, on the condition that this regime guarantees its interests.

This is something which is also characteristic of Turkey.

As long as they share similar interests, the Turkish and Iranian regimes may continue to ignore the blood of the Syrian people, and for a long time to come. Consequently, in light of the current circumstances, neither Tehran nor Ankara will risk escalating their dispute over Syria. Syria is not the final stage of the chess game playing out between Turkey and Iran.