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Fighting ISIS, an Opportunity for Iran-Turkey to Get Close

Friday, January 30, 2015

Hossein Mofidi Ahmadi
Visiting Researcher at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies

The increasing power of Salafist jihadist forces in Syria and Iraq, especially the domination of the Islamic State (IS) terrorists on extensive swathes of land in the two countries has provided an opportunity for Iran and Turkey to expand their security and political relations. By taking advantage of this opportunity, the two countries can overcome their conflicting positions on political developments in the Arab world, which are collectively known as the Arab Spring, and take steps to bolster bilateral relations.

There are many analysts who believe that the government of Turkey considers the IS and other extremist Islamist groups as a chance to realize its own political and security goals in the region, including the goal of containing the rising clout of the Islamic Republic of Iran. For this reasons, they argue that increasing tension will be the hallmark of future relations between Iran and Turkey. In reality, however, in view of identity-related factors and from the standpoint of the two countries’ security considerations, the concern held by Ankara and Tehran about further expansion of the power of Salafist jihadist forces can be used as an opportunity to develop security and political relations between Iran and Turkey.

The ruling officials in Turkey follow their own specific interpretation of the Arab resolutions in the region. As a result, they have been quite generous from a tactical viewpoint in their efforts to topple the ruling regime of Syria, especially by offering financial and logistical support to various groups that oppose the Syrian government, from the Free Syrian Army to all kinds of Salafist and jihadist groups now fighting in Syria. Therefore, in terms of identity-related factors, Turkey considers Salafist jihadist groups as neither friends, nor enemies. However, from a security standpoint, Ankara is well aware that in a future, which will not be too far, the same groups will turn into one of the most important security threats to Turkey’s interests.

There is no doubt that the détente policy that Turkey pursued toward Syria in the past, was totally changed and replaced after the breakout of revolutions in Arab countries. As a result and during the past few years, the country has been joining hands with the whole lot of Western and Arab states that work toward the overthrow of the incumbent Syrian government. This development, on the other hand, has had important effects on Turkey’s relations with the Islamic Republic. The important point, however, is that the change in Turkey’s approach has had its roots in the identity of the country’s government. According to its identity components, Turkey believed that regional revolutions were efforts made by various regional peoples to get rid of dictatorial rules. On the other hand, Ankara believes that its security and interests can be best protected through the emergence of more governments with a political structure similar to the Turkish government because Turkish rulers are of the opinion that in their political structure, freedom-seeking and the Islamic identity are intermingled. Therefore, it is quite possible for Turkey, whose religious identity is influenced by Sunni Islam, to be sensitive toward and concerned about further spread of the influence of Iran and other Shia groups in the region.

During recent months, Turkey’s strategic policy for helping the overthrow of the Syrian regime has not changed. Both in words and deeds, Turkey is apparently giving priority to changing the ruling regime of Syria and replacing it with another government, which would be considered by Turkish rulers as arising from people’s will. Ankara argues that this is the sole path to the eradication of terrorist groups. Turkish officials believe that increased power of terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq is to a large part, the result of the natural reaction shown by the Sunni population in these countries to measures taken by political systems in Iraq and Syria that are dominated by Shias. However, both in terms of identity and security, jihadist and Salafist groups have either turned, or will soon turn, into a nightmare for the government of Turkey.

From the viewpoint of identity, the Islamic part of Turkey’s identity is mostly stemmed in Sufist traditions and secular ethics. Therefore, it will never get along with radical, violent, and Takfiri Islam that is preached by such groups as the IS. In the meantime, if the model of government pursued by the IS is established, the Islamic caliphate discourse pursued by this group will turn into a serious obstacle to promoting the model of government adhered to by rulers in Turkey. Ankara believes that its own model enjoys the best possible institutions necessary to establish a new regional order subsequent to the developments known as the Arab Spring.

From the viewpoint of security considerations, increased power of jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, has faced, or will face Turkey with two major threats. The first threat is further expansion of the networks that follow the activities of the IS and other jihadist groups in Turkey. This can, in turn, lead to the revival of domestic radical Islamist groups in Turkey, a sign of which was street fights between Turkey’s Hezbollah and Kurds in the city of Diyarbakir last October. The second threat is the challenge that will be posed to the process of normalization of ties between Kurds and the Turkish government, which has been one of the most strategic goals pursued by the ruling elites in Turkey. In view of the fact that members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been directly involved in military conflicts against the IS in Iraq and Syria, Turkish officials are now witness to increasing international popularity of this group. That popularity will, no doubt, prompt Kurds to expect more from the Turkish government during any forthcoming peace talks with Ankara. In the meantime, if the negotiations fail, Ankara will find it difficult to resume its full military operations against the PKK.

On the opposite of Turkey, Iran believes that Arab revolutions are actually “Islamic Awakening” while arguing that the developments in Syria represent an effort by the West to weaken the resistance axis in the region by taking advantage of terrorist Salafist groups. Such an interpretation of regional developments, which has been quite different from that of Turkey has been the root cause of conflicting reactions that the two countries have shown to developments in Syria, a result of which has been more tension in relations between Tehran and Ankara. Of course, it should be noted that the two countries’ changing understanding of mutual threats as well as geopolitical and geoeconomic considerations in bilateral relations have practically prevented Tehran-Ankara tensions from reaching an uncontrollable level.

Iran, like Turkey, is opposed to further strengthening of Salafist and jihadist currents in the region due to identity-related and security reasons of its own. Under these conditions, one of the pillars of Iran's regional policy is to prevent further spread of these currents because they are one of the main factors that disturb regional security and restrict Iran's influence in the region. Iran's undeniable role in helping establishment of a broad-based government in Iraq as well as logistic support it provided to governments in Iraq and Syria and the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and all groups opposed to the IS, can be all interpreted along the same lines.

It seems that common concerns in Iran and Turkey about the ideas and influence of Takfiri and jihadist groups – though stemming from different identity-related and security reasons – will play a major role in promoting political and security relations between the two countries in coming months. Of course, this does not mean that the two countries’ different views about regional developments as well as their conflicting opinions about new institutions that will promote new regional order, will not overshadow their foreign policies.

A forthcoming visit to Iran by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be a good opportunity for these two major regional powers to communicate their concerns and exchange solutions and ideas in order to pave the way for the improvement of the current deplorable conditions in the region. It seems that a major solution available to both countries is cooperation for the repetition in Syria of the successful experience of establishing a broad-based government in Iraq. Such a development, as proven by its precedent in Iraq, sill most probably work to rapidly change the balance of power against the IS in Syria as well.

Key Words: ISIS, Iran, Turkey, Salafist jihadist Forces, Syria, Iraq, Arab Spring, Bilateral Relations, Free Syrian Army, Turkey’s Identity, PKK, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mofidi Ahmadi

Source: The Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies
http://fa.cmess.ir/
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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