Opportunities and Challenges Facing Iran and Turkey in Syria and Iraq

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Hossein Bozorgmanesh
Expert on Middle East Issues

During recent days and after the beginning of Russia’s military intervention in Syria and downing of Russia’s bomber plane by Turkish fighter jets, there has been a war of words going on between Iranian and Turkish officials with regard to Syria and Iraq. Turkish officials are apparently angry with the emphasis that some Iranian media put on Ankara’s support for Daesh terrorist group and believe that such allegations can damage bilateral relations between the two countries.

As two neighboring countries, Iran and Turkey have had a good record with regard to economic exchanges. Iran is one of the main suppliers of gas to Turkey while thousands of Iranian tourists visit Turkey every year. Turkey, on the other hand, is among few countries in the world where Iranian citizens can travel without needing a visa. Also a mention should be made of Turkey’s effort to join hands with the government of Brazil to find a solution to Iran's nuclear case, though due to various reasons, that effort was aborted.

As for security issues and fighting against terrorism, the cooperation between Iranian and Turkish border guards has been exemplar due to the common border between the two countries and the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) group. Among measure taken to bolster security along the two countries’ border, one can point to joint sessions held between Iranian and Turkish border guard officials, which have been regularly held every six months in Iran and Turkey, in addition to online contacts between the two countries’ border guards. However, despite extensive cooperation between the two countries in these fields, the two neighbors, as two regional powers, have been following opposing policies in Iraq and Syria.

After the domestic crisis started in Syria, Turkey has been insisting on the need for Syrian President Bashar Assad to give up power and has been a regular supporter of Assad’s opposition groups. On the opposite, Iran has always emphasized the need to keep Assad in power and believes that the fate of Syria must be determined by the country’s people. The Islamic Republic has been also providing Syria with advisory assistance in the fight against armed groups that are opposed to Assad. Iran considers Syria as a link to its regional ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, and believes that the fall of Assad’s government will create serious problems for supporting such allies as Hezbollah. Also, many Iranian elites believe that if Assad’s government is toppled, the next goal of radical Sunni forces would be annihilation of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement followed by the Shia government in Iraq and, finally, waging war against Iran.

On the other hand, as the power of the central government in Syria wanes, Turkish government has been witnessing rising power of the Peoples' Democratic Party, which has taken control of large swathes of Turkey’s border areas with Syria. Since Syria’s Kurdish regions border Turkey, this situation has made Turkish officials concerned about mental and political effects of the autonomy of Syrian Kurds on the Kurdish population in Turkey.

Iran and Turkey have been also following opposite policies in Iraq. While Turkey aims to bolster the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Sunni people in Iraq, Iran has good relations with Shia groups as well as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Both countries are facing major challenges in Iraq. Iran is concerned about empowerment of such anti-Iranian groups as Daesh and the remnants of Iraq’s Baath party, while the Turkish government considers the presence of the PKK in Qandil region of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region as a major threat to national security and territorial integrity of Turkey. It seems that Iran and Turkey need some sort of cooperation in order to manage developments in such crisis-hit regions as Syria and Iraq. For example, in Syria, the government of Turkey can play an important role in resolution of the Syria crisis by enforcing strict controls over its border with Syria.

Iran can also cooperate with the government in Syria in order to pave the way for the management of demands of Syrian Kurds and, in doing so, put an end to Turkey’s security concerns in this regard. In Iraq, Turkey can put more pressure on the Kurdistan Democratic Party, as well as Sunni Arabs and Turkmen, while Iran can encourage its allies like the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan as well as Shia Arabs and Turkmen groups to pave the way for the elimination of such radical groups as Daesh. By helping elimination of such groups, Iran will help resolve domestic challenges in Iraq, which have the potential to turn into major crises in the future, an example of which is differences over the oil-rich Kirkuk Province. Iran can also prevent breakout of any possible ethnic and religious war in the future by promoting interaction and dialogue among three major ethnic and religious groups in Iraq.

The national security of both Iran and Turkey is directly related to existence of powerful central governments in Syria and Iraq, which while respecting religious and ethnic diversity in these countries, will prevent free space from being provided to ethnic and religious radical groups that can pose a threat to their neighbors and the entire world. Therefore, while avoiding reciprocal incrimination, Iran and Turkey must start strategic talks on Iraq and Syria and, in doing so, take an effective and key step toward establishment of stability and peace in these two countries.

Key Words: Iran, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Opportunities, Challenges, Daesh, Common Border, Bashar Assad, National Security, Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Sunni Arabs, Turkmen, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Shia Arabs, Bozorgmanesh

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*Photo Credit: CNN