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).
Still, the intensity of the rivalry over Syria’s future is surprising – and it’s worrying Iran. Iranian foreign ministry officials have repeatedly voiced their displeasure over Turkey’s policy toward Assad, but to no avail. Iran fears that should the status quo in Syria persist, it will only highlight differences between the two, and risk encouraging Turkey to rethink its closeness with Tehran. With Iran providing Assad with support to quell the demonstrators, Arab nations, the United States and NATO are likely to increase pressure on Turkey to scale back its ties with Tehran.
Even worse for Iran would be if Israel managed to patch things up with Turkey. Relations between them have improved marginally, but reports suggest that Israel has backed away three times from issuing an apology to the Turkish government over the Mavi Marmara incident last year, when the Israeli military used force against the so-called Gaza Freedom Flotilla.
For now, time and events are on Turkey's side. Erdogan has been smart enough not to sacrifice his relations with the West by placing all of his eggs in the Iran basket, a move that is now paying off. Meanwhile, he will likely have calculated that he can withstand pressure from Iran without having to pay the costs of angering it. And with Iran so short of friends, there’s little pressure that Tehran can bring to bear upon Ankara. This allows Erdogan to continue pressuring Assad to implement serious reforms, pressure that could evolve into a request that he step aside should the situation deteriorate further.
NATO has much to gain from Turkey's influence. Having a member that can influence events in a Middle Eastern country as important as Syria will boost the organization’s diplomatic influence, something that is all the more welcome given that the intervention in Libya isn’t going as smoothly as hoped.
Sooner or later, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will be faced with a stark choice – either stand with Assad until the end or abandon him. His timing could impact the future of the Islamic Republic and its future relations with Syria, as well as Iran’s strategic clout in the region. It will also affect Hizbollah’s position, which has itself become more tenuous with the release of the findings of the Hariri trial.
‘Whenever you catch the fish, it will be fresh,’ goes one well-known Persian proverb meaning it's never too late to begin something. When it comes to the difficult choices over Syria, though, Khamenei doesn’t really have that luxury.