There is uncertainty about Turkey’s true position on the Syrian civil war and its relationship with Iran due to recent US sanctions imposed on a Turkish national for facilitating the smuggling of Iranian oil by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). While Turkey has appeared to be opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the civil war, it has also provided significant support to Iran, including helping it evade US sanctions through the exchange of billions of dollars’ worth of gold for natural gas and oil. This raises questions about Turkey’s true stance on Assad and whether it has been pretending to be against him.
Erdoğan: We feel like Iran is our second home
There are numerous instances of the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressing support for the Iranian regime, including through ideological affinity, economic assistance, intelligence sharing and political empowerment.
At an ideological level, the Iranian Islamist Revolution has been seen as an inspiration for many political Islamists, including Erdoğan, who subscribes to a Sunni version of political Islam. The Turkish president once said, “We feel like Iran is our second home.”
The Erdoğan government has also had a close economic relationship with Iran, providing billions of dollars’ worth of gold to Iran in exchange for natural gas and oil between 2012 and 2013 in an effort to help Iranevade US sanctions.
More recently, the US Treasury has revealed that Sıtkı Ayan, who has close business ties to Erdoğan’s son and other relatives, has continued to assist Iran in evading sanctions.
There have also been secret connections uncovered between Turkey and Iran, including through a 2011-2014 investigation into the Selam-Tevhid terrorist organization, the Turkish branch of the Quds Force, a unit of Iran’s IRGC focused on unconventional warfare and military intelligence.
Despite these allegations, Erdoğan has attempted to cover them up, calling them conspiracies.
On a political level İbrahim Kalın, the spokesman and chief advisor to Erdoğan, has stated that Turkey does not feel threatened by the increasing influence of Iran in the Middle East and even takes Iran’s interests into account, indicating that the two countries’ policies are aligned.
How did Erdoğan transform the opposition in Syria?
It must be taken into account that these are the years when Erdoğan’s Turkey began to build opposition to Assad in Syria. Given the fact that Turkey was secretly supporting Syrian ally Iran and thus indirectly supporting Syria, was Turkey really fighting against him? Did Turkey effectively organize opposition to Assad? No, it did not.
In fact, Turkey has actually hindered the formation of a moderate, legitimate opposition by preventing former Syrian military officers from organizing. For example, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) handed over their leader, Hussein al-Harmoush, who was in a refugee camp in southern Turkey, to the Syrian regime. He and his colleagues wanted to fight against Assad.
Instead, Turkey supported extremist groups such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.
Some opposition groups, such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, are independent of Turkey, but they, too, are extremists and are labeled as terrorists by Turkey. Due to the extremely radical ideology of these groups, even the US and other Western countries have come to prefer Assad to them.
The jihadist groups under Turkish control are now more focused on furthering Turkey’s priorities than opposing Assad. In recent statements, Erdoğan has indicated that Turkey’s primary concern is not defeating Assad but rather achieving a political solution.
The Syrian National Army (SNA), which is made up of opposition rebels and is controlled by Turkey, is also no longer actively fighting against Assad. Instead, Turkey primarily used the SNA and its own military in offensives against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), another opposition group mainly composed of Kurds, as part of the 2016 Operation Euphrates Shield.
Both Syria and Turkey’s other ally, Iran, are reportedly in agreement on preventing the establishment of separatist Kurdish entities in Syria.
In my opinion, since the Syrian regime, supported by Russia and Iran, does not dare to decisively attack the Kurds, with whom the US is allied against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), they use Turkey to force them to give up their unilateral autonomy since Ankara has the pretext of terrorist threat and benefits from the shield provided by its NATO membership.
One can disagree with the above argument and claim that Turkey has serious reasons for letting the Syrian opposition fight with the Kurds and not with Assad. One of the main reasons could be that the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria (AANES) could be an example for the Kurds in Turkey, and they could also want autonomy and to merge with the Kurdish state in Syria. However, the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq has existed for several decades and did not inspire such autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds. Erdoğan even invited its leader, Massoud Barzani, to the celebration of the peace process between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkey in southeastern Turkey in 2013. If there was an example that could encourage Kurds in Turkey to declare autonomy, it would be the KRG, not AANES.
Another argument could be that the SDF has ties to the outlawed PKK, which has fought Turkey for more than 40 years. Sharing the same ideology is not a sufficient reason to attack the SDF. Is the SDF terrorizing Turkey? There is not enough evidence to claim that. Turkey had recently blamed the SDF for a bombing in İstanbul in November, but no solid evidence was presented to prove the SDF’s responsibility. Be that as it may, if the real reason for the attacks on the Kurds in Syria is terrorism, then Turkey should find the terrorists and neutralize them. Are shelling and airstrikes on Kurdish-populated towns – which is what Turkey is doing in northern Syria right now — a reasonable and legal way to fight terrorism? Or is it more for ethnic cleansing to force the Kurdish population to leave their hometowns, settle Arabs there instead and put those towns under the control of the Syrian regime?
On the ground, it is obvious that Turkey’s primary objective in Syria is to fight the Kurds, not Assad. The Turkish army, accompanied by opposition rebels, is attacking the Kurds and forcing them to abandon their settlements, which ultimately allows Assad to take control of Kurdish-inhabited towns with indirect help from Turkey.
*Ahmet Yılmaz has a master’s degree in international security strategies. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.