The Iranians and Turks in Syria and Iraq

Radwan al-Sayed

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The situation between Iran and Turkey reached its worse between 2014 and 2016. Before that, the two countries had disagreed over their stances towards Bashar al-Assad.

Ever since the revolution erupted in Syria, the two allies, Qatar and Turkey, who were friends with the Syrian president since 2004, voiced the importance of reform to Assad. Iran stood with Assad from the start and Russia did the same particularly following its negative experience with the West in Libya.

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Between 2012 and 2013, the Iranians militarily intervened in Syria through Hezbollah. Things were no longer limited to providing experts for advice and help in operations rooms. The Turks and Qataris went ahead and supported the Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria and began to arm groups near Damascus and north of the country.

This disagreement over interests reached its peak when ISIS and al-Nusra emerged. The Iranians and Washington thus began to support the Kurds in Syria. The US did not do anything when the Kurdistan workers’ party settled in Sinjar. Turkish forces entered to areas around Mosul and said they will not allow Popular Mobilization forces to enter Tal Afar because there is a Turkmen minority there.

Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia in north Syria and allowing it to defy Kurds and ISIS on its border with Syria mitigated Iranian-Turkish conflict

Radwan al-Sayed

Anger and mistrust

Trade relations were not affected but mutual visits of Turkish and Iranian officials between 2014 and 2015 were charged with anger and mistrust. The scene then entirely changed when Russia intervened in Syria in 2014. After downing a Russian jet, Turkey had to reach a truce with Russia and it was pushed to do so due to the Russians’ anger and to the deterioration of relations with the US.

Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia in north Syria and allowing it to defy the Kurds and ISIS on its border with Syria mitigated the Iranian-Turkish conflict. Moscow entered as a mediator between the two parties and pushed each to recognize the interests of the other party in Syria and Iraq. Russia also took both to the Astana meetings. They also held bilateral talks to discuss cooperation against terrorism and to discuss their fears of the American support of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

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Practical cooperation between them appeared during the war in Aleppo. The Turks, who viewed Aleppo as their influence zone, had to negotiate with the Russians to withdraw gunmen from the city and its neighboring areas after most of the old town was destroyed. The Iranians were thus present alongside the Russians in North Syria on the Kurdish-Turkish borders.

While negotiating the borders of influence in the Syrian east and north, the Turks realized that Iran’s relations with ISIS and al-Nusra are sometimes stronger than its own relations with the two groups. Turkey supported several armed organizations in the Syrian north and it’s concerned about the situation on its borders there. Meanwhile the Iranians are concerned about Syrian border areas with Iraq.

The war in Aleppo

The Russians and Iranians feared that the operation to seize Idlib and its towns – where al-Nusra is in control – will be launched amid the war in Aleppo. After the idea of the de-escalation zones was proposed, Russia and Iran urged Turkey to push al-Nusra out of Edleb.

When this did not work, Russia and Iran handed the matter over to Turkey, which recently announced that it will storm Edleb along with 20,000 Arab Syrian gunmen if it has to. Meanwhile, the Iranians went to help regime forces raid Deir az-Zour which is close to the Iraqi border. They are aided by Russian air force and the Americans’ shelling of Deir az-Zour and Raqqa.

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Iran and Turkey exploited terrorism or redirected its factions. And just like the Iranians willingly got ISIS and Al-Nusra out of Lebanon’s Jurud, the Turks may also willingly get Al-Nusra out of Edleb. The partnership is back between Iran and Turkey to prevent the Kurds from becoming independent in Syria and Iraq.

They are cooperating so each can have its own influence zone as Iran wants one on Iraq’s borders and Turkey wants one on its borders.

This article is also available in Arabic.
Radwan al Sayed is a Lebanese thinker and writer who attained a bachelor degree from the Faculty of Theology at al-Azhar University and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tübingen in Germany. He has been a scholar of Islamic studies for decades and is the former editor-in-chief of the quarterly al-Ijtihad magazine. Radwan is also the author of many books and has written for Arab dailies such as al-Ittihad, al-Hayat and ash-Sharq al-Awsat.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.