Does Iran Support a New Turkish Military Operation in Syria?

Iran’s silent stance toward Ankara’s military plans for eastern Syria does not mean that the Islamic Republic is basically supporting a military operation.

Long before US President Donald Trump’s surprise decision Dec. 19 to pull the US troops out of Syria, Turkey had made its position clear toward Washington’s military plans in the Arab country, emphasizing that the White House should cease its support for the armed Kurdish groups active in northern and eastern parts of Syria. For the United States, supporting the Kurdish forces, who constitute the main part of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has long become the most tangible, most effective way of inserting direct influence on the developments on the ground in Syria.

However, seeing those militias as mere extensions of the PKK terrorist organization, Ankara has been worried that once they manage to establish their positions inside the Syrian territories close to the Turkish borders, they would start to pose an existential threat against Turkey. As such, high-ranking Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have always warned that Turkey is ready to resort to the military option to eliminate this serious source of threat against their country.

Trump’s announcement on Syria pullout came at the time of a renewed discussion on the possibility of a new Turkish military operation in Syria to target the Kurdish militias. Maybe this was the main reason why the exit of American forces from Syria was seen by many analysts around the world as a “gift” to Ankara, as the move would mean the end of American support for the Syrian Kurdish groups, leaving them exposed to an imminent Turkish military operation. In fact, although on Dec. 21 Erdogan announced the postponement of such an operation till the situation regarding the US withdrawal becomes clear, he did not mean that the military option is now off the table.

Meanwhile, as the Syrian Crisis has over the past seven years become a complex and multi-layered crisis, involving a variety of regional and trans-regional actors, no development on the ground can be assessed as having no effect on the other actors involved. Furthermore, as Ankara is one of the three pillars of the Astana Peace Process, the implications of its moves for its two partners, namely Tehran and Moscow, may have wide-ranging effects not only on the nature of interactions within the Astana trio, but also on the overall military and political equations in Syria.

As far as Iran is concerned, although the long-term interests of Tehran and Ankara in Syria remain to be different, if not contradictory – especially when it comes to the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the role of opposition groups in the future political system of the country – Iranian officials have so far refused from taking any position against a potential Turkish military operation. In fact, the only direct position in this regard came from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who said in an interview Dec. 24 that Iran understands Turkey’s concerns over terrorist activities, “but a military operation without the agreement of Damascus cannot help solve the crisis.” He also declared Iran’s readiness to help Turkey address its concerns through coordination with the Syrian government.

The main reason behind Iran’s moderate approach toward Ankara’s warnings of a military operation against the Kurdish militias is that Iran and Turkey – despite all their differences in some other important areas – feel threatened from what’s been going on in eastern Syria. For Ankara, the main threat comes from the ties between those militias and the PKK terrorist group, which has been actively conducting terrorist activities inside the Turkish borders for several decades.

Although Iran does have its own challenges dealing with the Iranian arm of PKK (known as PJAK) and basically share Turkey’s concerns in this regard, given the fact that there’s no common border between Iran and Syria, the Syrian Kurdish groups have been less of a problem for the Islamic Republic from this aspect. Instead, Iran’s main concern regarding the Syrian Kurdish groups is that during the course of the Syrian Crisis, these groups have turned into Washington’s main instrument to exert influence inside Syria.

As such, Iran has been worried that the consolidation of Kurdish rule in eastern Syria would provide the US with more leverage to push for the withdrawal of Iran and pro-Iran groups from Syria – as has been declared by the White House as one of its main goals in the Arab country. Iran’s other major concern is the potential for the fragmentation of Syria, given the existence of separatist and centrifugal tendencies among some of the Kurdish groups in Syria.

Mindful of this issue, Iran has for long tried to initiate a compromise between the Kurds and Assad, according to which, the Syrian government regains the control of all the territories east of the Euphrates River. During a trilateral Iranian-Russian-Turkish summit in Tehran Sept. 7, which was held within the framework of Astana format, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani touched upon this issue, saying that the situation in Eastern Euphrates should be addressed soon by the three partners.

Looking at the situation from this perspective, it could be said that the main reason behind Iran’s silence toward Turkish warnings of a military operation is Tehran’s hope that these warnings might act as an accelerator to push the Kurds toward reaching an agreement with Damascus. As for now, the approach seems to have borne fruit, as the Kurdish YPG asked the Syrian government Dec. 28 to take the control of Manbij, after the US decision to withdraw from Syria. Similar arrangements are under negotiations between the two sides regarding the other cities and towns currently under the Kurdish control.

To summarize, Iran’s silent stance toward Ankara’s military plans for eastern Syria does not mean that the Islamic Republic is basically supporting a military operation, but it tries to build upon the opportunity provided by the Turkish pressures on the Kurds to consolidate the position of the Syrian government.

At the same time, it seems that if the Syrian government and its allies, namely Russia and Iran, could guarantee that the revival of Damascus’ control over the territories east of the Euphrates would eradicate the threat of terrorism for Turkey, Ankara would be open to reviewing its military plans. Reacting to the reports that the Syrian army has taken over Manbij from the Kurdish groups, Erdogan said “when the terrorist organizations leave the [eastern Euphrates] region we will have nothing to do there.” In the same vein, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusuglu said after a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov Dec. 29 that Turkey will continue its close cooperation with Russia and Iran on the Syrian issue. These statements, as well as the current developments in the relations between the three Astana partners, indicate that they have reached a realistic understanding of their interests, goals and redlines in Syria and try to observe each other’s considerations when planning to act on the ground in the Arab country.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect IRAM’s editorial policy.

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