Since January 2011, Syrian streets have been hit by a protest demanding removal of the Ba‘th regime and Bashar al-Asad from power. A growing armed insurgency and other developments, which took place in November, showed that the situation is getting out of control, dragging the country into a bloody civil war. The uprising has claimed around 3,500 people from the opposition and 800 soldiers, this being an indication that the Ba‘th regime has not been able to contain the situation. Instead, weekly protests have been escalated by insurgent attacks, mostly launched by the Free Syrian Army on government forces including a Syrian air force intelligence base near Damascus.
Aside from shaking the foundation of 40 years of Ba‘th rule, the unfolding events have sparked a new rivalry between Turkey and Iran due to the crucial geo-strategic position of Syria. Syria has been a close ally of Iran since the long-lasting and devastating Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s. Syria was the only Arabian country that extended its support to Iran, mostly for utilitarian reasons to offset Saddam Hussein’s influence and to gain an ally in a possible confrontation with him. After the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between the two became more cordial as Syria needed the political and financial support of a strong regional power against the unrelenting threats of the US and Israel. Iran too needed a precious Arabian ally that shared borders with occupied Palestine and Lebanon. Through Syria, Iran has been able to support Palestinian groups and Hizbullah against its arch enemy in the region, Israel.
A sudden change in Turkey’s relations with Syria, once a close ally, with whom it went so far as to have a joint military exercise and cabinet meeting only a few months ago, has indeed caught Tehran off guard. The Iranian policy makers were appalled with Ankara’s harsh rhetoric targeting Bashar al-Asad, and Turkey’s patronage of the US-backed and financed Syrian opposition. Worst of all, close cooperation between Turkey and the US on possible political and economic (and perhaps military) actions against Syria alarmed Iranian decision makers and policy analysts.
However, this was not the only danger Turkey posed to Islamic Iran. In September 2011, Turkey announced its decision to deploy a NATO missile early-warning system that was considered by Iranians as a measure to safeguard Israel against an Iranian counter-attack in a possible Israeli first-strike directed at the Islamic Republic.
Turkey’s agreement to the NATO missile system unsurprisingly angered Tehran. On October 8, 2011 Major-General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, then head of the Revolutionary Guards and presently a senior military advisor to Imam Ali Khamenei, lambasted Turkey for pursuing pro-American policies: “The behavior of Turkish statesmen toward Syria and Iran is wrong and, I believe, they are acting in line with the goals of America.” General Safavi also warned Turkey against the political and economic consequences of implementing US friendly policies that would threaten Iran and its regional allies:
“If Turkey does not distance itself from this unconventional political behavior it will have both the Turkish people turning away from it domestically and the neighboring countries of Syria, Iraq and Iran [reassessing] their political ties… If Turkish political leaders fail to make their foreign policy and ties with Iran clear, they will run into problems. If, as they claim, they intend to raise the volume of contracts with Iran to the $20 billion mark, they will ultimately have to accommodate Iran.”
General Safavi was not alone in his frustration. In an interview given to Dunya Bulteni, a Turkish online news hub, Ali Fadlallah, son of late Lebanese scholar and thinker, Muhammad Hussain Fadlallah, also expressed his disappointment with Turkey’s mistakes in dealing with the Arab Spring, especially the uprising in Syria .
Criticisms of Turkish foreign policy came not only from the outside; some prominent Turkish Islamist thinkers have also pointed out inconsistencies and dangers in Turkish regional policy. Foremost among them was Ali Bulac, who wrote a series of articles in his column in Zaman, a pro-government daily newspaper. In one of his articles, after mentioning Turkey’s two major arguments for changing its position against Syria — “Asad did not listen to Turks’ advice” and “the Syrian army started to kill the protestors” — he unleashed a barrage of criticism: “Listen to what Assad says, ‘It took 30 years for you [Turkey] to change, yet you are expecting me to make revolutionary changes within three months. I wish to pursue Turkey’s model in the reform process but while we are waiting for help, you confront us with threats.’ As for the massacring of the Syrian opposition, we [Turkish people] are deeply saddened by it, but it is dubious that this [massacre] was Turkey’s [the AKP] sole motivation for changing its position. Since 2003, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been massacred in Iraq and these massacres were committed by aircrafts that took off from Adana [Turkish city where an American Air Force base is located]; yet we [the AKP] did nothing about these massacres. Additionally, in Yemen and Bahrain, the opposition has been killed with the same brutality but again we [the AKP] did nothing about these massacres.”
Akif Emre, writing his column in Yenisafak, another pro-government daily newspaper, elaborated upon the connections between the revolts in Syria and the renewed threats of a US/Israeli attack on Iran, and warned about the dire consequences of Turkey’s position:
“If it is carefully considered there is a deliberate synchronicity between the increased tension in Syria and the sudden increase in pressure against Iran. Indeed it is not a coincidence that when primarily Israel, the US and Britain have been increasing their pressure on Iran with every new [international] agreement, Turkey also in a similar role seems to increase pressure on Syria. On one front the West talks about striking Iran and on the other front it talks about an armed struggle in Syria as the next logical step to resist [the government’s] murdering protestors on a daily basis.”
“Strategic depth” or strategic domination?
The inconsistencies and problems in Turkey’s suddenly changing position toward regional developments have been well articulated above, yet there is still no tangible answer regarding why Turkey has changed its position. Is Turkey a “sub-contractor” of US interests in the region and have recent developments reminded the Turkish policy makers of the reality that without US blessing, any independent Turkish initiative is doomed to failure? This is the view of many critics who have accepted the idea that Turkey’s foreign policy is subservient to the more dominant US objectives in the region. However, such a parochial assumption would be too simplistic and unfair to Erdogan whose foreign policy track record does not deserve such a stain.
Turkey has been supporting Iran’s nuclear bid and last year after a painstaking process, Turkey and Brazil brokered a nuclear swap deal with Iran that was a significant blow to US policy to increase international pressure on Iran. A more powerful obstacle to US policy emerged when Turkey vetoed new rounds of sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council this year. Turkey has always been against an attack on Iran, and on many occasions has made it clear they would not allow it.
Since the AKP came to power the relations between Turkey and Israel, the most important ally of the US in the world, have been strained. After the famous showdown in Davos between Erdogan and Shimon Peres in January 2009, the relations between Turkey and Israel hit an all-time low. Finally in May 2010 when Israeli commandos heinously raided the Gaza-bound aid ship Mavi Marmara, the relations came to an abyss. Turkey has been officially boycotting Israel since the attack on the Mavi Marmara.
But then the same Turkey has shown that, after much difficult internal deliberation, it can side with NATO and allow deployment of a missile early-warning system on Turkish soil to “protect Israel from Iranian missiles.” The best explanation to ostensible inconsistencies in Turkey’s foreign policy comes from Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the chief architect of Turkish foreign policy. On November 14, 2011, in a session of the Turkish National Assembly, Davutoglu made his case, largely in response to increasing external and domestic criticisms and warnings. Upon highlighting Turkey’s independent policies, he went on to say:
“How does the allegation of “sub-contractor” find its way to us? Since our adolescence this has been implanted in our minds: ‘We are so weak that some people make plans and we [may only] participate in their plans. Some people are so powerful that we cannot make any change in their plans.’ The mental revolution that we want to achieve in our foreign policy is exactly [to change] this [way of thinking]. As far as our foreign policy is concerned, we are the ones who make the plans, we are the ones who establish the principles, and we are the ones who develop the discourse. Sometimes this might concur with US [policies] if they are just and correct. Sometimes this might concur with Iran, if they are just and correct. Sometimes this might concur with Russia, if they are just and correct and sometimes with the EU.” Davutoglu makes absolute realpolitik sense. It is not the US or any other that dictates an outside agenda on Turkey, instead it is Turkey that is trying to take advantage of the power vacuum that was created due to regional and trans-regional factors. While doing this — as Davutoglu has so far not explained what he means by “just and correct” — it can only be assumed that Turkey entertains on ethical principle that would restrain it from working with anyone so long as that party furthers Turkey’s national interests.
From this perspective, it did not take long for Turkey to realize that the Arab Spring has been toppling old dictators of the Muslim East who had been too intractable to influence. Those who have been replacing, or are expected to replace them, however, have been in past decades members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that been impressed with the performance of a secular and democratic Turkey. And Turkey itself has been respected by the West and by its own people thanks to its flourishing economy at a time when the US and EU are going through a major economic crisis. As leader of the major Tunisian Islamic party — modeled much on the Muslim Brotherhood — Rachid Ghannouchi has already spelled out he is ready to fully cooperate with Turkey and adapt the Turkish model. Riyad Shukfa, The General Secretary of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, in a press conference held in Istanbul, went so far as to invite military intervention by Turkey.
Lastly, the US is not as powerful as it was ten years ago; due to ongoing economic crises and the military quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan, US world hegemony has been declining. Hence it is now unable to dictate its own policy in various regions, particularly the Muslim East. Erdogan and his foreign policy team caught hold of this opportunity and did not wait long to capture the moment. The first and unsuccessful attempt was staged during the 2010 election in Iraq when Turkey supported the secular al-Iraqiyya coalition against the religious Shi‘i, Sunni, and Kurdish coalition in an attempt to gain stronger influence after the withdrawal of US forces. But Turkey’s play was rejected by Iran, which had more leverage in Iraq and used its influence to align different factions together into an Iran-friendly government.
Ankara learned a painful lesson: that Iran stands between its ambitions to become a regional power broker. Thus when the protests began in Syria, Turkey saw another opportunity for expanding its influence in the region; and perhaps this time the stakes were higher, as taking down the most important regional ally of Iran would significantly diminish Iran’s regional influence and pave the way for Turkey’s regional dominance. Having said that, Turkey still needs vital oil and gas from Iran, hence Turkey’s interests still dictate the existence of a stable but weak Iran until a more promising option becomes available.