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Syria Clouds Turkey's Sunny Parade With Iran

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (left) with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (left) with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
By Robert Tait
They were once seen as bitter foes, but friendship with Syria and Iran has become a staple of Turkey's foreign policy in recent years.

Now, however, that approach -- a vital plank of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's "zero problems with neighbors" philosophy -- is under threat, courtesy of Syria's brutal crackdown on antigovernment demonstrators that has killed an estimated 2,000 people in recent months.

Just how far things have deteriorated was demonstrated on August 9, when Davutoglu traveled to Damascus to read the riot act to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in whom the Turks have previously invested much time in cultivating better ties.

Davutoglu carried the message that Assad had to cease the repression, enact urgent reforms and release political prisoners -- or face the same international abandonment as the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

He apparently got short shrift. Syria's state news agency, Sana, carried a report quoting Assad as telling the Turkish foreign minister that Damascus would "relentlessly fight terrorist groups," regime code language for antiregime protesters.

'A Critical Process'

Returning to Ankara, Davutoglu implicitly acknowledged that Turkey had effectively abandoned Assad and that its sympathies were now with the demonstrations.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu
He said that the situation would "be passing through a critical process" in the coming days and that his country's "main criterion is that the shape of the process must reflect only the will of the Syrian people."

Ankara's decision to confront Assad's use of violence may not be surprising. The Turks after all saw around 10,000 Syrian refugees pour across their frontier in June as residents fled Assad's security forces when they rampaged into towns near the border.

Most striking is its implication for Turkey's hitherto flourishing relationship with Iran, whose theocratic regime has staunchly supported Assad and which is rumored to have assisted his forces to quell the uprising.

Iran has for years been Damascus's closest ally in the Middle East. Both countries are linked by a shared alliance with the Lebanese Shi'ite group, Hizballah, support for the Palestinian militant organization Hamas, and -- of course -- implacable opposition to Israel.

Burgeoning Turkish-Iranian Trade

But in recent years, Tehran has also drawn closer to Turkey, a key Western ally and NATO member. Closer ties have resulted in burgeoning trade between the two and Ankara vocally opposing United Nations sanctions against Iran over its suspected nuclear program.

Davutoglu's less-than-friendly visit to Assad coincided with an open denunciation of Syrian repression by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who warned on August 8 that "either [Syria] chooses wisdom on its own or it will be pulled into the depths of turmoil and loss."

Those comments were interpreted in some quarters as a subtle swipe at Iran, Saudi Arabia's bitter adversary across the Persian Gulf. They were also thought to have been prompted by pressure from the United States.

According to Murat Bilhan, head of International Relations at Kultur University in Istanbul and a former Turkish diplomat in Iran, abandoning Assad means Turkey risks being seen by Iran "as an ally of the West and as some kind of subcontractor of the West in the region."

Davutoglu has been at pains to refute such a charge, saying at a press conference in Ankara that "in no era of the Turkish state's presence, no Turkish government or Turkish Foreign Ministry ever became the subcontractor of any state, or will ever become one."

Iranian state media have been openly critical of Turkey's anti-Assad policy. On June 9, for instance, the website of the English-language Iranian satellite channel, Press TV, carried a report blaming the unrest in Syria on "deal-making" by Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The insideIRAN.org website described how Iranian government-linked sites carried pieces asking whether "Iran will choose between its strongest ally, Syria, or its trade partner, Turkey."

Concerns over relations with Iran prompted Davutoglu to visit Tehran in early July, when according to a Turkish Foreign Ministry insider, he attempted to bring Iranian officials round to Ankara's viewpoint. 

"There are differences [between us] over Syria because we think the protests are popular movements whereas they [the Iranians] think they are instigated from abroad," the insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL. "The people in Iran are aware that reforms have to happen but they want Assad to remain in power. We told them that we are not against Assad's regime but that there should be some more openness and changes introduced, so our differences are nuanced.

"The minister [Davutoglu] emphasized that there should be no foreign interference in Syria but that this should apply to Iran too. They [the Iranians] are claiming there should be no foreign interference from any outside power and we are saying that should include Iran."

Turkish officials say criticism from Iran over Turkey's position has abated since Davutoglu's Tehran visit.

Relations Colder, But Not Severed

Indeed, some analysts believe Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may decide to abandon Assad if he appears doomed. "Assad is in deep trouble [and] Khamenei will not want to sink alongside Assad," Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born commentator with the Israel-based think tank MEEPAS wrote in an e-mail.

"The second he realizes that Assad's ship is sinking, and that the situation can't be salvaged, he'd abandon him -- maybe not publicly, but privately. In fact it would be safe to assume that the Iranians are already privately asking Assad to introduce major reforms. They may even be talking to some elements within the Syrian opposition."

Murat Bilhan believes relations between Turkey and Iran -- though definitely colder -- are not at an end.

"I don't think Turkey has lost Iran," he says. "Iran may not be lost but Iran may be a little distant -- more distant than before and they would not trust. But, if and when Turkish and Iranian interests converge, say for instance in fighting against separatism or something, then they would cooperate."
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: sajjad from: Iran
August 10, 2011 21:41
Iran has always been in favor or peace! but due to sanctions and the loss of lots of allies , it should maintain ties with syria . but IRAN is in favor of reforms too
In Response

by: Ali
August 11, 2011 17:21
Quit lying. Iran supports fellow shii regime no matter what.

by: Ardavan from: USA
August 11, 2011 03:00
Who said that Davutoglu read the riot act to Assad ? There is nothing in reports to suggest that. Assad said he would fight "terrorists" and "is open to any help offered by friendly and brotherly state".
This tells you that Turkish PM, contrary to what you have written, went to Damascus to see any way out the crisis. In spite of all the bloodshed in Syria, Turkey is in no position to dictate its agenda to Assad, unless it wishes the collapse of the Syrian state on its doorstep. The notion of Turkey giving Syria ultimatum is a media hype and does not hold water. Sanctions, international pressure, banning the purchase of Syrian oil and other measures can be effective, but we should be under no illusion that Syria , as long as its army has not collapsed, can defty handle the crisis. You are giving to much weight to Turkey without a credible argument.

by: Matt
August 11, 2011 07:10
Excellent analysis, but don't forget all the warnings Turkey received lately for helping Iran violate sanctions. See here for example: http://www.realite-eu.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=9dJBLLNkGiF&b=2315291&ct=11111551
Turkey may not have lost Iran, but hopefully it won't help it now go nuclear...
In Response

by: Messner from: USA
August 11, 2011 17:23
Wow! Another euro-trash propaganda.

by: HartR from: Los Angele
August 11, 2011 23:03
Turks are telling other nations to act civilized, at the same time Turks are killing and torturing their own Kurdish citizen, what a double standard!?

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