The rise of the Turkish and Iranian roles at the expense of the Arabs

What is not clear is what Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey wants. Today, Ankara seems to be seeking to outdo Iran when it comes to fighting ISIS

Raghida Dergham

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It is clear what Iran wants to achieve in Syria and Iraq, regardless of provisional alliances and other approaches designed to further its regional influence and strategic partnerships. Tehran today tops the U.S. priorities, exactly as it had sought and engineered. Tehran has been able to shake the U.S. relations with Washington’s traditional allies, becoming the alternative to them especially in the context of the U.S. war on the Islamic State group (ISIS).

What is not clear is what Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey wants. Today, Ankara seems to be seeking to outdo Iran when it comes to fighting ISIS, with Turkey finally joining the anti-ISIS coalition of which Tehran is an honorary member via Washington. Turkey seems to be also trying to outdo the Kurds in the same respect, the Kurds being one of Washington’s key allies in Iraq and Syria against ISIS.

The Turkish president has put on many gloves, reshaping his regional roles and leaving behind a trail of enemies and accusations, including of facilitating the rise of ISIS. But this accusation has also been made against Iran, a number of Gulf nations, and the Assad regime, allegedly in close cooperation with former Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki.

ISIS is a terrible cocktail with connections to a nexus of global and regional intelligence agencies, involving even the United States and Israel. ISIS is an effective instrument of ethnic and sectarian cleansing, as required by the scheme to partition the Arab region that serves all interests except the Arab interest.

The Arab leaders, in contrast to Iranian clarity, Turkish ambiguity, and Israeli yearning for Arab fragmentation, are distraught and are in disarray. Egypt is watching Turkey from the Muslim Brotherhood angle. Egypt is crucial to restoring the Arab weight in the regional balance of power, and needs Gulf support. Yet Egypt must think outside the box and seek new practical and long-term initiatives.

As for Iraq, Tehran is staking a claim to it, while Ankara is bargaining over Syria. In the meantime, the United States seems ready to distribute roles between these players, under the pretext of the priority of crushing ISIS. Washington also seems to be more confident in the Iranian, Turkish, Kurdish, and Israeli actors than in the Arab actors, as partners in the war being fought in the Arab heartlands and with Arab blood – with a partition map that benefits Turkey, Iran, and Israel ultimately.

In Syria, there seems to be a new U.S.-Turkish agreement, blessing the idea of buffer or safe zones in northern Syria. The agreement also includes allowing the United States to use the Incirlik Air Base, while Turkey has entered as a direct party to the international coalition against ISIS led by Washington. The two nations are also jointly working on a program to train Syrian rebels to assume control of these safe zones.

Interestingly, however, the Pentagon has trained only 60 Syrian fighters, mainly because many were disqualified for refusing to pledge not to fight the regime and fight ISIS exclusively. Washington has laid the foundations for strict scrutiny to avoid training terrorists from ISIS and similar groups. However, the Pentagon’s insistence on forcing the fighters to sign a written pledge not to fight the regime has raised questions among moderate Syrian opposition leaders, who do not want to be given the task of fighting ISIS while exempting the regime, thereby strengthening it at the expense of the opposition.

Ankara and Washington will coordinate their intelligence to implement a plan to train and arm 5,000 fighters. In other words, the U.S.-Turkish agreement includes developing a Syrian opposition capable of weakening the regime, but one without terrorist links and whose first mission is to defeat ISIS.

The idea then is based on the principle of “let bygones be bygones”, whether this is about false allegations or a deliberate strategy that made Turkey a major party in supporting ISIS in Syria for Turkish interests and agendas. Ankara now has a major role in identifying, training, and arming Syrian opposition groups that would assume control of the putative safe zones.

What is not clear is what Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey wants. Today, Ankara seems to be seeking to outdo Iran when it comes to fighting ISIS

Raghida Dergham

Perhaps Washington has in its mind that Arab parties could have a role in these plans. But so far, the Arab countries, which were very active in Syria, seem willing to accept solutions put forward by others, as long as they shall lead to removing Assad from power even if the regime survives in some form. While there is nothing wrong about accepting a solution proposed and implemented by a U.S.-Turkish partnership, in the context of an Arab-international anti-ISIS alliance, the Arab absence from drafting the Syrian future leaves Turkey and Iran in charge. This is almost tantamount to an investment in the Turkish and Iranian weight while undermining the Arab weight in the regional balance of power.

Turkey has different positions than Iran’s regarding Syria. Tehran is an ally to the regime and the Syrian president, and has intervened on the war in Syria through the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah. Iran insists on holding on to its influence and supply routes to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and would not abandon this except as part of a grand bargain that would guarantee its strategic interests.

Tehran has presented itself to Washington as a reliable ally to crush ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It has played a key role in turning the Syrian question into a question of the war on terror, ignoring all demands for Assad to step down or for holding him responsible for the disaster in Syria. Iran has forged an alliance with the Kurds in Iraq to fight ISIS, providing them with weapons, and encouraged the Kurds in Syria to forge an alliance with the regime in Damascus to work together against ISIS.

Washington has accepted Iran’s offer as an ally against ISIS, and chose to ignore the accusations against Tehran of having contributed to ISIS’s rise through its allies Assad and Maliki. Washington has decided to ignore what Tehran and Damascus did during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, when they allowed al-Qaeda – which ultimately became ISIS – to send fighters, killing hundreds of Americans. Interests come ahead of accountability, especially since Washington seems to have decided that its interests now lie with Iran, and that the only accountability it should pursue is against Arabs for the attacks of 9/11.

The Kurds in the Turkish-Iranian equation is an important issue worth examining. The Kurds also have a historic relationship with the United States. The relationship between the Gulf countries and the Kurds should be revised, with full awareness that Kurds in Iraq and Syria are part of these countries’ fabric.

The biggest threat

Turkey sees the Kurds as the biggest threat, because it is certain their goal is to establish a Kurdish state spanning Iraq, parts of Turkey, Syria, and even Iran. But Turkey’s war on the Kurds is not an Arab war. The Arab-Kurdish partnership would have been more effective if the Arab countries concerned helped the Kurds in Iraq against ISIS, instead of allowing Tehran to fill the vacuum. This might apply less on the Kurds in Syria, but it is worthwhile to study the available options for Arab-Kurdish relations in light of new developments, instead of being drawn into supporting Turkey’s Syrian campaign, which is targeting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as much as it is targeting ISIS.

The Saudi support for the Turkish campaign in Syria and Iraq may have caused anxiety in some Egyptian circles, especially in light of increasing speculations regarding Saudi’s willingness to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood and repeal their designation as “terrorists.” It has also caused anxiety in the ranks of Kurdish leaders, who are working on a new decade of strong Saudi-Kurdish relations. However, there was no such anxiety felt in Tehran, which seems certain that the Obama administration would not sacrifice it and abandon the partnership with Iran especially in Iraq.

Perhaps a change could come in Syria in light of the U.S.-Russian harmony in the Security Council during the Security Council session held for the briefing by U.N. Special Envoy of the Secretary-General Staffan De Mistura. The new approach has put fighting terrorism at the top of the priorities when searching for a political solution, and called for forming a joint working committee between the parties of the conflict in Syria.

The committee would work in parallel to avoid a battle over fighting terrorism first as the regime proposes or forming a transitional governing body with full powers as the opposition wants.

De Mistura and the Security Council have waited for too long at a high cost paid by the Syrians, for a nuclear deal was reached with Iran. De Mistura also had from the outset given precedence to fighting ISIS, for example in a statement he issued on the city of Kobani. Currently, De Mistura is officially introducing the issue of fighting terrorism as part of the negotiations over the future of Syria, in a departure from the Geneva communique drafted by Kofi Annan and interpreted by Lakhdar Brahimi.

De Mistura, Annan, and Brahimi have one thing in common: Accepting Iran as a key player in the negotiations over Syria, which was rejected categorically by Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia. For these countries, including Iran legitimizes its role in Syria.

In his Security Council address this week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the international community must build on the political momentum generated by the recent nuclear agreement between Iran and six major powers to work on resolving the conflict in Syria and promoting peace in the region.

Coordination between Saudi and Egypt

Some members of the Security Council such as Spain and New Zealand called on main regional countries to wok to resolve the crisis, singling out Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia during a closed session of the Security Council. Egypt wants to be involved too, and it would be worthwhile to step up coordination between Saudi and Egypt to stop regional countries from imposing their decisions on Arab countries regarding other Arab countries. It is important to consult with the people of Syria too, including tribal and minority leaders, and with Syrians abroad while stepping up aid to their host countries led by Jordan and Lebanon.

Tehran knows what it wants and is putting into force what it has planned. Ankara is playing its cards shrouded in ambiguity. Riyadh, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Amman, Beirut and other Arab capitals must not allow themselves to be misled and must take active part in shaping decisions concerning their own fate.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on August 31, 2015.


Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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