Following the recently failed coup attempt in Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to visit Turkey’s neighbor, Iran, within the next month. The planned visit, which has yet to be formally scheduled, arrives at a time when Turkey treads a delicate path between Eastern and Western alliances. The NATO member is currently in the process of negotiating its complete entry into the EU, a process complicated by the ongoing migration crisis and policy of visa-free travel for member states.
Recent times have seen Turkey drift away from its Western allies in the search of new partnerships with neighboring countries, specifically Russia and Iran. Wars ravaging nearby countries have strained Turkey-NATO relations. In fact, before the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Turkey “was firmly an ally of the West and a key member of NATO” (1). Under Erdogan, Turkey followed a “policy of zero tension with its neighbors,” until the government threw its support behind Syrian rebels, as well as Al-Qaeda supporter al-Nusra Front, a group the United States labels a terrorist organization (1).
Along with the recently attempted coup, ongoing civil strife in nearby Syria and Iraq has also contributed to President Erdogan’s desire to seek regional stability with the help of non-NATO influence. According to Stanislav Tarasov, the Director of the Middle East-Caucus Research Center, Erdogan’s dominant foreign policy strategy has been to utilize Turkey’s position as a member of NATO to expand regional influence (2). For the most part, this strategy has been unsuccessful in expanding Turkey’s regional authority, with Ankara’s resulting involvement in the Syrian and Iraqi wars yielding no improvements in regional stability.
In fact, the subsequent conflicts have caused two million refugees to stream into Turkey, and a simultaneous Kurdish rebellion in southeast Turkey has further complicated matters for the ruling AKP Justice and Development Party (2). President Erdogan’s government is further angered by United States support and training of Kurdish rebels in Syria who seek an autonomous region in their fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. American-Turkish tensions continue to simmer following Turkish accusations that the United States played a role in the recent coup attempt in July.
While the United States has condemned the coup, Turkish Labor Minister Suleyman Soylu has “publicly charged the United States with responsibility for the coup,” a declaration that may relate to the American refusal to extradite the founder of the Gulen movement to Turkey (1). Followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who lives in the United States, are being accused of organizing the military coup and are being cleared from all positions of power under Erdogan (3). President Erdogan has made it clear to the Turkish people that disloyalty to his government will be punished, effectively removing 2,745 judges from duty in what has become a purge of non-loyalists spanning the country’s judicial system, military, universities and government (4). However, United States and European critics have claimed that Erdogan is utilizing the coup attempt to consolidate his power under authoritarian rule.
Loyal supporters of President Erdogan and the AKP party successfully quashed the attempted coup by rebel forces within the Turkish army. Recent reports suggest that Erdogan received information regarding the coup via Russian intelligence several hours before its commencement (5). Following this aid from Russia, Erdogan visited Moscow on 8 August to assert that, “the Moscow-Ankara friendship axis will be restored,” signaling a further shift to creating amicable ties with Russia (5).
In its search for regional allies, the coup has yielded Turkey clear suggestions as to whom it can count on for aid. Along with Russia, Iran was quick to condemn the coup and offer its assistance. In fact, throughout the duration of the coup, high-ranking Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani, were in direct contact with their Turkish counterparts (6). Iran’s willingness to actively support Erdogan’s government in its time of crisis further signals the growing relationship between the two countries. Other Turkish allies, on the other hand, were less quick to support the current government, drawing even further contrast to the staunch loyalty of Iran to uphold the AKP’s rule in Tehran. Saudi Arabia, for instance, took a full two days to condemn the coup (3). The emerging tripartite alliance of Russia, Iran and Turkey holds significant promise to increasing regional stability in the Middle East, but staunch differences remain that must first be addressed regarding the Syrian civil war.
Prompted by the advent of the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war has resulted in the death of 250,000 Syrians and the displacement of 11 million Syrians, a population representing half the country that has created an international refugee crisis (7). The Arab Spring, which led to the fall of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, gave hope to Syrian citizens who hoped for economic progress, restoration of certain freedoms, and ultimately, the removal of President al-Assad (7). Resultantly, various rebel groups arose, including the rebel military faction of the Free Syrian Army. Over time, Syria descended into civil war, a conflict that is now being fought on multiple fronts with many stakeholders.
Furthermore, ISIL has risen to global prominence by terrorizing much of northern and eastern Syria since early 2013 (7). Currently, an international coalition led by the United States is working to regain territory in Syria currently controlled by the group. Meanwhile, Syrian President al-Assad refuses to vacate his position of power, despite international outcry against his government’s human rights abuses, including the use of chemical weapons against his own people. President al-Assad, however, is backed by Shia Iran and Iraq, as well as Russia. On the other hand, Syrian rebels, including the Free Syrian Army, are backed by Sunni states such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States. There are also various Kurdish forces that wish to establish an autonomous region in northern Syria, all of which have received US support in the past.
Turkey views these Kurdish forces as terrorist groups, a viewpoint actually shared with Iran. While the two countries may disagree on certain issues related to Syria, they may find a common ground in the battle against the Kurds, as well as in the pursuit of terminating ISIL. Also, Ankara has shown signs of shifting its stance towards President al-Assad, with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stating that “Assad can remain in power at least during the transition period” (1). This shift in Turkish policy speaks volumes as to the country’s intentions to further expand relations with Russia and Iran and potentially challenge future relations with the United States and its allies. For now, Turkey and the United States are united in their common goal of eradicating ISIL. In examining future Turkish relations within these two states, however, most issues will be inferior to the more pressing Syrian question.
In his upcoming visit to Tehran, President Erdogan will no doubt discuss a joint plan moving forward to fight ISIL and Kurdish forces in Syria, among his other intentions to improve relations with Iran. It remains to be seen if he will completely reverse his vehement stance against the removal of al-Assad in the pursuit of better Russian and Iranian relations. It is important to note that Turkey and Iran do not wish to fall completely under the influence of Moscow. An important aspect to note is that the three countries are largely united by a desire to mitigate Western influence in their region and to expand their own interests in the resource-rich Middle East. The profound consequences of a delicate tripartite alliance between Russia, Iran, and Turkey would lay the foundation for a common ground to be found regarding the ongoing conflict in Syria, and for a more effective regional coalition that could spell hope for peace in Damascus.
(1) Heirannia, Javad. "Old Alliances Falling Apart and New Ones Being Formed: Professor." Tehran Times. N.p., 06 Sept. 2016. Web. 07 Sept. 2016.
(2) Sputnik. "What to Make of Erdogan's Proposal for a 'Turkish-Iranian-Russian Alliance'" Sputnik News. N.p., 21 July 2016. Web. 07 Sept. 2016.
(3) Tastekin, Fehim. "Will Turkey's Failed Coup Push Erdogan Towards Iran, Russia?" US News. N.p., 21 July 2016. Web. 7 Sept. 2016.
(4) Cockburn, Harry. "Turkey Coup: 2,700 Judges Removed from Duty following Failed Overthrow Attempt." The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 16 July 2016. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
(5) Timmerman, Kenneth R. "The Turkey-Russia-Iran Axis." Frontpage Mag. N.p., 22 Aug. 2016. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
(6) Hashem, Ali. "Why Iran Stood with Erdogan." Al-Monitor. N.p., 25 July 2016. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
(7) "Syria's Civil War Explained." AJE News. N.p., 24 May 2016. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
Image: © Palinchak | Dreamstime.com - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan