The ongoing unrest in Syria caught many governments around the world off-guard, not least in Iran and Turkey.
Like many other capitals, both Tehran and Ankara appear to have been surprised not only by the actual outbreak of unrest, but also by the momentum and tenacity of the demonstrations. Yet what has probably surprised them more is how they now find themselves pitted against each other over the future of the Bashar al-Assad regime.
On one side, the Iranian government is offering Assad diplomatic and military support to cling on to power, including sending security advisers, equipment for shutting off the Internet, and forces for brutalizing the demonstrators. Iranian news sources, meanwhile, have also supported Syrian state reports by labelling the demonstrators ‘terrorists.’
On the other side stands Turkey. Its government, which had until recently been close to Assad, is now condemning him. In an interview in early June, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Assad and his brother, Maher, of ‘killing people and then releasing videos of the killings,’ while asking the United Nations to intervene. Other reports noted the Turkish government delivering a warning letter to Assad, asking him to implement reforms and to fire Maher, who is believed by many to be behind the brutal crackdowns. This has occurred against the backdrop of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the crackdown to Turkey. Had they crossed into Iran instead, it’s difficult to imagine the Iranian regime doing anything except handing them straight back.
The conflicting views on Syria come at a time when ties between the two had actually been prospering, especially on the economic side. Turkey has bought gas from Iran at discounted prices, while selling gasoline at 25 percent above market prices. Turkey had also become a trusted confidant for Iran over the nuclear issue. For example, Iran backed last year’s Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal, while Istanbul became one of Iran’s preferred venues for P5+1 nuclear talks over Iran’s nuclear programme.
This isn’t to say there haven’t been tensions. Both Shiite Persian majority Iran and Sunni majority Ottoman Turkey have their own regional ambitions, creating competition that is now manifesting itself in places such as Gaza, Iraq and in relations with the Persian Gulf countries. The Turkish government was silent about the entry of Saudi forces into Bahrain, for example, because of concerns over its relations with the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (Iran, in contrast, was furious).