13 Temmuz 2011 Çarşamba

Iran and Turkey Divided over Syria

Shayan GHAJAR  InsideIran

Though Turkey has invested a great deal of effort into its policy of maintaining good relations with neighboring states, the Arab winter of discontent has severely weakened the ability of the Turkish government to do so. Syria, which shares a border with Turkey stretching hundreds of miles, has proved particularly damaging to Turkey’s regional foreign policy. Forced to speak out on Syria’s burgeoning humanitarian crisis as Bashar al-Assad’s troops drive thousands to seek safety on the border between the two nations, Turkey’s stance has set it at odds with Syria’s staunch ally, Iran.

Turkey’s policy of seeking positive relations with regional states led it to better relations with Syria in recent years after decades of mistrust between the two nations. Similarly, Turkey has sought improved relations with Iran as well, brokering the ineffectual–and politically costly–Tehran Declaration in 2010, which sought to resolve the international dispute over Iran’s nuclear enrichment. While the United States supported Turkey’s efforts to coax Syria back into the international community, its efforts to do the same with Iran were met with skepticism and frustration. Now, with Syria’s instability representing a threat not only to Turkey’s border security but also its regional reputation, Ankara is taking a much firmer stance on its neighboring state.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has consistently sought to project an image of Turkey as an example of, and force for, successful democracy in the Middle East. Additionally, Turkey’s tensions with Israel have been carefully calculated in Ankara to show the Turkish Republic as an enemy of governments that oppress their populations. Consequently, the Turkish leader had little choice but to speak out against Assad’s violent crackdowns on the Syrian population.

However, Erdoğan’s strong terminology, which in recent statements included calling the actions of the Syrian military “savagery,” indicates an escalation in tensions between Turkey and Syria. Erdoğan initially urged Assad to pursue reforms and avoid a worsening of the strife. After it became evident Assad favored crackdowns over reform, Erdoğan personally called the Syrian leader to press him to end violence against civilians. After ignoring Turkey’s advice, Syrian diplomats publicly claimed to desire to keep ties with Turkey strong, while at the same time, Turkish news agencies report, “an anti-Turkey backlash is now under way in Syria, with state-controlled media accusing Ankara of trying to resurrect the Ottoman Empire and re-establish control over the Middle East.”

As a result, the Turkish leader is apparently personally affronted at the Syrian response as refugees continue to flood Turkey’s border with their turbulent neighbor. “I spoke with Mr. Bashar al-Assad four or five days ago. I explained this situation very clearly and openly. Despite this, they take [our advice] very lightly. And sadly they tell us different things,” Erdoğan complained.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited the refugee camps housing thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing Assad’s brigades, further solidifying Turkish resolve to confront their neighbor over human rights abuses. Tensions are such that the Turkish government has felt the need to address rumors of NATO involvement and the establishment of military buffer zones on the Syrian border.

Iran’s reaction to Turkey’s stance has been strong and unmistakable. PressTV, Iran’s official English-language news agency, has published articles explicitly accusing Turkey of smuggling weapons across the border to armed rebels, with headlines such as ‘Turkey Behind Syria Unrest‘. In a similar vein, PressTV has also published articles describing alleged secret meetings between Turkey and Israel aimed at normalizing relations–in other words, Iran is portraying Turkey as having sided with Iran’s greatest foes.

Iranian foreign policy websites have also featured articles asking bluntly whether Iran will choose between its strongest military ally, Syria, or its trade partner, Turkey. At this point, Iran’s actions in Syria–including, Syrian refugees claim, direct military action against civilians in villages near the Turkish border–indicate that Iran has, in no uncertain terms, decided to stick by its long-time ally.

Similarly, Turkey’s leadership has consulted extensively with American officials in forming a response to Syria’s crisis. While Turkey’s tensions with Israel since the Gaza flotilla debacle precipitated a flurry of articles in the American press declaring that Turkey’s alliances are shifting East, the humanitarian situations in Syria and Libya have shown Turkey to be willing to work with the United States to form a concerted response to the sea changes occurring in the Middle East and North Africa. The Turkish Prime Minister and President Obama have discussed both Syria and Libya twice in recent weeks.

While it is premature to declare Turkey’s policy of good relations with neighboring countries to be defunct, the conflict in Syria will no doubt prove a diplomatic minefield and major challenge for Turkey’s attempts to maintain its current role in regional politics–one which may serve to highlight potentially irreconcilable differences with Iran in matters of foreign policy.


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