Turkey’s new military offensive against Kurdish armed groups in Syria has met with widespread international criticism. Several European countries have condemned it, with the European Union threatening to impose sanctions on Ankara over the move. The Arab League held an emergency meeting October 12 to address the issue, in which all member-states—except Turkey’s main Arab ally, Qatar—took a strong position against Ankara.
In contrast to those worldwide reactions, Iran’s position toward Turkey’s invasion into the territory of its close ally, Syria, has been rather moderate.
Iranian foreign ministry issued a statement on October 10, expressing “concern over Turkey’s military action inside Syria,” calling on Turkey to cease its operation and respect Syria’s territorial integrity. However, it stopped short of “condemning” Ankara. Later, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered mediation between Ankara, Damascus, and the Syrian Kurds, while calling for cooperation between the Syrian Army and Turkey.
“The Adana Agreement between Turkey and Syria—still valid—can be the better path to achieve security,” Zarif wrote on his Twitter account, referring to a 1998 agreement between Ankara and Damascus to secure their shared borders.
In fact, despite being at odds with Turkey over their long-term interests in Syria, Iran sees a number of opportunities in the current developments in Syria’s northeast. Turkey’s military operation began shortly after the White House announced a decision to withdraw the American troops from the Kurdish-held areas east of the Euphrates, a move that was widely interpreted as Washington’s “betrayal” of its allied Kurdish groups.
As the main critic of the US military presence in Syria, Iran did not try to hide its satisfaction over the U.S.’s withdrawal.
As the main critic of the US military presence in Syria, Iran did not try to hide its satisfaction over the U.S.’s withdrawal. In a statement released Oct. 8, Iranian Foreign Ministry said the US decision to “end the occupation of Syrian territories” should have been made “much sooner.”
Deprived of direct American military support, the Kurdish groups see themselves as being caught between a rock and a hard place: They either have to turn to the Assad government for help against the Turkish invasion—which means surrendering the areas under their control to the Syrian government—or assume the risk of fighting a regular army of a NATO member-state.
Along with Assad’s other major ally Russia, Iran has been trying to initiate a compromise between Damascus and the Kurds to establish the Syrian government’s control east of the Euphrates, but to no avail. Now Tehran appears to be hopeful that the Turkish threat could finally push the Kurds toward accepting Assad’s terms for a deal.
Even in the worst-case scenario, i.e., the seizure of the Kurdish-held regions by Turkey, it would be still easier for Iran to deal with a Turkish presence in those areas instead of an American one. After all, Iran and Turkey are two founding members of the Astana Peace Process, where respecting Syria’s territorial integrity has always been underlined. As such, from the Iranian point of view, there is enough ground to establish a compromise between Ankara and Damascus in the future. This is why Tehran is insisting on the Adana agreement as a basis for solving the issues between the two sides.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s military and political concentration on Syria’s northeast and the drawdown of American forces would provide the Syrian government and its allies with an opportunity to expand Assad’s control over other strategic regions of the Arab country. On October 11, the Russian air force launched heavy airstrikes over Idlib, signaling that a new Russian-backed offensive by the Syrian army to recapture the northwestern province could be on the horizon.
The Syrian army has also reportedly deployed a large number of its troops to Deir Ezzor for a potential operation in that area. The move comes less than two weeks after the Russian, Syrian, and Iranian armed forces held military drills in the Deir Ezzor Governorate.
Apart from the Syrian government’s potential military gains, the Arab states’ unified position in supporting Syria’s territorial integrity in the face of the Turkish invasion could result in a political win for Assad. During the Arab League’s recent emergency meeting, Iraq and Lebanon openly called for restoring Syria’s membership in the organization. If realized, this could be a significant boost to the Assad government’s legitimacy, which would be welcomed by Iran.
While the American withdrawal and a limited Turkish military assault may help push the Kurds toward Damascus and enhance Assad’s military and political status, a prolonged conflict between Turkey and the Kurds could harm Iran’s interests.
But all these points do not mean that Iran does not have any concern over Turkey’s military plans. In fact, while the American withdrawal and a limited Turkish military assault may help push the Kurds toward Damascus and enhance Assad’s military and political status, a prolonged conflict between Turkey and the Kurds could harm Iran’s interests in two important ways.
First, the Turkish invasion has already started to provoke pro-Kurdish sentiments throughout the world, including in Iran. Over the past week, several Kurdish-populated cities of Iran have witnessed anti-Turkish protests, with people expressing sympathy with the Syrian Kurds, burning the Turkish flag. As Iran has had its own problem with Kurdish militancy—in the form of PJAK, which is a terrorist organization affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—there’s a concern that the militants might try to build upon the popular protests to advance their cause against the Islamic Republic. The Iranian Army’s unannounced military drill in the country’s northwest on October 9 should be seen primarily as a message to the Kurdish militants not to take a step in this direction.
Second, a potential spill-over of instabilities from the northeast to the other parts of eastern Syria would hinder Iran’s plans for establishing a land corridor from its borders with Iraq to the Mediterranean. On Sept. 30, the Al-Qaem-Albukamal border crossing between Syria and Iraq was reopened after five years. The move was seen as a major breakthrough in connecting Iran to Syria, which would provide Tehran with an important transit and trade route to the Mediterranean. However, with reports being circulated of the ISIS terrorists escaping from the Kurdish-controlled prisons in eastern Syria as a result of the Turkish assault, the Iraqi army is reinforcing security measures in the areas bordering Syria. This would complicate Iran’s long-term plans involving the Al-Qaem-Albukamal crossing.
Iran is expected to double down on its efforts to mediate between Ankara and Damascus on the one hand and Damascus and the Kurds on the other.
Going forward, Iran is expected to double down on its efforts to mediate between Ankara and Damascus on the one hand and Damascus and the Kurds on the other, to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. It may also pursue closer cooperation with Russia, as Moscow shares the same interests in mediating between both sides.