More good news for a Monday: Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul (the head of state, as opposed to Prime Minister Erdogan, the head of government), sent Syria’s Bashar al-Assad a letter last week. In it, he warned that if Assad continues on his current path – making war on his people, joined at the hip with Iran – he can no longer count on Turkey’s friendship. According to a Turkish press interview cited by Haaretz, Turkish officials are now open to the possibility of participating in a coalition military intervention in Syria, something Turkey has not been openly in favor of before.
Iran has lost no time in delivering a riposte. Iran will expand and update the air base at Latakia (adjacent to a naval base on the Syrian coast, and formerly used by the Soviet Union) in order to facilitate weapons shipments to Syria. Turkey has stopped at least two weapons shipments through Turkish territory from Iran to Syria this year, and the Israeli navy – or possibly a NATO navy – would prevent any attempted deliveries by commercial shipping. (Iran violates UN sanctions by exporting arms, regardless of who they’re going to.)
Iran’s logistic and strategic outreach
An air base alone would be of little use to Iran and Syria, unless Iran can route planes over Iraq. If that isn’t possible, the air base at Latakia buys Tehran and the Assad regime little, at least in the near future. The planes have to approach Latakia somehow, and if they can’t go through Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan, there is no feasible direct route.
Nor would any country on the Mediterranean side knowingly allow a planeload of Iranian weapons to use its air bases as a waypoint. Few if any potential Asian partners would be willing to allow that use for their air bases. Iran has dealt in third- and fourth-party cut-outs for years (e.g., the recent attempt to route arms clandestinely through Nigeria), but intelligence agencies are fully alerted to Iranian tactics.
But might Iraq allow Iranian aircraft to transit her airspace en route Syria? Observers in the Middle East are starting to see that as very possible. The news site Iran Focus ties Nouri al-Maliki’s diplomatic support of the Assad regime to the fact that he “owes his hold on power to Tehran” – a reference to his (relatively enthusiastic) accommodation with Iran-backed Shia elements in Iraq.
Some level of friendliness is to be expected, of course, between neighbors who don’t want to be at each other’s throats. Regional observers see more than that in Iran-Iraq relations, however. In an editorial taking it for granted that Assad’s days are numbered, UAE’s The National calls the growing Iran-Iraq rapprochement “Iran’s back-up plan,” and links it with recent reports that Iran has ramped up covert support to the Shia Houthi rebels in western Yemen, whose activities create instability for the governments in both Sana’a and neighboring Saudi Arabia.
There may be a certain level of wishful thinking in The National’s dismissive attitude toward Assad. Iran’s entrenchment in Syria is of a different order from her efforts in Bahrain, and will not be defeated as easily as in the small Persian Gulf nation. But the perception that Iran is investing in her hold over Iraq is widespread in the region – and it’s an investment with multiple uses. Iran doesn’t just want to retain her hold in Syria; she needs to block Turkey, and the urgency of that requirement has just increased significantly.
Iran won’t go quietly from Syria. The air base, with an approach route through Iraq, is probably her preferred option for delivering arms. But a fallback would be sending naval supply ships, with warship escorts, to deliver arms in Latakia. That option would require would-be sanctions enforcers to challenge Iranian ships of war rather than commercial cargo vessels, and potentially to commit an act of war to stop the delivery.
Russia’s diplomatic gambit
Another important factor is Russia. With the implication that Turkey will be willing to join a military intervention in Syria, Ankara has effectively broken ranks with Russia. Russia has been unalterably opposed to that option, and is almost certain to remain so. Besides opposing the West’s armed endorsement of revolts against Russian clients (in both Libya and Syria), Russia is concerned about both losing her naval base in Tartus and seeing Syria incorporated in an alliance with Turkey.
So it is interesting that as the Syrian navy pounds civilians on the coast, Turkey opens the door to armed intervention, and the US demands that Russia stop selling arms to the Assad regime, Moscow’s new push this week is to get everyone back to the table with Iran to haggle over the Iranian nuclear program.
It’s a trademark Russian tactic, to get negotiations going so that various forms of “linkage” can be brought to bear. Turkey, in her approach to Syria, is being comparatively dismissive of Russia, largely because there is more profit in proposing to participate in a Western effort in Syria – if the West can be egged into it. But Russia can get back in the game, if negotiations with Iran can be made a forum for introducing – or leveraging – other regional issues, as either incentives or threats. The Iranian nuclear problem is one the other P5+1 will find hard to ignore, as well as being a diplomatic issue for which Russia is guaranteed a seat at the table.
It’s a gambit, at any rate, and a fairly intelligent one. The wild card is the United States. If the Obama administration had a discernible vision for regional relations with a post-Assad, post-Iranian-client Syria, that would be one thing. But it doesn’t, and that’s why the governing dynamic in the situation is the rivalry for Syria between Iran and Turkey. If the US takes Russia up on the renewal of negotiations with Iran, that will prolong, for at least a while, the appearance that the conventions of the old Pax Americana are still in force. It would not be a bad thing to be at the table with Russia, Iran, China, and our major European allies right now – it’s certainly better than laying out a red carpet for a Turkish military deployment into Syria. Iran probably sees that as well.
How the US responds to the Russian proposal will be a key test of the Obama administration’s willingness to bolster the conventions that attend the global status quo. Failing the test would constitute a true “reset,” not only of our relations with Russia but of our stature with the rest of the world. We can hope that the conventional diplomatic thinkers at State and NSC win out over the advocates of non-hostile kinetic military action. Neither will guarantee protection of the suffering Syrian people from their government – but the consequences of the NHKMA option in Syria would be exponentially worse than in Libya.