In the last of a three-part series, Agha Hussein investigates how cooperation with Turkey is helping Iran resist pressure to leave Syria.
In stark contrast to their positions during the early years of the deadly war in Syria, Turkey and Iran are currently finding areas of strategic cooperation in the war-torn country. The driving factor behind this newfound convergence is a consensus and vision for Syria shared by the trio of Russia, Israel and the wealthy Gulf Arab countries that was described in detail in the first two installments of this series and runs counter to Iran’s interests. But just how plausible, and indeed feasible is it for Iran to keep the Resistance culture thriving in Syria, and is cooperation between Iran and Turkey in Syria’s post-war landscape possible?
Turkey and Iran’s converging interests
An April 21, 2019 report by al Masdar News’ editor-in-chief Leith Abou Fadel mapped out a “new proxy war” developing in northern Syria. On one side was Iran and Turkey, on the other, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Citing an anonymous government source in Damascus, Fadel revealed a Turkey-Iran pact to conduct operations in northern Syria where the secessionist SDF Kurds were entrenched. Saudi Arabia and Russia, on the other hand, sought a ‘peaceful settlement’ between the Syrian government and the SDF.
Also revealed was Turkey’s assistance to Iran in sending oil supplies to Damascus. In the context of the evident pains taken by Iran’s rivals to cut it off economically and militarily from Syria, this constitutes a sign of significantly enhanced Turkey-Iran ties. Turkey, according to the report, agreed to allow Iran to transport oil westward from its borders through Turkey and onward to Syria via Turkey’s Mediterranean ports.
Turkey has excellent relations with Russia, which it has steadily enhanced across the military and economic domains alongside its deteriorating ties with the United States and NATO in the form of its purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system and energy projects such as the TurkStream gas pipeline.
Russia, Turkey and Iran also constitute the Astana format launched in January 2017 for organizing ceasefires and detente in Syria. However, given the rivalry that is developing between Iran and Russia, the format is often being replaced by bargaining between Turkey and Russia over issues such as the reintegration of Turkish-influenced terrorist-held Idlib back into the Syrian fold, leaving Iran appearing marginalized.
For example, Turkey’s successful ‘Operation Peace Spring’ against the SDF – which is essentially a rebranded iteration of the same Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that fought Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s – was concluded in October of 2019 with a Putin-Erdogan Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). Under the MoU, Russia agreed to disarm the SDF and grant Turkey a safe zone inside northeastern Syria around which Syrian-Russian and Russian-Turkish patrols would ensure the removal of any SDF presence.
While Iran, like Damascus, initially showed disapproval of Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria, like Damascus it immediately accepted the Putin-Erdogan MoU which even U.S. President Trump acknowledged as an inevitable conclusion.
However, Turkey and Iran shared closer views on the situation in northern Syrian than Russia, who would have preferred inevitably never-ending talks between Damascus and SDF over Turkey’s military solution. The Iranian ‘disapproval’ of the operation was therefore likely only for public consumption and it proceeded to cooperate with Turkey, a country with considerable significance as a means to transport Iranian oil to Syria.
Turkey: a deterrent against Russia’s ‘contain Iran’ strategy?
As important from the Iranian perspective as Iran and Turkey’s shared views regarding oil aid to Damascus and the fate of the SDF-PKK, however, was the fact that Russia despite clearly differing with Turkey on how to deal with the Kurds soon eagerly accommodated essentially all Turkey’s demands in northern Syria.
This is because Russia’s evident respect for Turkish strategic depth in Syria may play to Iran’s advantage, as it means that Russia will stay away from the Israeli-blessed anti-Turkish policies being pushed by Gulf Arab countries like Saudi Arabia. Iran can, in lieu of this, bolster its ties with Turkey as a buffer against pressure upon itself from Russia, Israel, and the GCC.
A Russia-brokered January 13, 2020 meeting in Moscow between Syrian and Turkish intelligence chiefs and the views on northern Syria exchanged therein provides a concrete example of Russian non-participation in GCC-Israeli endeavors which may anger Turkey. In this case, it is the GCC’s ‘neo-Arab project’ to exacerbate Syria-Turkey tensions which Russia has clearly shown it is not on board with.
Thus, Turkey’s credentials as a potential buffer against Russian pressure on Iran are noteworthy. Moreover, there is ample scope for Iran to exploit this and reduce the coherence of the Russia-GCC-Israeli alliance by creating areas of overlap of Iranian and Turkish interests which will give Turkey’s partner Russia pause with regard to its attempts to counter Iran.
Whatever Russia might make of Turkey enabling Iran to sustain its footprint in Syria, such as the oil transit to Damascus across Turkey, Russia is unlikely to force the issue on Turkey.
What, then, are the prospects for this Iran-Turkey cooperation?
With closer inspection, the scope for Iran to follow this strategy of interlocking its interests with Turkey to ward off Russia is significant. In particular, northern Syria, venue of the ‘new proxy war’ featuring Iran and Turkey versus Russia and the GCC, described in the al Masdar report by Leith Abou Fade mentioned earlier, becomes apparent as the site for such Iran-Turkey cooperation as a means of Iran hedging its bets and exploiting Russia’s acceptance of Turkey’s role in Syria to its favor.
The aforementioned Putin-Erdogan MoU’s allowance of Turkey to resettle Syrian refugees in Syria seemed a logical step following the conclusion of Operation Peace Spring. However, in reality, it signaled Russia greenlighting a much more strategic Turkish ploy: carving out via demographic engineering a Turkish sphere of influence in northern Syria which would be characterized by a pro-Turkish population and persevere even if Turkey handed over military control of the region back to Damascus.
Turkey’s intent to demographically engineer northern Syria from a Kurdish-dominated region to an Arab-dominated one using Syrian refugees in Turkey was evident even prior to Turkey’s military Operation Peace Spring against the SDF-PKK. This can be seen in a September 2019 declaration by President Erdogan that a ‘refugee city’ needed to be built in northern Syria as a buffer against a ‘terror corridor’ and so that the refugees could partake in agriculture.
In his declaration, Erdogan referred to the SDF-PKK as the ‘terror corridor’. Analyst Andrew Korybko highlights Erdogan’s to resettle many Syrian refugees – believed widely to be of an anti-Assad orientation and with Muslim Brotherhood-leanings – into the ‘safe zone’ granted to Turkey by the MoU. The MoU did not specify where the refugees would be re-settled and thus granted Turkey great freedom for the planned demographic engineering. The goal, of course, is a pro-Turkish sphere of influence in northern Syria.
But what does this mean for Iran?
In the context of Turkey allowing Iran to use its territory to transport oil aid to Syria (while obviously charging fees for the ‘service’), the pro-Turkish polity in northern Syria could be availed by Iran as a shorter land route for undisturbed oil aid to Damascus – and a means of ensuring Damascus’ financial-economic dependency on the GCC and Russia does not rise too much.
Vitally, Russia would be unable to challenge the Turkish-approved Iranian movement in this Turkish-dominated corridor the way that it challenges Damascus’ acquiescence to Iran’s strength in Syria. Regardless of much agitation by the GCC, led by the UAE, following Operation Peace Spring against Turkey’s demographic engineering as well as efforts to ‘unite’ Damascus and the SDF against Turkey, Russia clearly recognizes its Turkish partner as a more powerful player in Syria than its GCC partners and will not commit to a stand-off with Turkey over its cooperation with Iran.
While Damascus is irked by the prospect of a large Brotherhood presence in the north, Israel’s own antagonism toward Turkey’s northern Syria operation and subsequent shaping of a de facto pro-Turkish polity is no small issue. This is because Israel would be losing allies-within-Syria in the form of the SDF-PKK, with whom Israel’s Mossad collaborated extensively even in prior decades when Turkey was a prioritized Israeli ally. For Iran, whose Resistance coalition is built around countering Israel, the displacement of the Kurds by a pro-Turkish polity – de facto legitimized by Russia via the Putin-Erdogan MoU – is a positive scenario not only for the loss of potential Israeli intelligence assets on the ground in Syria but also as a point of deteriorating Turkey-Syria ties.
Do Turkey’s ties to Israel stand in the way of cooperation with Iran?
A view of where Turkey-Israel ties currently stand versus their state when the two’s anti-Assad positions were remarkably convergent in 2011 shows a divergence – and subsequent creation of space for Iran-Turkey cooperation.
Part of Israel and AIPAC’s motive for pushing sanctions on Iran in the 1990s and early 2000s was to ensure that newly discovered oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Seas could not be shipped through Iran and onto global markets. Western companies afflicted by the 1996 Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) desired the Iran route as it was the shortest, but they could not match AIPAC’s drive to ensure ILSA was extended in 2001.
Israel instead wanted that oil and gas to piped through Turkey, who would profit from the transit fees, port activity and construction business instead of Iran.
As documented in a series of articles by Andrew Killgore in 2001 and 2002 on ‘The Great Caspian Sea Oil Pipeline Game,’ Israel lobbied heavily in both the extension of ILSA and a route through Turkey for the newly discovered Caspian oil and gas.
A pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan through Tbilisi in Georgia and on to Turkey’s Ceyhan Port was promoted to take Azerbaijan’s Caspian oil to the Mediterranean. Killgore states that the Bush administration, its decisive Pentagon and State Department posts filled with the neoconservatives and Israel Lobby-connected individuals, pushed vehemently for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline despite its infeasibility. This, Killgore argues, was because Israel wanted to assure that Iran was bypassed completely.
The BTC was longer than a pipeline through Iran would be. It also crossed through areas affected by Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, separatists in Georgia and stretched across rougher terrain.
Killgore explains that Azerbaijan’s oil field discoveries at the time were “disappointing,” bringing the feasibility of the BTC down. However, the Bush administration pushed nearby Kazakhstan to sign a memorandum to pipe oil from its Caspian fields across to Azerbaijan in order to prop up the case for the BTC.
This came as Kazakhstan’s national oil company itself conducted studies finding Iran ‘the shortest and possibly cheapest route for oil to Asian markets’. Regardless, the Bush administration’s ‘special ambassadors’ for the Caspian region continued promoting the idea that huge discoveries of oil would soon be made near Azerbaijan’s Caspian waters, thus making the BTC worth the investment for the Kazakhs and multinational corporations alike.
What Killgore calls the “Israel-First cabal,” however, continued to promote BTC. Spurred on by ILSA’s extension in 2005, it became a reality despite Kazakhstan ultimately not joining the effort due to its own gas fields not being production-capable.
Today, however, significant rifts have appeared in Turkey-Israel ties with regard to monopolizing the flow and marketing of regional energy resources, the very area where Israel invested heavily to keep Turkey on board with its anti-Syria policies.
Israel over the last few years has backed, with ardent Turkish rivals Egypt, Cyprus and Greece, the ‘EastMed Gas Pipeline’ which is a project strongly opposed by Turkey. The EastMed connects newly discovered Eastern Mediterranean gas fields controlled by Israel and the Greek part of Cyprus to facilities in Greece which will pump it to Europe for sale. The EastMed deliberately leaves out Turkey – a natural, shorter-distance avenue for transit on to Europe and which bears a gas transmission grid already integrated with Europe – for geopolitical reasons.
Much of the EastMed’s route crosses through maritime territory disputed with Cyprus by Turkey. Turkey, who made a pact with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya, demarcated the Turkey-Libya maritime border in a way which cut through the EastMed’s path, raising the stakes and demonstrating heated opposition to the project.
Notably, Israel supports Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), which has waged war against the UN-recognized Tripoli-based GNA since 2014 and is armed by Israel. Turkey recently deployed troops to Libya to ward off Haftar’s advance on Tripoli.
Iran has availed deteriorating Turkey-Israel ties, developing a slowly progressing, somewhat concealed involvement in Libya where Iranian-made anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) have been spotted with the GNA. The Libyan Ambassador to Iran is also from the GNA.
Turkey-Iran cooperation in Syria thus fits within a broader context of improving Iran-Turkey understanding of geopolitical issues driven mostly by deteriorating Turkish ties with Israel.
The architects of the war in Syria sought to destroy the Resistance alliance through force and notably failed, but the battle clearly continues on in an evolved shape and form. The contours of the struggle for Syria’s future between the Resistance and its rivals and enemies have taken on dimensions previously unseen in Syria but their progression and manifestation in current alignments between the host of states vying for influence and strategic depth in Syria is quite visible.
Feature photo | Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, left, and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani arrive for a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, Sept. 16, 2019. Burhan Ozbilici | AP
Agha Hussain is an independent researcher based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. He specialized in Middle Eastern affairs and history and is an editorial contributor to Eurasia Future, Regional Rapport and other news outlets. Read more of his work on his personal blog.