Syria-Turkey-Iran triangle

Wed 15 Feb 2012 03:22 GMT | 07:22 Local Time

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by Azad Garibov

The "Arab spring" demonstrated once more how rapidly and unexpectedly things can change in the Middle East – the most volatile part of the world.

Only a year ago Turkey enjoyed very positive relations with Syria. Lately, Turkey had also developed an unheard-of level of cooperation with Iran. However, with the “Arab spring” reaching Syria strong divergences surfaced in Turkey’s and Iran’s approaches to the events unfolding in the Arab world. Iran seems very nervous about the model of a democratic secular system provided by Turkey in the region and Ankara’s calling on Bashar al-Assad – Tehran’s ally, if not client – to step down. Tehran clearly understands that, with Turkey’s profile rising in the Middle East, Iran is pushed away from the region

Iran started to build a strategic alliance with Syria during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, offering Syria free oil and other bilateral trade advantages and getting the support of Hafiz al-Assad (Bashar al-Assad’s father) against Saddam in return. During Bashar's presidency, the Iranian presence has grown massively in Syria and the country has become more of a client state than an ally. Iran has helped to keep Syria's desperate economy alive with frequent cash injections and investments thought to be worth $20 billion, and has also given Syria “gifts”, including weapons worth $150 million a year. Sources in Tehran even claim that key Assad associates are on the Iranian payroll.

Iran and Syria have maintained staunch friendship, united in antagonism toward the United States and Israel, and support for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. With Damascus’s acquiescence and support, radical organizations in Palestine and Lebanon, Iranian-funded Hezbollah in particular, have been used by the Iranians as proxies to fight Israel. Therefore, Iran values Syria’s survival as a matter of the utmost importance and is trying to do whatever is necessary to protect it. The isolation of the Assad regime by the West and, more importantly, by other Arab countries and Turkey has made the regime more dependent than ever on Iran.

Prior to the “Arab spring”, Turkey also enjoyed quite rapidly developing political and economic relations with Syria. Thanks to the AK Party’s active foreign policy of engaging its neighbours, the two countries successfully left behind the trauma of the 1990s, when they frequently used war rhetoric against each other. Turkey emerged as the key source of trade and investment critical to Syria's prospects. Syria in its turn served as the main transit country for Turkish goods reaching Arab customers. The two countries signed a free trade agreement and cancelled visas for short visits. Furthermore, Turkey positioned itself as the major interlocutor between Syria and the West, as well as acting as a mediator between Damascus and Tel Aviv over the Golan Heights.

When people rose up against Assad’s Allawite regime, Turkey tried to persuade the Syrian president to conduct reforms in order to calm the people demanding change. Syria’s continuing refusal to comply with promised reforms and Al-Assad’s resort to military power against civilians made bilateral relations increasingly tense, to the point where Turkey lost confidence in the Syrian regime. And eventually, Turkey also joined the list of states which raise their loud voices against the Al-Assad regime. Turkey started to actively work with its Western allies and Gulf counterparts, particularly with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to isolate Al-Assad and opened doors to the Syrian National Council – the country's unofficial opposition in exile.

Bearing in mind this divergence in Iran’s and Turkey’s approaches, with the “Arab spring” Iran started to see Turkey as the major obstacle/rival to its regional policy and this rivalry particularly surfaced in the case of Syria. From the Turkish point of view, in failing to keep promises to reform and in using military force against civilians Al-Assad’s regime lost its legitimacy before the Syrian people and can no more be considered a reliable partner to work with.

From the Iranian point of view, the fall of Assad would mean the loss of Tehran's only state ally in the region, as well as the loss of supply routes to, and direct touch with, proxies like Hezbollah. Iran understands that if Al-Assad falls, the plan to build an Iranian sphere of influence stretching from Afghan borders to the Mediterranean, to include Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – a plan that Iran has worked on so long and so hard – will effectively collapse.

In fact, the Syrian uprising is not the only issue that irritates Iran. Tehran is also nervous that Turkey is suggesting to countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya a new regime model, based on a secular system. Contrary to Turkish efforts to spread its own experience of secularism and democracy, Iran is trying to seize developments in the Arab world by likening them to Iran’s Islamic revolution and offering them religious regimes and Sharia rules.

Even though for now the two sides are at least publicly trying to maintain their “constrained friendship", with the increase of pressure on Al-Assad to capitulate Turkey-Iran relations will get tenser. Iran is showing signs that it is very uncomfortable with Turkey's rising profile in the region and while the opposition's chances of ousting Al-Assad in Syria become more realistic Tehran will express its dissatisfaction with Turkey’s policy more loudly.

Azad Garibov, foreign policy analyst at the Centre for Strategic Research under the Azerbaijani President



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