TEHRAN – In a drastic turnabout, Ankara has recently grown more friendly toward Iran and its superpower buddy Russia, a move which seems likely to help make the Middle East a more legitimate entity on the global stage of power.
By “legitimate” here I mean for the Middle East to be able to exert more of a unified will over at least its own issues when a multiplicity of far and scattered powers play roles in crises ranging from Syria to Yemen and Iraq.
Ankara started its new approach a few months ago, which was hastened following a failed coup d’état on July 15-16. Shortly before the coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized for the November 24 downing of a Russian jet, which already raised expectations that normalization with Moscow could facilitate Turkey’s U-turn from its failed Syria policy.
On the other hand, Iran was swift to condemn the coup and voice support for the legally elected Turkish government. This was embraced warmly by Ankara, thanking Iran on various occasions for its support.
All these have so far boiled down to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif making a one-day trip to Turkey on Friday, meeting Erdogan as well as his counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. In a joint press conference, the two foreign ministers stressed that despite differences, Turkey and Iran “would strengthen cooperation for a lasting peace in Syria.”
“Iran has always had good relations with both Turkey and Russia. All of the countries in the region must cooperate to bring peace to Syria and fighting against extremism,” Zarif said during the event.
In a telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shortly after the failed coup, Erdogan had expressed his willingness to cooperate closely with Iran and Russia “to settle regional crises and restore peace and stability to the region.”
The two leaders there touched on the situation in the Middle East as a whole, and expressed consensus that there are global forces who are not satisfied with the idea of tranquility in the region. For his part, President Rouhani noted he has no doubt that together with the terrorists, there are also “some superpowers” trying to destabilize things.
As for Ankara-Moscow relations, against a backdrop of rising tensions between Turkey and the West, Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Erdogan pledged Tuesday to repair relations after nine months of open antagonism.
Although their meeting in St. Petersburg produced little beyond vows of friendship and cooperation, the symbolism of the two former antagonists coming together for a friendly talk was enough to raise alarms in Western capitals. Besides being a member of the NATO alliance, Turkey is vital to Europe’s efforts to stanch the flow of migrants from Syria and Afghanistan.
Closer ties with Russia also carry the potential to create tensions within NATO that Mr. Putin would be happy to exploit. Ultimately, Moscow would like to draw Turkey into its orbit and into the security and trade organizations it is promoting in Asia, although such a shift is not expected anytime soon.
Turkey’s positions on Syria used to be in stark contrast with Tehran and Moscow before Ankara adopted the new approach. While Iran and Russia pushed for either keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or having him succeeded by a democratically elected president, Turkey worked with the side which first of all sought Assad’s elimination.
This put Ankara in the league of Saudi Arabia as a major player in an extensive campaign against Assad. On September 22, 2014, the United States, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates began their campaign by bombing positions in Syria. For whatever reasons, the campaign has not brought any significant change to the situation.
As Ankara moves toward Iran and Russia, there is hope that a new strategic triangle is in the making, and in due time it may begin to cause considerable influence not only on Syria, but on the entire Middle East region.
Together, Iran and Turkey as powerful and central forces in the Middle East can shift a great force behind the events and work for shared good. Although it is still a fledgling, the new friendship can create spectacular scenes of achievement that can alter the makeup of the Middle East and hopefully result in actual improvement of security situation in the restive area.