Iran may be passing troublemaking baton to Turkey

Iran may be passing troublemaking baton to Turkey

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Turkish FM Mevlut Cavusoglu, center, and Iran’s FM Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, arrive for a meeting, Istanbul, June 15, 2020. (AP Photo

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif last week gave his full support to Turkey during a press conference with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, who reciprocated by stating his country’s opposition to US sanctions. Zarif said: “We have common views with the Turkish side on ways to end the (crises) in Libya and Yemen.”

A quick recap of the situation seems necessary, as alliances in the Middle East now shift from one file to another. So, in Syria, Turkey is fighting Bashar Assad and Iran, with Russia also on the opposite side. But, in the Libyan file, both Ankara and Tehran support the Government of National Accord (GNA), while anecdotally Russia and Assad support the Libyan National Army (LNA). Meanwhile, Zarif’s declaration was a direct invitation for Turkish involvement in Yemen, which neither nation should be involved in at all. 

Turkey’s assertiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean has even pushed French President Emmanuel Macron to react by stating that Ankara is playing a dangerous game in Libya. It is, in fact, playing a dangerous game in a fast-growing number of files throughout the Middle East. Europe’s weakness and the increased competition between France and Italy over Libya have allowed for the situation to reach this chaos. With Italy supporting the GNA, this divided European voice and inability to resolve the situation has invited foreign interference from Turkey and Russia alike. This also happened as the US had, until recently, withdrawn from this file following the 2012 attack on its embassy in Benghazi and brutal terrorist killing of its ambassador, Christopher Stevens. He was killed by militant group Ansar Al-Sharia, which was defeated in 2017 by the LNA under Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar.

It is also clear that the Europeans have been weak and silent regarding the situation in the Levant and North Africa for quite some time now. First, they were blackmailed by Turkey when it opened its borders to Syrian refugees fleeing the crisis in that country. And, again earlier this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to stop enforcing the agreement he reached with the EU on this issue in 2016. This has been described by European analysts as “weaponizing refugees.” Ankara claims it is doing so to push for its solution to the Idlib issue, but it is actually a much broader strategy to keep the pressure on Europe for its own benefits. 

It is a fact that, due to the Russian involvement in Syria and the heavy US sanctions on Tehran, Iran was dwarfed and lost much of its capacity to maneuver. In this sense, it is not surprising that Iran — despite its opposition to Turkey in Idlib — would support it in Libya, especially against Russia. This shift was facilitated by the killing of Qassem Soleimani, who mastered the Levant files. As a result, we are also witnessing Turkey’s voice starting to rise in Iraq. 

It seems that Iran, which finds itself in a difficult economic situation, is passing the baton of troublemaking in the region to Turkey. The Middle East has long suffered (and will continue to suffer) from Iranian interference in files that do not threaten its national security, but rather only increase its bargaining power with the superpowers of the world. It seems now that Turkey will also be active in the same way. This interference is also forcing Arab countries to get involved to oppose Ankara’s hegemonic strategy. It is in this sense that we can understand Egypt’s decision, with the support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to get involved in Libya in support of its own national security by launching a conflict resolution initiative, which will probably be rejected by the GNA and its backers. 

Turkey has been good at convincing the US and NATO that it is opposing Russia in both Syria and Libya in order to get support and a free hand. However, it seems that it is playing not just two cards, but several at the same time. Indeed, Turkey is also bargaining with and trying to reach understandings with Russia on both the Libyan and Syrian files. 

Ankara sees that it can likely increase its leverage on Europe by imposing itself in Libya, especially as it seems that the US and France are on opposing sides for now. US President Donald Trump’s tough view that Europe should start pulling its weight in the Western alliance makes more sense than analysts admit. This should start with a unified foreign, military and security policy. Unfortunately, Europeans and Arabs alike suffer from divisions within their own ranks, which prevent them from intervening in unity and complicate all conflict resolution efforts. 

Turkey is playing a dangerous game in a fast-growing number of files throughout the Middle East.

Khaled Abou Zahr

The Middle East must be the region with the highest number of middle powers and the most minorities calling for foreign support and intervention. This is the perfect recipe for continuous conflict and crisis. The latest appeal came from none other than Lebanon’s so-called resistance leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who last week asked for China to step in. When he says such things, it is classed as an alliance of resistance, but when other minorities do the same it is an act of treason. 

While many were surprised by the deal between Iran and Turkey — especially those who saw Ankara as a potential counter power to Tehran — they should remember that, ultimately, these two countries do not address the same crowds. Each wants to become the supreme leader of its own religious community and this could be the start of an alliance, or an understanding at the very least. It is also perhaps this solution for the Middle East that Turkey is trying to market to the global powers.

  • Khaled Abou Zahr is the CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.
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