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Turkish-Iranian-Syrian Relations

The geography of the Middle East is subject to direct international interference through the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and through political attempts to transform the region socially, politically, and economically. Calls for reform and renovation have reached a heightened level, and Western states are pushing for the development of good governance, democracy, and human rights in Middle Eastern societies.

Turkey, Syria and Iran are influential actors in Middle Eastern politics. The relations and the cooperation between these states occur at a time when Syria and Iran have been accused by the Bush administration of being antagonists to a peaceful and democratic international system. The ongoing relations between these states, and how these states interact with the international community, is revealing since they are important components of the regional power balance.

Regional Interactions
The U.S. administration adopted a high profile policy against Syria and Iran and poses a threat to these countries. Washington accuses the two states of supporting terrorism in the region, pursuing clandestine activities in Iraq and building weapons of mass destruction. Among these two, the Bush administration primarily points out Iran for its alleged nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration argues that Iran is very close to acquiring nuclear weapons considering the progress of its nuclear-enrichment facilities. The administration is pursuing a number of measures to slow Iran’s development of nuclear material, from tightening the economic sanctions policy on the country to attacking its nuclear facilities.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has pursued a more pragmatic line in relations with the West, particularly after the 9/11 attacks. His pursuing a constructive policy line helped his relations with the international community but could not rid the suspicions directed at his country. Syria is accused of supporting international terrorism, in addition to the old and continuous allegations of Damascus’ support for terrorist and militant activities in Israel. In addition, there are new accusations that terrorist networks — mainly al-Qaeda — have connections in Syria and that Syrian Ba’athists support old Ba’athist cadres in Iraq, who are believed to constitute the backbone of the resistance in the country. Although evidence has not been provided for many of these accusations, the Bush administration has used them to heighten its pressure on Syria.

Turkey has long borders with both Iran and Syria and is in the same region. However, it displays a different regional and international profile. Turkey has undergone a reform process in the legal, political and economic realms in an effort to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria of the European Union; it also worked with an I.M.F.-led economic program. Turkey’s transformation put an end to the Cold War style of a security state apparatus and changed the framework of its domestic and foreign policy. The practical result has been adopting an active diplomacy to minimize problems with neighboring countries.

The March 2003 motion that forbade U.S. troops from using Turkish territory in the war against Iraq was a historical turning point for Turkey. The Turkish parliament prevented the United States from opening a northern front against Iraq on the given justification that the international community considered the war illegitimate. Turkey’s decision prolonged the process of the Iraqi invasion, forced the U.S. to search for greater legitimacy, and drew more attention to the Palestinian question as a reason for much of the region’s instability. Whilst Turkey is accustomed to balancing between the chaotic Middle Eastern system and the peace and stability of Europe, it now appears to be moving closer to the E.U. In this respect, Syria and Iran approved of Turkey’s E.U. membership process and consider a European Turkey as a chance to develop their relations with the E.U.

Turkish-Syrian-Iranian Relations
For a long time, both Turkey and Syria were locked in a relationship shaped by historical enmity, the prevalence of hostile establishment ideologies, and the attempts of policymakers to “externalize” some major domestic problems. After Syria’s expulsion of the leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party in 1997, the relations returned to a good track. Syria also has been the first test case of Turkey’s good neighborhood policy. In late December 2004, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a two-day visit to Syria, which brought optimistic prospects for future bilateral relations.

More specifically, close relations between Turkey and Syria seem meaningful from the commercial and security standpoints. During the Turkish delegation’s visit to Damascus, both sides signed a free trade agreement with the idea of expanding it to the regional level. Policymakers in both countries share the view that they have legitimate concerns about the future of Iraq and should cooperate in every possible way, as they already have started doing through the meeting of the countries bordering Iraq, to enhance stability.

Turkish-Iranian relations were shaped under the effect of the nature of the changing regime in Iran, conflicting interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus, relations with the United States and Israel, and the anxiety about the future of Iraq in general and northern Iraq in particular. Investments of Turkish companies in Iran and agreements concerning the purchase of natural gas have added a new dimension to the relations in recent years. Domestic politics in both countries has come to play an important role towards each other. Turkey follows a similar accommodating policy line as the E.U. when it comes to Iran.

Ankara is anxious over the context of international relations emerging in the triangle of the U.S., Israel and nuclear weapons. Turkey had a sense of security based on its superiority of conventional weapons and promotes the idea of an active international diplomacy to bring Iran to internationally acceptable terms in this regard. Ankara’s one major concern is that both countries strive for the territorial integrity of Iraq and for the establishment of a stable neighbor state.

Syrian-Iranian relations follow a different path. Damascus keeps its troops in Lebanon and supports, along with Iran, militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. After the U.S. administration’s recall of its ambassador in Damascus and the heightening of tension between the U.S. and Iran, these two countries declared that they will act together and form a common front against perceived external threats.

Is an Enduring Cooperation Possible?
Although most of the structural and historical problems for improving relations between these three countries have been part of history, there are a number of impediments that are likely to prevent this relationship from emerging as long-term cooperation. The major impediment is Washington’s hard-line policy against Syria and Iran. It has been a catchword in the influential circles of the U.S. administration that these two countries are serious problems for American interests in the greater Middle East.

Although the U.S. administration is mostly alone in its allegations of organized Syrian meddling in Iraq, it has the E.U. on board, especially France, in its opposition to Syrian interference in Lebanon. The U.S.-Iran tensions are more serious and likely to yield more destructive results in a shorter period of time. The U.S. attitude differs from the general approach of the international community, but if Iranian uranium enrichment activities continue, this situation may change against Iran.

The recent period also witnessed oscillating relations between Turkey and the U.S. due to the conflict in Iraq. Turkey’s parliamentary motion that disallowed U.S. soldiers to enter Iraq through Turkish territory was a surprising development for U.S. policymakers. Although relations have improved in due course, there is an implicit mistrust on both sides.

Ankara is not satisfied with the U.S. administration’s declaration that they are in favor of Iraq’s territorial integrity and do not support the idea of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq. The U.S. administration is not happy with the rising anti-Americanism in Turkish society and anti-American discourse in the media and academic circles. There have been problematic periods between Turkey and the U.S. in the past, but the Turkish administration did not permit the escalation of the tension to a level that would undermine relations. Considering the current state of relations, Turkey gained more room to maneuver vis-à-vis U.S. policies in the Middle East. However, Turkey’s domestic political balances, regional preferences and international orientations set a limit for its alienation from the U.S. Turkey’s main strength in the region derives from its close relations with both the U.S. and E.U.

Turkey’s new policy line aims to promote a regional peacemaker role and gives priority to democratic legitimacy in international relations. If Syria and Iran do not act according to the demands of the international community, then it may be difficult for Turkey to pursue relations at the current level. Turkey’s new neighborhood policy has a vision of minimizing the problems in its neighboring regions, but to avoid being pulled into international confrontations. Otherwise, Turkey will contradict with its projected aims and targets in the region.

The escalation of tension between the U.S. and Syria and Iran will dominate the fate of the region in the near future. The regional countries face the reality that regional politics is no longer independent from the realities of world politics of the 9/11 era. The relations between Turkey, Syria and Iran are exemplary in this sense. An enduring cooperation among countries needs to be built on a delicate balance between shared interests of the parties and the perceptions of international society, especially those in the top echelons of the power hierarchy in international relations.

The second half of this decade will be difficult for both the allies and the enemies of the U.S. in the Middle East. On the enemy side, the U.S. administration poses serious threats to Iran and Syria. On the ally side, as Turkey recognized in the recent period, they may come to face with making a choice between their regional interests and U.S. regional designs. U.S. pressure on its allies and enemies is likely to yield changes on the domestic and foreign policies of these countries and to change the patterns of cooperation and conflict in the region. (07 March 2005)

Copyright The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of inquiries© All comments should be directed to content©

Bulent Aras, a Professor of International Relations at Fatih University in Istanbul, is an independent political consultant on Turkish and Middle Eastern affairs.

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