Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara are all reasonably aligned, not only in Syria but also in Iraq. The web may yet become twisted but there seems no imminent risk of rough play
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is seen with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani during a joint news conference in Tehran, Iran, on October 4, 2017. Photo: Murat Cetinmuhurdar / Presidential Palace/ Handout via Reuters
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just visited Tehran and met with President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
That’s a major geopolitical move by any standards. Iran and Turkey are both part of the Astana negotiations aimed at effecting closure in Syria. Both are regarded by Beijing as key nodes in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Both are observers – and future full members – of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Both may soon be incorporated into the BRICS-Plus concept. Both are key nodes in Eurasian integration.
At the Erdogan-Rouhani joint appearance, the two seemed fully in synch.
Erdogan: “There is no country other than Israel that recognizes it. A referendum that was conducted by sitting side by side with Mossad has no legitimacy.”
Rouhani: “Turkey, Iran and Iraq have no choice but to take serious and necessary measures to protect their strategic goals in the region, and the wrong decisions made by some of the leaders of this region must be compensated for by them.”
Is that it? Not really. Remember Twin Peaks: “the owls are not what they seem.” Shadow play is very much in effect.
Move on, nothing to see here
First of all, there’s Iraq, threatened with actual amputation. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Abadi is adamant that the KRG’s wily, unelected tribal capo Masoud Barzani must scrap the referendum. Barzani, for his part, says the drive to independence will always remain and must be factored in by Baghdad.
Hysteria apart, there won’t be an Iraqi invasion. As it stands, the realistic worst-case scenario is Baghdad custom officials stationed at the KRG’s borders with both Turkey and Iran. As for the possibility of the KRG annulling the referendum in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which they have de facto annexed, that would require interstellar diplomacy.
Still, in the ultra-extreme event of Baghdad being forced to intervene to recover Kirkuk, it now may factor in the possible support of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Suspicion is rife in Baghdad that the referendum would never have happened without a green light from Washington. After all, balkanization remains an extremely seductive proposition for a large swathe of the US deep state.
Iraqi Kurdish president Masoud Barzani speaks during a news conference in Erbil, Iraq, on September 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Azad Lashkari
Washington’s game is slippery enough. The Trump administration, via Secretary Tillerson, officially called the referendum “illegitimate.” The main, but unstated, reason is that the referendum appears to strengthen (it doesn’t, necessarily) new axis-of-evil member Iran.
Barzani, meanwhile, doesn’t seem fond of disappearing – or dying, like his rival Jalal Talabani – anytime soon. So what is to be done?
Let’s start with Iran. Tehran is a historical ally of Iraqi Kurds. So rough play is a no-no, even considering that Iran’s Kurds – who are, granted, not as separatist as the KRG – might now start entertaining their own ideas.
As Asia Times has learned, there was a crucial meeting last week of the national security and foreign policy commission at the Iranian Parliament, attended by Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the powerful Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). On the agenda: non-recognition of the referendum; worries about Iraq’s territorial integrity; the nightmare of Iranian Kurdish peshmerga being instrumentalized by the CIA.
Currently, the KRG is a mess. There is no working parliament, no elected politicians in charge. Tehran is worried that in the context of such a vacuum the KRG’s usefulness as a Trojan Horse may be intensified by a US-Israel-House of Saud alliance.
Still, the last thing Tehran needs is yet another war, with the unwelcome side effect of destroying good relations with its regional Kurdish ally, Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The official position of the Iranian Foreign Ministry is that so long as the whole thing is restricted to a symbolic referendum – with no practical moves towards independence – Tehran can live with it.
Will the spiders turn on each other?
The intersection of Iran and Turkey is equally engrossing. In their face-to-face meeting, Supreme Leader Khamenei emphasized better economic relations, while Erdogan emphasized the need for a strong Iran-Turkey political alliance. How the hyper-volatile Erdogan may be taken at his word is an open question.
And that bring us to Syria’s Kurdish question. And what Turkey may be up to, both in Syria and Iraq.
Tehran and Ankara have been on viciously opposite sides during six years of war in Syria, only to somewhat converge at the Astana de-confliction negotiations chaired by Moscow.
Tehran is part of the “4+1” (Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, plus Hezbollah) fully supporting Shi’ite militias in Syria (as well as the Popular Mobilization Units, or PMUs, in Iraq). Turkey was allied with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and fully engaged in keeping borders unobstructed for both Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) and Islamic State jihadis, seen as tools for regime change in Damascus.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, on September 28, 2017. Photo: Sputnik / Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin via Reuters
And yet it’s easy to forget that even when Ankara was denouncing Tehran as a “state sponsor of terrorism”, at the height of the war in Syria, the two countries kept diplomatic relations. Moreover, the liberation of Aleppo by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) only happened with the relative speed that it did because Ankara ordered its proxies to back off.
Ankara has been forced to accept that Moscow runs the show in Syria. As much as the Turks may disagree with President Putin’s special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, that a “moderate rebel” Syrian National Army won’t be tolerated, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has admitted on the record that Moscow, Tehran and Ankara are jointly involved in setting up a new de-escalation zone in the crucial city of Afrin. That would make it more difficult for Syrian Kurds to advance their independence agenda, something that answers to Ankara’s interests.
As for Iraq, it’s virtually certain that Ankara won’t impose serious economic sanctions on Erbil. All bark, no bite.
So, in the end, as it stands, we have Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara reasonably aligned – not only in Syria but also in Iraq. How long this will last in the ultimate regional spider’s nest is anyone’s guess.