How is the Potential Operation in the Northern Syria Evaluated in Iran?

Umut Başar Senior Expert

Iran’s harsh statements against Türkiye's potential operation in Syria are damaging the trust between the two countries rather than being a deterrent for Türkiye.

The public has been talking about a military operation to create a safe zone 30 kilometers south of the Turkish borders by clearing the terrorist organization PKK/PYD/YPG elements that have occupied the Manbij and Tel Rifat regions in northern Syria for six years. Iran, which is a part of the Astana Process along with Türkiye and Russia, is also closely interested in Türkiye's potential operation. Although Iranian officials made moderate assessments to the media regarding Türkiye’s operations in Syria named Operation Euphrates Shield (2017), Operation Olive Branch (2018), and Operation Peace Spring, they have reacted more harshly to the potential new operation at the discursive level. The latest example of this situation has been seen in the Tehran visit of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last week when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the highest political authority in the country, stated that they stand against a new operation. Khamenei said “The issue of Syria’s territorial integrity is very important. Any military action in northern Syria will definitely harm Türkiye, Syria, and the entire region and will instead benefit terrorists.” These statements of Khamenei were presented to the reader as an “advice” in the Iranian media while the Persian media in diaspora presented them as a “warning.” It is a well-known fact that Türkiye and Iran have had different positions in Syria since the beginning of the civil war. Then, it is an important question why the Tehran administration objects to the Turkish intervention against the terrorist organization, which is armed and left as a proxy force in the region by the USA, by saying “Terrorists are not limited to a specific group.” 

The Iranian government and state officials discussed the issue in bilateral/trilateral talks rather than giving public statements to the media regarding Türkiye's previous operations. On the other hand, in the analyzes published in think tanks and the central media institutions, Türkiye's Syria policy was mostly seen from the perspective of "expansionism, caliphate, and Neo-Ottomanism”. Considering former President Hassan Rouhani’s statement that “Tehran's security starts from Damascus”, confining Türkiye’s security concerns to these three concepts by simplifying them is undoubtedly far from the reality, especially when Türkiye has a long land border with Syria, unlike Iran. As one of the countries most affected by the Syrian crisis, Türkiye has to ensure its own national security without leaving it to the goodwill of any country.

A characteristic feature of Iranian foreign policy now is that it takes the status quo-preserving stance of Russia as its starting point on crucial regional issues. After the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, the nuclear negotiations, which have been going on for a year and are no longer expected to yield results, showed that the Iranian side acts on the assumption that Russia will not change its stance. It develops relations in Syria according to the changing positions of Türkiye and Russia. Since Russia-Ukraine War has lasted longer than anticipated, Russia reduced the number of its forces in Syria like the USA. It paved the way for Iran, which operates in the central and southern parts of the country, to perceive Türkiye's operation against terror as a direct geopolitical loss for itself. Even though the establishment of a security zone in northern Syria by Türkiye does not correspond to interests of Iran strategically, Iran has other reasons to ambitiously participate in the anti-Türkiye block consisting of the USA, the Assad regime, PYD/PKK, and Russia. 

As in previous operations, it is possible to see content in the state-affiliated media institutions which present Türkiye's counter-terrorism steps as "massacre, genocide, occupation, protection of radical groups, attack on Syria's territorial integrity, expansion, desire to gain territory, adventurism, provocation, opportunism, and sectarianism”. These words have appeared as constant keywords in newspaper reports about Türkiye since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. In fact, there are similar comments about Türkiye's Iraq or Caucasus policy. In this regard, retired Iranian ambassador Ahmed Dastmalchian argues that “Ankara aims to clear a part of Idlib from Alevis by using radical terror groups, thereby creating a buffer zone on the border and disconnecting Syrian Alevis and Türkiye [Alevis].” As another example, Türkiye expert Ebrahim Farahani correlates the operation with Turkish domestic politics and claims that President Erdoğan, who has lost his popularity, aims to unite his political base before the next elections by activating the nationalist sentiments of the society through the operation. Leaving aside the stereotypical and superficial remarks in the press, it can be said that Iran's priority is to protect its political and economic gains in Syria. The Tehran administration does not want Türkiye to come forward with the operation to hinder Iran’s gains which it has acquired despite Russia. 

By taking advantage of Russia's preoccupation with Ukraine, Iran may want to maximize its acquisitions and privileges in Syria, especially in the field of energy and trade, which have remained in the background because of Russia. It may think that Türkiye's move one step closer to the significant city Aleppo thanks to the operation, is a threat to its own industry and trade network. The security and fortification of the shipment corridor, which is claimed to have been carrying oil from Syria to Iraq and Iran by tankers since 2016, would be easier for Iran without Türkiye in the country. This corridor can turn into an oil pipeline if the Syrian issue is resolved as Iran wishes. It is known that Iran conducts various oil operations in Iraq and Syria in order to bypass the US sanctions. The importance of these two countries in terms of Iran's oil export is undeniable.

On the other hand, there are views that the civil war in Syria is on its way to an end, and its political solution will be found in the midterm. Conservative analyst Ali Khaydari thinks that Türkiye's potential operation is aimed at the future of Syria. According to him, “[Türkiye] aims to indirectly occupy a part of Syria's territory, using its influence among the opposition, who are now busy writing a constitution, to settle its own groups there [among the Syrians] and use them in the new Syria.” This claim looks like a forced mind-reading. It goes without saying that Türkiye is the last country to be accused of changing the demographics of the region. Moreover, Türkiye did not move further inside of Syria by trying to remove the terrorist elements from its border with the three operations it had previously carried out. If there was only one serious proof that Türkiye was doing population engineering, this claim would come up in the international arena before Iran had a chance to bring it to the agenda. At this point, it comes to mind that the Tehran administration would prefer an organization in the form of a police force of the USA rather than the presence of Türkiye in a stable region in northern Syria. In that case, it is possible to think that Iran may negotiate with the groups in northern Syria, either directly or through the Assad regime. 

On the other hand, there are other reasons for Iran's strong opposition to the new operation. It seems that the normalization process in Türkiye’s relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates has caused discomfort in Iran. In particular, the establishment of good relations by any country with Israel makes Iran uneasy. There is an irrational expectation in Iran for the countries of the region to keep their distance from Israel. It would be worrying for Iran if Türkiye, which can establish good relations with both Israel and Iran, abandons its independent policy and balance policy. In this regard, analyst Vali Golmohammadi's relatively reasonable remark is noteworthy. He states that “Even though Türkiye has taken various initiatives against Iran in various ways tactically, it is not a part of an anti-Iran coalition.” It is possible to think that although Iran is aware of Türkiye’s position, it does not want to strengthen Türkiye's hand in Syria in order to be dominant in bilateral relations. It is not possible for the Tehran administration to discourage Ankara from its determination in the operation. Nevertheless, in the background, Iran’s sense of being stuck in regional foreign policy may also have an effect on its harshening attitudes. It is witnessed that relations with neighbors, especially Türkiye, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even Iraq, are not going well in the first year of the government of Ebrahim Raisi, who said “Neighbors are our priority” when he took the office. In his meeting with President Erdoğan, Supreme Leader Khamenei made clear emphasis on the Syrian operation and that the Iran-Armenia border should remain open, which shows the feeling of being excluded from the regional equation in a hinterland that starts from the west of Iran and extends from the north to the east. Therefore, it seems that there is a policy to make things difficult for Türkiye in Syria, especially when Türkiye will be able to reach the Turkestan geography without the need for Iran, through the Zangezur Corridor, which is planned to be opened in the near future. On the other hand, the tension in the country's socio-politics under the current conditions due to Türkiye's integration process with the Turkish world makes Iran aggressive in its relations with Türkiye.

Conclusion

Although Iran opposes a new operation by Türkiye with an unprecedented harsh discourse, it is highly unlikely that any Iranian militia will confront Türkiye on the ground when the time for the operation comes. Iran has nothing to gain against Türkiye, which has started the operation. In case of an opposite scenario, Iran would bring Türkiye closer to Israel in Syria and to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in relations with Iran. The fact that Russia is not openly a party in the operation constitutes sufficient ground for Türkiye. Thus, statements from Iran are not only far from being a deterrent for Türkiye but they also erode the foundation of trust between the two countries. While Russia is reducing its influence in Syria, Iran perceives Türkiye, which prioritizes border security, as its rival. To ensure permanent peace and stability, Türkiye proposes to establish the platform of six in the South Caucasus, where Tehran and Ankara are parties, and invites Iran with an inclusive approach. Hence it is meaningful that the Tehran administration has an exclusionary approach towards Türkiye in the Syria issue, where both countries are also parties.

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