Tehran’s view of Turkey’s Afrin campaign

Giorgio Cafiero

Published: Updated:

The Middle East’s sectarian divisions have challenged Iran to overcome perceptions that it is inherently and exclusively committed to empowering Shi’ites at the Sunnis’ expense. Given that Shi’ites are minorities in most Arab countries, Iranian officials have long recognized the necessity of engaging Sunnis in the region to heighten Tehran’s influence beyond areas of Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and northern Yemen.

By investing in closer relations with Sunni-majority Arab countries such as Algeria, Egypt (mainly during Mohammed Morsi’s presidency), Kuwait, and Qatar, and non-state actors such as Hamas, Iran has sought to garner support for its anti-status quo foreign policy agenda from political figures on both sides of the Arab world.

Bringing Turkey into closer geopolitical alignment with Iran has been an important dimension of Tehran’s quest to enhance its set of alliances and partnerships with Sunni actors in the Middle East. As the failed coup plot of 2016 served to add new layers of friction to Ankara’s tense relationship with Washington, Iran most welcomed Turkey’s outreach to Tehran and Moscow amid the political fallout.

Having long sought to capitalize on anti-American sentiments in Turkey to increase Iran’s influence in NATO’s only Muslim-majority member state, the rage felt by many Turks directed against US President Donald Trump following his controversial recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital late last year offered Iran further opportunity to exploit friction in US-Turkey relations.

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Such an interest in taking advantage of Ankara and Washington’s conflicts of interest would suggest that Iran would have embraced the crisis in US-Turkey relations stemming from Operation Olive Branch.

Tehran’s interest in preserving the territorial integrity of Syria – in no small part due to the implications for Iranian Kurdistan of an autonomous Kurdish region, if not independent state, in northern Syria – might also imply that Iran would be keen to back Turkish efforts to deliver a blow to the forces of militant Kurdish nationalism that both Ankara and the Iranian-backed Damascus regime see as threatening the Syrian nation-state.

Nonetheless, despite Iranian early efforts to avoid appearing too critical of Turkey’s military intervention in Afrin, Operation Olive Branch has raised major concerns in Tehran. By February 5, Iran’s President Rouhani called on Ankara to end its military operation in Afrin “at the earliest time”, citing risks of violence escalating and the fact that Damascus did not authorize Operation Olive Branch.

Interestingly, Iranian diplomats’ expressed fears of the risks of Turkey’s military campaign offering Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and other Salafist-jihadists opportunities to regain territory in Syria have also been voiced by their counterparts in Washington.

Having invested much blood and treasure in the Syrian conflict, Iran has been seeking to promote a settlement to the crisis within the framework of the Iran-Turkey-Russian tripartite relationship

Giorgio Cafiero

Operation Olive Branch

Part of Tehran’s position against Operation Olive Branch might be due to Iran’s interest in keeping the door open to better relations with certain elements of Syria’s Kurdish minority when the conflict winds down.

If the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), can reach an understanding with Iran whereby Tehran does not perceive the force as a threat to Iran’s fundamental interests in the Levant, there is potential for the US-backed Kurdish faction and the Islamic Republic to reach an accommodative relationship.

Not lost in the equation is the possibility of Operation Olive Branch adding momentum to pan-Kurdish causes beyond Syria, giving Iran incentive to avoid supporting Turkey’s military operations against the PYD/YPG based on concerns about violence in Iran’s Kurdish territories manifesting consequently.

Iran is alarmed by the prospects for Turkey expanding Operation Olive Branch beyond Afrin to carry to the campaign eastward to Manbij. Such a move on Ankara’s part would suggest that Turkey is seeking grander strategic gains beyond crushing the PYD/YPG.

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The possibility of Turkey building on its military intervention in Afrin to establish a zone of influence stretching across territories south of the Turkish-Syrian border raises questions about Iran’s interests in these areas and how Tehran would respond to such an assertion of Turkey’s hard power.

Having invested much blood and treasure in the Syrian conflict, Iran has been seeking to promote a settlement to the crisis within the framework of the Iran-Turkey-Russian tripartite relationship. For all of Tehran and Ankara’s conflicting agendas in Syria, Iran understands that Turkey must be on board and behind all diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the Syrian crisis.

At this juncture, Iran is unsettled by the potential for further Turkish-Kurdish and Arab-Kurdish violence in Afrin and other parts of northern Syria to weaken Tehran, Ankara, and Moscow’s ability to build on their common interests in resolving the conflict while preserving the Syrian state’s territorial integrity.

While calling on Turkey to end Operation Olive Branch yet also seeking to continue driving a greater wedge between Ankara and Washington, Iran finds itself in a difficult position vis-à-vis Afrin. With much at stake in northern Syria as well as in the future of Ankara-Tehran relations, Iranian diplomats must tread carefully when addressing Turkey’s military intervention against Syria’s armed Kurds, especially if Operation Olive Branch extends eastward.
Giorgio Francesco Cafiero is an analyst of Gulf Cooperation Council geopolitics and CEO and co-founder of Washington DC-based Gulf State Analytics. He has four years of experience publishing articles on the Middle East (Al Monitor, Middle East Policy Council, Atlantic Council, Middle East Institute, LobeLog, and The National Interest). Cafiero also has two years of experience at corporate due diligence consultancy. Cafiero tweets @GulfStateAnalyt.

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