Turkey treads a fine line amid US-Iran tensions
It has recently become even harder to predict the future of this region than ever before. The Middle East has experienced several wars, revolutions, counter-revolutions, coups, crises and, of course, assassinations. The region, as Carl Brown argues, is a uniquely “penetrated system,” which is open to the interference of several powers. This did not change, and was even further increased, with the Arab uprisings, which brought with them increased sectarianism, proxy wars and conflicts in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq.
It is not surprising that the eruption of any crisis in the Middle East directly or indirectly adversely affects the other regional countries. With the assassination of Iran’s top commander, Qassem Soleimani — a man responsible for the deaths of many innocent people — the entire region has entered a new, dangerous phase. For many, it is regarded as a watershed in the Middle East. Experts, diplomats and journalists hold the opinion that this attack will change the game in the region for the worse and that tensions will only further escalate. While each country weighs the development according to their regional goals, it is significant to read what the attack means for Turkey, the region’s only NATO member and a neighbor of Iran.
In the early hours of Jan. 3, when the attack on Soleimani took place, Ankara received the news with concern. Until late on the same day, it did not take any official position regarding the strike, instead remaining calm and silent. This silence was not only a clear indication that Ankara was aware of how the strike poses a risk to the region, but also that it was caught unprepared and was uncertain of how to make the best of the situation.
The first official statement came from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its reaction was cautious and concerned, with suggestions that the tools of diplomacy should be implemented with regards to the solution of the crisis. In this context, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a phone conversation with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, while Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke to his Iranian and American colleagues, Mohammed Javad Zarif and Mike Pompeo, respectively, over the weekend. In the phone call between Erdogan and Rouhani, the latter asked for the support of Turkey, which had already been critical of US President Donald Trump’s handling of the Middle East file.
In Washington, people were divided over the attack, while in Iran they were united and in Turkey people were in limbo, some considering Soleimani to be a martyr while others thought he was the mastermind of all conflicts in the region. Whatever the public reaction, it is clear Turkey does not want to approach the incident from an ideological point of view, instead embracing a neutral and realpolitik approach for many reasons.
First and foremost, Turkey wanted to make its neutral, but also concerned, stance apparent by describing the strike as an assassination, rather than an act of self-defense, as American officials argued. In this regard, reading between the lines, the Foreign Ministry’s statement was making this approach clear.
Secondly, all of these incidents happening on Iraqi soil — already a war-torn and politically fragile country — increases Turkey’s security concerns, since Ankara wants to avoid further escalation on its doorstep. Iraq’s stability is of great significance for Turkey and others in the region, and that is why any effort that could possibly de-escalate the tension should be promoted, according to Ankara. Rather than taking sides in this crisis, Turkey should use its existing channels with both parties to defuse the tension.
In Washington, people were divided over the attack, while in Iran they were united and in Turkey people were in limbo.
Thirdly, while Turkey is dealing with the disquieting consequences of the instability that has raged through Syria for many years, new tensions erupting in neighboring Iraq and Iran is a worrying scenario for Ankara. The consequences of such crises need careful evaluation.
Thus, Ankara is trying to tread a fine line over the US-Iran tensions. While the former is a NATO ally with whom it shares a special partnership, the latter is a significant regional country with whom it continues to cooperate on the regional crises, such as the Astana peace process for Syria. In this regard, what happens in the diplomatic traffic between Ankara, Baghdad, Tehran and Washington is noteworthy. On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Turkey for a planned trip and, needless to say, US-Iran tensions were on the agenda. The day after, Cavusoglu paid a visit to Baghdad, where he met with top Iraqi officials to discuss the latest alarming developments. From the US side, Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey announced he would travel to Turkey and Saudi Arabia to discuss regional issues.
While top figures in both the US and Iran continued to escalate the fire with their harsh and threatening statements on Twitter, it seems like the region’s leaders have rolled up their sleeves to de-escalate the tensions through diplomatic channels. As the Turkish proverb says, “an ember burns where it falls,” thus this fire poses a risk to all the countries in the region.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz