Iran-Turkey-Syria: An Alliance of Convenience

flagsOne of the most striking political consequences of Israel’s raid on the Gaza flotilla at the end of May has been the emergence of a seeming new strategic triangle in the region: an Iran-Turkey-Syria axis. While Iran and Syria are touted as implacable “enemies” of Israel, it is precisely moderate Turkey’s tentative alignment with the two revisionist powers that has caused much anxiety in Western corridors of power.

Turkey’s “neo-Ottomanism,” however, is about climbing the hierarchy of power and becoming a major voice in global affairs, not leading a wave of anti-Israeli sentiments. Moreover, Iran isn’t in a mood to relinquish its hard-earned clout in the Arab street and allow Turkey, a NATO member, take the mantle of leadership in the Islamic world.

In fact, in an effort to avoid losing the limelight to Turkey, Iran dispatched its own flotilla to Gaza. On the other hand, Syria, squeezed between two bigger powers and right next to Israel, is most interested in defending its territories, regaining its lands in the Golan Heights, and carving out a place among the region’s main powers. There is no assurance on how Turkey and Iran would effectively assist Syria in achieving its main political goals.

Undoubtedly, the protracted humanitarian crisis in Gaza represents a convergence point for the three countries. But for an alliance to be cemented, there are a lot of obstacles to overcome. The “ménage à trois” is far from an assured deal.

An Evolving Regional Order

The Israel-Palestine conflict has been at the heart of regional affairs since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Defending the rights of Palestinians became the foundation upon which ideology-based movements, alliances, revolutions, and wars were justified, organized, and pursued. Leadership in the Islamic world has also been heavily tied to the same issue. This is the context wherein the de facto Iran-Turkey-Syria axis should be understood, although substantive normalization of relations in the last decade between Turkey and its neighbors Iran and Syria served as a pre-requisite for the supposed alliance.

Syria’s involvement in Lebanon and the Palestinian issue were an inevitable consequence of its pan-Arabism, regional ambitions, and conflict with Israel. After the 1979 revolution Iran became a key sponsor of resistance movements in the region, which placed the Islamic republic at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For the Islamic Republic of Iran, being part of the struggle against Israel became part of its very raison d’être.

For decades, both Iran and Syria remained as the main proponents of anti-Israel politics in the region. The election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, and the country’s rise as a military and economic power added a new pivotal character to an unfolding drama in the Middle East.

Turkey’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had a lot to do with its foreign policy soul-searching — under Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet DavutuÄŸlu — and its ambition to become the main mediator and power-broker in the region. Hence, resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict became central to Turkey’s foreign policy démarches.

But, prior to the Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla, Israel consistently frustrated Turkish mediating efforts at bringing Syria and Israel together to negotiate the issue of the occupied Golan Heights.

After the 2008 Israeli invasion of Gaza, Israel’s refusal to allow Turkish officials to enter Gaza enraged the Turks. According to Ali Babacan, then-Turkey’s foreign minister, “I personally warned Ehud Barak that we would react very seriously if Israel did anything in Gaza.”

The drama culminated with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan’s emotional display at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2009, where he shrieked at President Shimon Peres, “You Israelis know how to kill.” This was followed by a series of diplomatic spats between the two countries and a wave of anti-Israel television series in Turkey.

The flotilla massacre, which led to the death of nine Turkish citizens, reinforced Turkey’s growing opposition to Israel’s war on Gaza. Turkey’s explicit opposition to Israel’s actions and threats to end diplomatic relations with the Jewish state this summer was an unequivocal response to Israel’s intransigence.

Looking at the bigger picture, recent years have witnessed a significant shift in Middle Eastern affairs. Regional powers have stepped in to resolve conflicts and diffuse growing tensions in different corners of the Middle East. This took place as the United States gradually lost both its leverage and political will to address protracted crises in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, and security concerns in the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan. With this shift away from the United States as the dominant power-broker, it’s natural for regional powers to extend their reach and step up to fill the power vacuum.

Marwan Bishara of al Jazeera writes, “The rapprochement between Iran, Turkey and Syria is creating a new regional axis that, for all practical purposes, could replace the diminished Arab triangle of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria and transform the region in the process.”

On the issue of Gaza, Iran, Turkey, and Syria happen to share an identical concern: Israel.

Iran-Turkey Rivalry

Iran and Turkey are perhaps today’s most important regional powers and their growing ties signal a positive move towards a new and more stable regional power configuration. The warmth of their rapprochement — which started in 1997 with Iran’s election of President Mohammed Khatami, and was consolidated with the rise of the AKP in Turkey since 2002 — has concealed the underlying tensions that define the rivalry between these two powers.

While Iran and Turkey’s strategic interests have converged in recent history, the roots of the contention between the two states is buried deep in their past. While the Persians dominated the entire region for almost a millennium, the Ottomans occupied that dominant role after the fall of the Byzantine Empire. For centuries, both the Ottomans and the Persians competed for influence in the Caucasus and West Asia, waged intermittent wars against one another. Such imperial legacies are, in many ways, embedded within the national psyche of both countries.

Adding to this nationalist antagonism, ethnic tensions have been a dent in bilateral relations. Worried that the Turks might influence Iran’s huge Turkic Azeri minority, pre-Revolution leader Reza Shah and his successors embarked on a program of “Persianization” and political centralization at the cost of the Azeri’s demands for federal autonomy. This policy caused significant unease between the two countries.

After the Iranian revolution Turkey was increasingly anxious vis-à-vis Iran’s fundamentalist politics, while Iran resented its neighbor, a NATO member, a staunch regional ally of the United States, and a strong supporter of Israel. The political systems in the two neighboring countries were almost an antithesis to one another, adding to the rivalry between the two countries

Iran and Turkey also have reason to compete for Syrian loyalty and support to reinforce their influence within the Levant region. While Iran is interested in having Syria as a key military ally in an event of confrontation with Israel, Turkey might want Syria to be play a more constructive role in the region and serve as a springboard for Turkish maneuverings in Lebanon and Palestine.

Energy is another issue that is driving the competition between the two regional behemoths. Turkey’s growing importance as an energy hub is beginning to overshadow Iran’s ambition to become a global energy superpower. Although Iran is a host to the world’s second largest reserves of oil and natural gas, it is Turkey — while exploiting Iran-Russia energy rivalry — that is serving as a global energy transit point between Europe and Asia.

However, perhaps the most important point of contention between the two countries is the apparent mutual exclusivity of the grand ambitions harbored by the two powers. An assertive Turkey is beginning to position itself at the center of the Islamic world and regional affairs in central Asia and the Caucasus. This directly challenges Iran’s political objectives, which are directed at making Iran a major player — if not the main player — in the same spheres.

Trade between the two countries is also hugely one-sided — irking the Turks who complain about Iran’s protectionism — and there are no serious military relations between the two countries. Additionally, Turkey is a major economic and political partner of Azerbaijan, a fellow Turkic country, Iran’s northern neighbor, and a country that has cultivated strong ties with Israel despite Iran’s vehement objections. Moreover, Iranians by no means appreciate Turkey’s subtle appeals to pan-Turkism in Central Asia, supposedly in Iran’s backyard.

Finally, Iran’s nuclear program is a main source of concern to the Turks. Turkey is simply against the idea of a nuclear Iran, or a virtually nuclear Iran, since it knows how this will reinforce Iran’s position as the main power in the region — assuming others do not follow in Iran’s steps.

Meanwhile, Turkey is also ensuring that no major additional conflicts erupt in the region. By pushing for the implementation of the May 2010 Tehran Declaration (the nuclear deal between Turkey, Brazil, and Iran that bypassed the United Nations) and pursuing aggressive diplomacy, Turkey is trying to ameliorate growing tensions between the West and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program. Caught at the crossroads of East and West, Turkey is trying to avoid a war between Iran and Israel, and Israel’s staunch ally, the United States.

In addition to deterring a battle on it’s borders, Turkey has economic incentive to defray tensions with the Islamic Republic. The two countrys enjoy multi-billion-dollar energy-related trade and investment relations. Any conflict over Iran could compromise those lucrative deals.

Common concerns may have pushed the two countries closer to each other — as exemplified by the Tehran Declaration — but serious issues, collectively, could undercut a true alliance between the two powers. Syria might also be forced to decide between the two, if push comes to shove.

Approaching Syria

The rapprochement between Syria and Turkey started in the late 1990s, as part of Turkey’s broader strategic designs — in line with its plans to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria for membership in the European Union — to normalize relations with its neighbors to the East and South. Syria and Turkey have been relatively successful in improving their ties on three pivotal politico-strategic issues: territorial disputes, water-related disputes, and support for Kurdish rebels.

In the last decade, Turkey has been a major investor and trade partner for Syria. In 2009, the two countries engaged in some limited joint-military maneuvers with the defense ministers announcing plans to expand military relations in the future. However, Turkey’s strong ties with NATO members and still operational ties with Israel, Syria’s arch-foe, will remain a sticking point for any deeper partnership between the two.

Given the rivalry between Iran and Turkey, Syria’s strong ties with Tehran might also serve as an obstacle towards a deeper strategic partnership with Ankara. On the economic front, Syria’s trade with Turkey is deeply one-sided. In 2009, Turkey’s exports amounted to $1.4 billion, while Syria only exported $328 million in exchange. Many are beginning to ask if Turkey is engaged in a new phase of neo-colonialism, establishing new patterns of center-periphery relations within its own region. In many ways, the growing bilateral interdependence is highly asymmetrical and fraught with potential challenges that could alter the course of the rapprochement in the future.

Turkey-West interdependence

Both Syria and Iran are aware that Turkey is far from leaving the western alliance and its ambitions are not confined to the East, not to mention Turkey’s deep interdependence with western economies and politico-security alliance.

In terms of external relations, Turkey is still a member of the NATO and its semi-export-oriented economy is heavily dependent on European investment, trade, and tourists. Europe is by far Turkey’s top trade partner and source of investments. In 2007, 56.4 percent of Turkish exports were destined to E.U. markets, while 40.8 percent of its imports came from Europe.

Its politico-security ties with the United States are still atop of the Turkey’s policy agenda.

On the domestic front, AKP’s current actions could be understood as part of its domestic political calculation. Turkey is a Muslim-majority country and undoubtedly many of its citizens have very strong feelings vis-à-vis Israel’s policy in Gaza. The fact that Turkish citizens were killed during the Israeli commando raid adds to this intense affinity between Turks on one hand, and Palestinians and the Islamic world on the other. Given the fervor of democracy in Turkish current politics, it is incumbent upon the Islamic-inspired, democratically elected AKP to respond in strong terms against Israeli actions, if not tap into such sentiments for electoral gains.

Nevertheless, there are limits to how assertive and “Islamized” AKP’s foreign policy can get. Given AKP’s relative losses in the 2007 elections, and growing criticism over and opposition to AKP’s seemingly anti-secular polices, there is simply a limited room for foreign policy alterations.

Principles of secularism are deeply embedded within Turkish politics and entrenched within the Turkish society. The military, as well as a huge portion of Turkish society, is in no position to accept the overriding of fundamental secular principles laid down by the much-revered Kemal Ataturk and the Turkish constitution.

The AKP leaders themselves consistently reiterated their commitment to be part of the European Union and their role as a bridge between East and West. In Foreign Minister DavutoÄŸlu’s own words, “We are proud of our religion and identity but at the same time we are part of European culture and European history and we are proud of that identity as well.”

On Turkey’s commitment to EU membership, he said, “Until 1999 we had some difficulties, we know that, but after 1999 we were very active to fulfill the criteria.”

The AKP’s ideological fervor is in no way geared towards disengaging and decoupling from the West so as to join a Muslim alliance against the west and Israel.

On the other hand, Turkey’s growing nationalism — which feeds its growing assertiveness — has more to do with the EU’s almost insulting reticence vis-à-vis admitting Turkey into the community. It has also something to do with Bush-era U.S. policies in the region, especially the brutal wars still being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the instability they brought upon the region.

Turkey has also recently been a target of virulent attacks by neoconservative institutions. For instance some have indicated that some of Turkey’s emerging alliances in the region are grounds for it to be kicked out of NATO. According to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), “If Turkey finds its best friends to be Iran, Hamas, Syria, and Brazil (look for Venezuela in the future), the security of that information (and Western technology in weapons in Turkey’s arsenal) is suspect. The United States should seriously consider suspending military cooperation with Turkey as a prelude to removing it from the organization.”

Neoconservatives are no longer the dominant force in the U.S. political establishment. However, they have been exerting immense pressure on the Obama administration on a range of key issues: from the healthcare reform, and the war in Afghanistan, to isolating Iran over its nuclear program. Moreover, the stance of the Israel lobby on the issue, and its influence on the Obama administration, is a key consideration when speculating on the future approach of the United States and Turkey. Nevertheless, good relations with Turkey are a prime consideration for the Obama administration in their attempts to reach out to the Muslim World and preserve unity within the NATO alliance.

Yet despite the residual animosity of past policies in the region, and internal politics that are always a factor, the United States and its allies are not totally bereft of leverage vis-à-vis the Turks. After all, Turkey’s regional maneuverings, in an effort to meet the membership criteria, have a lot to do with its plan to eliminate any of the EU’s doubt with respect to Turkey’s security to the South and East.

The Europeans are in a position to offer more preferable economic incentives to Turkey, as well as ease “political” restrictions on Turkey’s bid for E.U. membership. The United States can also expand its policy of “integrating emerging powers” into the global decision making processes by offering countries like Turkey a more prominent voice in the G-20, the UN Security Council, and other top political bodies.

In light of Turkey’s relatively huge foreign debt, about $274 billion, the West’s influence over the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions can serve as some leverage.

Israel is also actively courting Turkey’s favor with its speedy response to many of Turkey’s demands. First, Israel started releasing Turk members of the flotilla in its custody to appease Ankara. Secondly, Israel also considered easing the blockade on Gaza as part of its publicity campaign.

With all these factors to take into consideration, there might be little reason to expect a true foreign policy shift on the part of Turkey and an enduring alliance with Iran and Syria after all.

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FPIF contributor Richard Javad Heydarian is an Iranian observer and analyst of developments in the Middle East. He is based in Manila.