By Rafet Ballı
My words here are actually directed at those who govern Türkiye. To explain my point clearly, I will first narrate some incidents through Syria.
In the spring of 2022, I met with a close friend of General Qasem Soleimani in Tehran. Our conversation revolved around Türkiye-Iran relations and the escalating problems due to the Karabakh issue. Then he told me about Soleimani’s visits to Türkiye and Russia.
Let’s open the first parenthesis here: Who was Qasem Soleimani?
Officially, he was the Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.
He was the leading person of Iran’s operations in Western Asia.
Publicly, he was known as an executor. However, Soleimani was also one of the architects of the policies he implemented.
Another characteristic was his ability to engage in diplomacy when necessary.
He was assassinated at Baghdad Airport on January 3, 2020.
The US proudly announced it. The order to “strike” was given by the US President himself.
Millions attended his funeral. It was the most crowded gathering in Iran after Khomeini’s funeral.
It is known that there is a certain degree of discontent with some of the practices of the regime in Iran. However, Soleimani, one of symbols of the the core of the state, was a beloved figure among the people with his devoted character.
Why did Russia enter the Syrian conflict?
Let’s close the parenthesis and continue.
I was in search of clarity regarding “September 30, 2015”: The date Russia initiated its first air operation in Syria. The target was ISIS and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups guided by the US. One of Iran’s “first-hand” interlocutors was present in front of me. I had the chance to ask: On what basis did Iran invite Russia to Syria and why did Russia accept it?
In fact, I had some guess what the ground for this alliance was. I rather wanted to understand Türkiye’s problems in establishing regional alliances, drawing results from Iran’s experience.
Indeed, yes, Ankara had taken certain steps with Russia and Iran:
Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria (August 24, 2016 – March 29, 2017).
Operation Olive Branch (January 20 – March 24, 2018).
Operation Peace Spring (October 9 – November 25, 2019).
These operations became possible within the framework of the Astana process. Yet when it comes to collaboration with Syria, Türkiye was in a total stalemate. That’s why there aroused always issues of distrust and tensions with Russia and Iran.
The Iranian official explained Tehran’s contacts with Türkiye as follows:
“In 2013, the military difficulties in Syria escalated. Iran was seeking a way to counter the dominance of the Atlantic front. The Erdoğan government, albeit with some ambivalence and hesitation, was still on the Atlantic side. Despite that, Iran was trying to keep relations with Türkiye warm.
And the first claim of the Iranian official was as follows:
“In 2013, we offered a Türkiye-centered solution in Syria to Ankara. We suggested to integrate the Muslim Brotherhood into the Syrian government. However, Türkiye found it insufficient and rejected our proposal. Afterward, we began to focus on the Russian option.”
Looking at it from today, we can make two observations:
First: Türkiye couldn’t decipher the real intention of the US for Syria. Ankara rushed and made miscalculations (in 2011).
Second: Türkiye then it realized its mistake, but this time was excessively slow in rectifying.
Let’s open the second parenthesis.
The Atlantic front launched a thorough attack on Syria in March 2011. Their goal was to dismantle another state that is opposing to the US and Zionism and to establish a “Second Israel” in the region. A scenario similar to Iraq in 2003.
Here, I shall ask two questions: Why did Islamists in Türkiye initially align with the Atlantic front in Syria? And how did Islamists in Iran stand by Syria from the very beginning and oppose the Atlantic front?
To ask one more question, let’s go back to Iraq of 20 years ago. At that time, the roles of Ankara and Tehran were different. Despite its own government, Türkiye’s parliament refused to support the US invasion of Iraq (the famous March 1, 2003 resolution). Meanwhile, Iran did nothing but watching the US invasion. Iraqi Shiite parties close to Tehran even didn’t hesitate to participate in meetings with the US-led Iraqi opposition. The theme of these meetings was how Saddam Hussein would be toppled.
Why? I will discuss that at another time.
Now let’s get back to our main topic, my talk with the Iranian official. His second claim regarding Türkiye was related to Qasem Soleimani:
“Soleimani went to Türkiye during the July 15, 2016 coup process. He met with President Erdoğan and offered Iran’s support. Iran conveyed its strong support for Türkiye and Erdoğan.”
I must note that I am aware every state formulates the positions of other countries from its own perspective. So, the accounts of the parties might be incomplete or different. And I need to add that I could not confirm either of these two claims yet.
And then, Soleimani’s Moscow contacts.
My Iranian interlocutor also emphasized that Soleimani conducted the negotiations with Moscow. He also met with President Vladimir Putin. The Russian side was not immediately convinced.
Let me remind that the US took two interconnected steps in Syria from August 2014 onward under the pretext of “fight against ISIS”: First, providing air support and weapons to the PKK/PYD and then starting to establish military bases. When the US threat grew, Putin agreed to join the conflict in Syria.
My Iranian interlocutor said:
“By entering this minefield, Moscow put itself at a great risk. Because in Syria, there were two global powers (the US and the UK), two regional powers (Türkiye and Iran), and a “special state” (Israel) and numerous militias and terrorist organizations. A very narrow and mined area. Moscow had the raison d’état to comprehend the risk of the war spilling over to the level of states. No need for Anton Chekhov’s testimony: Weapons wouldn’t serve as mere decorations on the wall. Did Moscow embark on an unending adventure? No! Moscow was aware of what was at stake. Because:
One: The United States wasn’t just trying to subdue and divide countries like Tükiye, Iran and Syria. Russia was also a target, which became clear later during the Ukraine conflict.
Two: If Syria fell, it would create a vacuum that could engulf in Russia as well as West Asia.
As a result, Moscow chose its friends through determining its enemies. Whoever the US saw as an enemy, Russia formed alliance with.
Iran’s foreign policy success
With the Russian aircraft operations in Syria on September 30, 2015, Russia intervened in the war. So, Tehran had successfully positioned Russia against the US. It was a strategic and historical move. The had a great impact on the military situation in Syria. One should acknowledge that was thanks to Iran’s strategic thinking.
Russia’s presence in Syria also eased Türkiye’s position. In fact, Türkiye’s military operations became possible due to two key factors:
First: Russia’s arrival in the region balanced US power.
Second: Türkiye moved away from the US and leaned towards the Eurasian front, initiating the Astana process with Russia and Iran.
The US’s corridor plan extending from the Iraqi border to the Mediterranean, could be disrupted in this way, firstly in El Bab.
The Astana process was beneficial not only for Türkiye, but also for Syria. Syria regained control over Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta. Even without waging war, but through negotiations facilitated by Türkiye.
Today’s geopolitical earthquake: Palestine
Let’s come to the present, to the conflict in Palestine. On October 7, 2023, we saw a geopolitical earthquake which accelerates the birth pangs of the new world.
The Atlantic front is losing ground, and it’s clear that this has certain effect on all political and military processes in the world. Palestine seemed like an exception to that, as even its gains appeared to be slipping away. Now, Palestine has boldly risen in the space opened by the retreat of the Atlantic powers. We will see how the rise of Gaza have a ripple effect, inspiring other nations.
The Ukraine front, South Caucasus, Eastern Mediterranean, and Syria: all these form one single front. With Palestine, our joint front has expanded even further.
The core of the Atlantic front is of the US, the UK and Israel. They are amassing forces in the Eastern Mediterranean now. Their target is not limited to Palestine, Iran and Hezbollah. US President Joe Biden, due to Turkish Armed Forces’ operations in Syria, has once again declared Türkiye an enemy: “An unusual and extraordinary threat to US national security and foreign policy” (October 12, 2023).
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded with the same firmness and determination. He stated, “It is an extraordinary threat to Türkiye national security” regarding the US activities in Syria (October 13, 2023). It’s a commendable statement, but not enough. Actions, not just words, are needed.
Türkiye’s alliance policies
We are not calling for war against the US and Israel. Experience over last 20-year shows that both, Türkiye’s successes and failures, are tied to its alliance policies.
The critical questions are as follows: What is our goal? Who is our friend? And who is our foe? The stance of the Atlantic front actually determines both our friends and foes.
In the negotiations, only the state officials can accurately decide what kinds of guarantees can be provided to Damascus. Today, for a genuine support to Palestine, the first thing we can make is to start the cooperation with Syria without further delay. Additionally, it’s time to deactivate NATO’s Kürecik Radar Station in Malatya, southeastern Türkiye.
And how about shutting off the valves on Azerbaijani oil flowing to Israel until a ceasefire in Palestine?