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ANALYSIS: Iran worked with Ankara and Assad during Turkish incursion

Sources tell MEE closer ties between Ankara and Tehran helped pave the way for the Turkish incursion into Syria
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) shakes hands with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani 16 April, 2016 (AFP)

TEHRAN - As Turkey increases its tank force inside northern Syria, the Iranian government is preserving a conspicuous but significant silence. News of the incursion is being widely covered in Iranian media but there has been no reaction from officials.

Iran’s relations with Turkey have been warming up dramatically in recent weeks and analysts suggest there is some embarrassment in Tehran over how to handle the incursion publicly. 

The Iranian media have reported the Syrian government’s condemnation of the incursion as aggression but have not yet quoted any statements from their own government.

Iranian relations with Turkey are at a delicate stage. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, was in Ankara on Tuesday a few hours before Turkey sent the first tanks into Syria and it is not known whether he was warned in advance. 

His visit followed a surprise stop-over in Tehran by Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, last week on his way to India. This, in turn, followed a meeting by Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on 12 August.

The unprecedented flurry of visits since the abortive Turkish coup is not just confined to bilateral issues. Ansari’s visit was officially billed as centering on the future of Syria and Middle East Eye has learned that Iran has become the main conduit for contacts between Erdogan and Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. A source close to the Iranian leadership told MEE: “The Turks and Syrians are co-ordinating through the Iranians”.

Turkey has insisted on Assad’s resignation for more than four years of the country’s civil war but it started to change its stance on Syria before the abortive coup on 15 July. Since the coup, these moves have accelerated with several statements from the Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, saying that Assad could remain during a transition period. 

The future of Syria’s Kurds is clearly part of the emerging new equation. The attacks by the Syrian army and air force on the Syrian Kurdish people’s defence militias (YPG) in the town of Hasakah in recent days look like a signal from Assad to Erdogan that he understands Erdogan’s concerns about the growing strength of the Syrian Kurds along a long section of Turkey’s southern border. Until recently, the Syrian army ignored the YPG and even saw them as potential allies in the war against the Islamic State (IS) group.

Assad’s ultimate aim is to persuade Erdogan to stop allowing arms supplies to cross from Turkey to non-IS opposition groups fighting him in Idlib and Aleppo.   

“Turkey won’t immediately halt its arm supplies to the rebels but gradually there’ll be a quid pro quo for Assad’s strikes on the YPG in Hasakah,” the leadership source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told MEE. 

He also revealed details of Iran’s quick reaction to the Turkish coup while it was still evolving. It has been widely reported that Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif tweeted solidarity with Erdogan and condemnation of the coup before it collapsed, a move which impressed the Turkish leader and differed markedly from the US and European reaction, which Turkey has said has been muted and only came after the outcome of the coup attempt was clear. 

According to the source, Zarif’s midnight tweets were prompted by the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

“Zarif and Rouhani were cautious and initially hesitated how to react to news of the coup attempt. They had to be pressed by the supreme leader’s office more than once before the tweet went out,” he said.

Iran’s quick condemnation of the coup attempt was based on one of Iran’s basic foreign policy principles, according to Foad Izadi, a professor in Tehran University’s Faculty of World Studies. 

“Military coups are unacceptable,” he told MEE. “A second principle is that you don’t send forces across international borders without the agreement of a country’s government.”

However, Iran has stayed silent on Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria, with only its allies in Damascus issuing a statement denouncing the incursion into their sovereign territory.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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