Syria, Turkey, Iran: It’s on

Upping the ante.

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.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

20 thoughts on “Syria, Turkey, Iran: It’s on”

  1. the US is best served by ignoring the Russian attempt to calm the situation and instead act quietly while it boils over.

    let the Saudis and the Turks do the talking and let them enlist the Arabs to engage the Syrians, the Iranians, and Hezbollah et al rather than serve as the usual scapegoat.

    We’ll do just fine keeping our talk directed squarely against a Syrian regime shooting protesters and we can allow the Iranians to talk themselves into proofing that the blood of Syrian citizens is also on Iranian hands.
    If the Iranians want to try to insult the Turkish government by branding them a “subcontractor of U.S. policy” as they did a few days back. all the better.

    Iranian influence in the Middle East continues to erode.

  2. “it’s certainly better than laying out a red carpet for a Turkish military deployment into Syria. Iran probably sees that as well.”

    I’m not expert enough to see the the ramifications down the road of a Turkish deployment in Syria – significant though they may well be. However, I can see a big positive from it – it means probably that Assad is out. If the Iranian proxy Assad out, it is a blow to Iran and their “revolution.” A blow to Iran is good for the world.

    fuster, you and I don’t usually agree, but I see some logic in what you say above. I’ve got a question – many on the Left like to claim that the Iraq invasion emboldened Iran more than anyone. You say that Iran’s influence continues to erode. In your opinion, was the Iraq War the boon to Iran like many liberals suggest?

    1. yes, it was. it was a HUGE propaganda boost for their anti-Americanism and allowed them a lot of time and scope to work on their nuclear weapons program.

      as well, they built up a great deal of influence in Iran. they’ve got a LOT of influence on the current Iraqi government headed by Malaki (as well as the Sadrists).

      Malaki is about the only guy still putting out the bs that Assad is being challenged by people disloyal to Syria.

      1. fuster, You say that Iran’s influence in the ME continues to erode. What is causing that in your opinion?

        As for invading Iraq giving Iran the time and scope to work on their nukes, don’t forget that the mullahs shut the program down just after the invasion for fear of “being next” on America’s radar.

        I agree with you (below) that we should not sit down at a table with Iran. First, I don’t trust the Obama admin to do the right thing, but more importantly, I wouldn’t want to give mullahs the legitimacy of sitting at a table with us. Especially when they’ll just spit in our face like they always do. But not after dragging out discussions, extracting ever more concessions and buying time to “nuke up.”

        1. I am not so sure about any real erosion of Iran’s influence. The markers for that conclusion are, for the most part, based on fictitious input because they are dependant on the international politics of the area and almost everyone in the area loves to hate America, including our so-called ME “allies”.

          This is true, also, because the way international politics and diplomacy works, particularly in that area of the world, is by lies, misinformation and disingenuousness. That said, and if that statement is even only partially true, then what and who do we trust to be doing the honest thing when we come to these conclusions?

          Also, sitting or not sitting down with Iran does nothing much to “legitimize” them. They have already taken care of that all by themselves and have been sitting center stage in the region for quite a while now. They are a recognized and legitimized government, they sit at the UN [spit] table and are legitimized by a vote that is, after all is said and done, of equal value to ours (except in the Security Council). They carry on as if they owned the place so this should not be about legitimizing Iran at all, because, frankly, they don’t seem to care much about that. I believe, that this whole line of thinking should be considered too be way too little, way too late and, therefore, a non-starter.

          On the other hand, this is definitely about letting Iran, as well as the rest of the world, know that the US will not stand still for threats to our national security and that we will react appropriately against anyone that endangers or attacks either us or our true ally in the region. Sadly, this is something that has not been properly put forth with any kind of real validity or believability, particularly when it comes to Iran. So, again, the legitimization question of the area’s thugs is not really what we should be worrying about. It is really too late for that. The practical control of their negative actions towards us and/or their capabilities to carry that out is what should be our real objective as well as creating the total and absolute conviction that any act of aggression will be answered swiftly and with outmost seriousness.

          Actually, that sort of message might well serve to properly legitimize us in their eyes…

  3. —” 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.”—

    It would seem that right now we might be better off by not being too eager to sit down with Iran. We might want to make non-committal noises until Iran puts something interesting on the table. We’ve had plenty of nothing but bluster and stall from them.

    As long as the Saudis are going to work to topple Assad and as long as the Turks are bound by self-interest to go in the same direction, we’re well-served by quietly playing to aid the fall of the keystone of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah arch.

    If Syria goes, Hezbollah is greatly diminished …and Iraq is going to have to recalculate getting how cozy it’s going to want to get with Iran.

  4. Assad is a brutal dictator (of the same ideology as Saddam), responsible for destabilising Iraq during the 2003 to 2008 period and an ally of Iran to boot. So, frankly it’s difficult to see the downside to the US lending military and intelligence support to a Turkish intervention – or even participating in a Libyan style coalition. In fact it’s an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the Middle East.

    The only downside is whether Turkey is actually going to go through with this – or whether this is a bluff. Sadly, the two-week deadline (and Obama’s refusal to call for Assad to go) suggests the latter.

  5. RE — For reasons I’ve laid out in previous posts on Erodgan and the region, I consider it extremely dangerous to let Turkey put military forces in Syria. After his electoral victory in June, Erdogan outlined a neo-Ottoman vision of Turkey as the leading voice of Islam to the world, speaking pointedly of how a list of cities once ruled by the Ottoman Empire benefited from his 2011 win.

    He has also been systematically dismantling the checks and balances in Turkish government over the last 4 years, something a lot of Turks and regional observers are worried about. What he’s dismantling are the structural props of Kemalist secularism. Without them, Erdogan’s overtly Islamist AKP party will have an easier time fully reversing the prohibitions of Kemalism on sharia governance.

    Americans need to understand that Turkey is not the same NATO ally she was 20 years ago. Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus states, and Iran all do understand that (Turkey and Iran had a major love-fest going on, until Syria came into play). Turkish troops in Syria would be there for Turkey’s purposes, not NATO’s, and would heat up the regional rivalry for Islamist leadership. Saudi Arabia and Egypt don’t want to see Iran win that rivalry, but they’re not anxious to see Turkey win it either. In seeking to assume the mantle, Erdogan is working already to establish Turkey as the de facto leader of the “Muslim Brotherhood” faction of Islamism — to basically subsume it and make it a client of Turkey. If Erdogan could get a new government he endorses in power in Syria, that would be a major coup in the rivalry for Islamist leadership.

    Syria is particularly ripe for the rivalry because she is such a mix of demographics. Somewhat like Iraq, she has an extensive non-Arab legacy, with non-Arab population segments that have been Christian since the earliest days of Christianity and a significant Kurdish element. Syria is different from Jordan, Egypt, and the rest of North Africa in this way.

    The Assads have always been Arabist revolutionaries rather than Islamists, and their relationship with Iran has been a matter of strategic convenience rather than strict ideological affinity. Resentment of the Assads in Syria is based on multiple factors, but one of them is the same thing Iraqis resented about Saddam: rule by a minority, revolutionary Arabist faction. Arab rule was imposed in Syria centuries ago by conquest, not by weight of demography (Syria had a long non-Arab history prior to the Islamic conquest, recorded by the ancient Greeks and Romans), and has been perpetuated into the 20th century by the relationship of Arab tribal rulers to the Ottoman Empire and, after the break-up of the empire, France.

    The point of this excursion into history is that Syria could go different directions if released from the Assads. It’s not certain that she would embrace a continued Arabist path, with the freight that carries with it of basically endorsing sharia, and being an eternal enemy to Israel. But Iran has one plan to make sure Syria’s orientation doesn’t change, and Erdogan has an alternative concept by which Syria would become a sharia nation and remain an implacable enemy of Israel, but under Turkey’s aegis rather than Iran’s.

    Neither outcome is good for the US. It is an absolutely terrible idea to be the vehicle by which Erdogan gets Turkish troops into Syria. I’d rather have seen Obama engage more usefully way back in January, and help give shape and direction to the Arab Spring before we got to this point, but since he didn’t, we are where we are. Assuming Obama has no intention or mental ability to take more useful action, Russia’s idea isn’t the worst one. It would be as bad for us as for Russia if Turkey makes a client of a post-Assad Syria, and the last thing we should do is facilitate that outcome.

    1. 1) Turkey has said that they won’t put any troops in Syria except as part of a coalition.
      2) Even as untrustworthy as Erdogan surely is, Turkey is still far more moderate and “western” than is Iran or the Arab states and this an opportunity to strengthen ties.

      3) Iran and its allies are a danger while Turkey is merely an ally causing concern…

      although I’m sure we would all be interested in having you elaborate on how you know that …

      “Erdogan has an alternative concept by which Syria would become a sharia nation and remain an implacable enemy of Israel, but under Turkey’s aegis rather than Iran’s.”

      … and how that “concept” is a real possibility for Erdogan.

  6. J.E.: A question please. Not on this subject.
    The “Chinese Chief of Staff” visits Israel. Not the first contact of course.
    I understand the Israelis are covering their bases in a very pragmatic way concerning commerce and defense.
    Any thoughts (besides the thoughtless stupidity of the Obama administration) ?

    1. Actually, it IS on the subject. China and Turkey are sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. The US has been a difficult pal lately. Israel is covering all her bases. There is no point in leaving Turkey on the field alone with China. Israel has been in a back-slap-high-five-fest with India too, and has been going through the friendliest motions with Greece — long known for anti-Semitism, but alarmed as heck by Erdogan’s career in Turkey.

      Netanyahu is a real, accomplished old-style statesman, of the kind who makes sure every possible enemy of an enemy, and friend of an enemy, is being reached out to. Israel has tech to bargain with, and the option of letting China into Israel’s offshore oil and gas reserves, which China would kill for. The Israelis decoupled from China in the mid-2000s, at the behest of the Bush adminstration, but that was in a very different security situation. They can’t afford to keep their distance from China now that US power is looking much less reliable.

      France and Germany slobbering all over Russia is a similar dynamic. Our allies are hedging their bets, and they’re only going to do more of it.

      1. Naw, Opticon. China isn’t going to kill anything to get into Israel’s oil. The Chinese need oil now and Venezuela is giving it away to them at about half-a-buck per barrel.
        They’re getting Iranian oil cheaply and they’re all over African oil.

        Israel has little or none to give to China and the Israelis aren’t going to sell it cheaply to China when they can sell it dearly to Europe. They’re not about to be exploited by the Chinese the way the poor and the desperate states are fleeced by the Chinese…and the Chinese aren’t dumb enough to think the Israelis might…so that boat don’t float.

        Netanyahu is an old fashioned dumb younger brother and as subtle as a rock through a windshield. He isn’t gonna fool any Chinese folks…and the US isn’t gonna let him get all cozy with the Chinese in any case.

      2. I have always admired the Israelis J.E. Their block is a pretty tough one. Not much room for wishful thinking and
        second chances.
        Thanks for your words. Did Fuster say something?

  7. Thanks for the detailed explanation J.E. I recall your fine previous posts on the topic. I wonder if the best that can be hoped for in Syria is that the Assad clan is finally tossed out by some home grown Syrians and the country can’t get out of its own way as it spends none of its time being Iran’s proxy.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: