History strikes back: Turkey, Iran inevitably jockey over Syria

History strikes back: Turkey, Iran inevitably jockey over Syria
Erdogan and Rouhani meet in modern times. (Image via Aydinlik Daily)

The beginnings of a dynamic are emerging, one as predictable as anything ever was.  “Turkey” and “Iran” (in their earlier as well as contemporary incarnations) have jockeyed over the disposition of Syria (and Mesopotamia) for many centuries, and now that the clamps of the post-World War I order have been released, they are going to do so again.

Michael Ledeen initiated a fresh focus on this with a short post late last week, in which he predicted that Iran would soon form a federation with Syria and Iraq, or at least with the nominal central governments that remain to them: an arrangement that would formalize the Iranian military presence for which the mullahs have big plans.  Says Ledeen:

[Such a federation] advances Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards to another border, so that Nasrullah and Suleimani cam fulfill Khamenei’s fatwa, ordering the destruction of the Saudi royal family, and advancing Tehran’s strategic objective of bringing down the Hashemite monarchy in Amman.

I agree that Iran has these ends in view.  But to Ledeen’s question “Why now?” I would also add that Turkey is making with the preliminary moves on Syria, just at this moment, because of the Syrian Kurds’ recent success in their campaign to push back Islamic State’s territorial holdings between Raqqa and the Turkish border.

Battle of Chaldiran, 1514, between the Ottoman and Persian Empires.  (Image: Chehel Sotun Palace, Isfahan via ballandalus.wordpress.com)
Battle of Chaldiran, 1514, between the Ottoman and Persian Empires. (Image: Chehel Sotun Palace, Isfahan via ballandalus.wordpress.com)

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swore on Friday that Turkey would never countenance the formation of a Kurdish state in northern Syria.  Next thing you know, the Turkish army was ordered on 29 June to prepare for an intervention in Syria with up to 18,000 troops.

As Yochanan Visser suggests, an intervention on such a mass scale is unlikely.  What’s unlikely, at any rate, is that 18,000 troops would be deployed into Syria.  Turkey’s more typical pattern is to mass such troops near the border, and conduct aerial surveillance, and possibly small-scale air strikes and cross-border raids.  (The Turks have reacted from this posture against the Kurds in Iraq, as well as Syria, at various times from 2011 to 2014; see here and here, for example.)

The size of the announced Turkish mobilization would be meant to impress the Syrian Kurds with Ankara’s seriousness.  But Erdogan is well aware that it functions as a signal to Iran too.  We can assume he intends it to be one.

So it’s not exactly out of the blue that at the same time, Iran’s state-run media are quoting the late Yevgeny Primakov, long-time foreign minister of Russia, as saying that Iran will “sooner or later start taking an active part in the struggle to curb the advance of [Islamic State] militants.”

According to the veteran politician, who was also one of Russia’s best experts on the Middle East, Iran will sooner or later start taking an active part in the struggle to curb the advance of IS militants.

‘We can expect that Iran will become one of the active participants in the struggle against the IS.’

Primakov said that the Islamic State, in control of large parts of Syria and Iraq, poses a greater threat to Middle Eastern security than the broader Shiite-Sunni conflict.

Sure.  Primakov passes away on 27 June, and IRNA elects to feature quotes from him on this specific topic, one that obviously implies direct Iranian intervention in Syria and Iraq.

I’ll just append here the comments I made on these developments in an email over the weekend.

Primakov in the interview was prognosticating, not announcing an Iranian policy. But his assessment of the forces that would drive a formal federation of Iran, Iraq, and Syria is accurate.

[Michael Ledeen] may be right; it may happen in the next week. I don’t think Iran will move until after there’s some kind of punctuation device put on the 30 June deadline. But that does leave a day or two to make Michael’s window.

And IRNA may be highlighting the Primakov quote as a way of communicating regime intent. If not by the 2nd of July, we could see such a federation within weeks. The wild card isn’t the US, at this point; it’s Turkey. The success of the Kurds in Syria is goading Turkey closer to intervention, and Iran has to keep an eye on that, and try to preempt it, on multiple vectors (political and diplomatic as well as military).

Russia is playing the field now: to my eyes, offering herself to Turkey as a broker for Turkey’s big issues – Syria, Kurds, Greece, gas – with an “in” for each one of them. One of the important “ins” is Russia’s relationship with Iran. Russia is still tethered to Iran, but is playing the Syria problem with a less exclusive focus on the de facto alliance with Iran. I believe that’s because Moscow wants to promote competition and “balance” in Syria, rather than letting one of her southern-flank neighbors (Iran or Turkey) gain ascendancy there. The Russians would rather keep the competition going for now, and keep Syria’s fate up in the air, than see Turkey or Iran “settle” Syria singlehandedly, without a Russian stamp of approval.

It’s also because Russia is setting up as an outside broker that can bring balance throughout the region – making up to Saudi Arabia and Egypt as a patron that can restrain Iran, and that has an opposition to radical Salafism in common with them.

The US, in its diplomatic approach, is dealing in the fading abstractions of the post-Cold War hiatus, as are the EU-3, to some extent. The Asians further east are all dealing in geography. The one thing that has ever supervened geography has been the power of a global hegemon. The British Empire was a proto-global hegemon; the U.S. after 1991 is the only example we’ve had of a full-fledged one. Now the hegemon is gone.

We have yet to plumb the depths of the great, ongoing renversement of Western geopolitical arrangements around the globe, including the Sykes-Picot Levant.  It’s getting harder to write about, in part because the leadership of the West has made the West such a pointless, ineffective quantity in the current drama.  Western leadership used to serve as the main focal point for organizing thoughts about what was going on and what needed to be done.  No more.

It’s clear to my eyes that the mainstream media don’t know what to do, other than keep plowing the conventional intellectual furrows of the Pax Americana leadership period, when it mattered what the U.S. and Western Europe did.  But it doesn’t matter now, in case after case – not because there is nothing useful to be done, but because there is so clearly no will to do it.

This makes too much mainstream writing on geopolitics fatuous and shallow today.  But what are mainstream editorial boards to do?  We’re busy, this very minute, losing a common frame of reference for some of humanity’s biggest “things,” and geopolitics is one of them.  One can’t lay out a whole weltanschauung for every small-slice thesis in an op-ed or blog post.  So most of the time, even the most insightful writers try to just make meaningful points in the outdated terms of a collapsing consensus.  We’ll see how long it is before that no longer makes any sense.

Goodbye to all that: The Sykes-Picot scheme, 1916. (Map via Near East News Agency)
Goodbye to all that: The Sykes-Picot scheme, 1916. (Map via Near East News Agency)
J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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