Dr. Doron Itzchakov
Though it prompted angry reactions from senior officials in Tehran, the Turkish attack on Syrian Kurdistan offers both pros and cons for the Islamic Republic – and the potential positives likely outweigh the negatives.
Turkey’s military offensive against the Kurds in northeastern Syria prompted recriminations from the Islamic Republic, but the Iranian regime understands that it could ultimately redound to its benefit.
Ever since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in March 2011, Iran and Turkey have been on opposing sides, with Tehran (and Moscow) playing a critical role in the survival of the Assad regime and Ankara urging its ouster and supporting the anti-regime rebellion.
Unsurprisingly, President Trump’s announcement that US troops would be evacuated from northern Syria was welcomed in Tehran, which had considered the presence of US troops on Syrian soil a flagrant violation of Syrian sovereignty. However, Erdoğan’s decision to invade Kurdish territory in Syria led his Iranian counterpart, Rouhani, to condemn it on the grounds that it would increase regional instability.
Notwithstanding that criticism, Tehran does not want to risk its relationship with Ankara, which allows it to circumvent US sanctions and constitutes an essential channel for the supply of Iranian gas to major European countries.
Parallel to the Turkish invasion, Iran launched a large-scale military exercise near its border with Turkey codenamed “One Target One Bullet.” Combining infantry and armor units with antiterrorism special units, the exercise conveyed a dual message. It signaled Tehran’s military prowess to the Turkish army on the one hand, and on the other, it communicated to Iranian citizens of Kurdish descent in western Azerbaijan that they would be ill-advised to pour oil on the fire.
Despite Iran’s attempts to calm the Iranian Kurdish minority (estimated at about eight million), large-scale protests against Turkish institutions broke out throughout Iran. The protests carried a message of ethnic unity under the slogan “Rojava You Are Not Alone” (Rojava is the nickname of Syrian Kurdistan).
As expected, Rouhani’s calls did not persuade Ankara to reconsider. On October 9, the Turkish army launched a large-scale attack on northern Syrian cities causing casualties and displacing Kurds. In the absence of US defenses, the Kurds signed an agreement with the Syrian Army on October 13 according to which the army would deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border to support them.
On October 17, a meeting between Erdoğan and US VP Mike Pence produced an agreement to implement a 120-hour ceasefire that allowed Kurdish forces to withdraw 32 miles from the Turkish border. (Despite the ceasefire, the fighting did not stop entirely and clashes continue to be recorded, even at the time of writing.) The October 17 agreement was succinctly reported in the Iranian media.
Iranian policymakers wish to expand Tehran’s “strategic depth” – i.e., areas outside Iran’s borders but under its control – and the Turkish invasion challenged this policy to an extent.
For one thing, it violated Syria’s territorial sovereignty and damaged Assad’s personal prestige, which are viewed by Tehran as unacceptable. For another, there are quite a few Salafist-jihadist groups on the ground alongside the Turkish army, such as Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham, and others. These militias, some of which originated in al-Qaeda, perceive Shiite Islam as a heresy and its practitioners as worthy of persecution.
As far as Iran’s security establishment is concerned, the deployment of Salafist militias operating under a Turkish umbrella is intolerable. The Sunni-Shiite rift lies deep in the Iranian collective consciousness. Not long ago, ISIS’s ascendancy posed a significant challenge to Iranian policymakers who understood the potential threat it posed to Shiite Islam in general and Iran in particular. Deployment of Sunni militias could similarly limit Iranian maneuverability in northern Syria.
Another consideration for Iran is the ethnic-national dimension. The Kurdish minority’s national aspirations pose significant challenges to all four countries that contain large Kurdish populations. The precedent of Kurdish autonomous territory in Syria is unacceptable to the Iranian establishment, which remembers the uprising that led to the establishment of the “Republic of Mahabad” in January 1946.
Furthermore, the idea of a “greater Kurdistan,” and feelings of national affinity among the Kurds (despite their splits and tribal loyalties), are feared in Tehran. The Iranian leadership cannot abide unrest that might result in ethnic riots. It therefore views the demonstrations erupting across Iranian cities in protest against the Turkish aggression with great concern.
With all that said, the Turkish offensive could advance Iranian interests. With Turkish formations on the ground in northeastern Syria, an Iranian presence in that area could be viewed as legitimate. Despite the tactical coordination that exists among Iran, Russia, and Turkey, Ankara’s desire to expand its “security zone” in northern Syria could help Iran achieve the land corridor it has been trying to establish for years – from Iran’s northwestern border, through Iraqi and Syrian territory, all the way to the Mediterranean.
Ironically, the fact that Iran is perceived in the Arab world as a protective shield for the Syrian president gives it a handy pretext for strengthening its hegemony and expanding its activities in Syria. This suggests that the defense agreement between the Kurds and the Assad regime, enabling the deployment of Syrian military forces in Syrian Kurdistan, will whet Iran’s appetite and prompt the Revolutionary Guards and their subordinate militias to consolidate their presence in northern Syria, with Assad’s approval. As has happened before, Iranian troops will be disguised by Syrian army uniforms.
The Iranian regime has high hopes that the international community will turn its eyes to the Turkish aggression. A global focus on Ankara’s actions will divert attention from Tehran’s attempt to expand its strategic depth, as did the world’s attention to the problem of fighting ISIS.
Iran has proved itself highly adept at seizing opportunities that have appeared as a result of the collapse of regimes across the region. It did so after the invasion of Iraq (2003) and the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, as well as during the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. Iran is likely to make extensive use of the Turkish incursion into northern Syria to expand its hold on the region, with the aim of threatening Israel’s border.
Tehran’s condemnations of the Turkish invasion thus look like mere lip service, as the revolutionary regime may well benefit from the new situation created by the US withdrawal. For while the Turkish offensive creates challenges to the Iranian leadership, which is heavily invested in stabilizing Assad’s rule, it also creates potential benefits to Iran’s interests in Syria.
For Israel, by contrast, this is a zero-sum game, because the promotion of Iranian interests is an inherent threat. Israel should prepare itself for challenges to come.
Dr. Doron Itzchakov is a Senior Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and author of the book: Iran-Israel 1948-1963: Bilateral Relations at a Crossroads in a Changing Geopolitical Environment.