By: Hamad Abbas, Columnist
In light of the continued failure of US traditional regional partners to counter Iranian expansion in the Middle East, the United States should cooperate with Turkey in situations in which thwarting Iran benefits both parties; although the U.S. will also need resolve divisive issues with its NATO partner in order to gain its cooperation.
Since the 2011 Arab Spring, Iran has created a network of Shiite proxies and client governments within a connected land corridor which stretches from Tehran to Israel’s northern borders. The land corridor allows Iran to deliver weapons to its militia proxies in Iraq and Lebanon, who have directly threatened attacks against Saudi Arabia and Israel; [[i]][[ii]] however both Saudi Arabia and Israel have struggled to stymie Iran’s influence on their borders.
Israel has curtailed Iranian activity in Syria through air strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.[[iii]] However, Israel’s lack of diplomatic ties with most states in the region also make it nearly impossible to have military deployments in countries like Iraq, where Iranian backed militias continue to become more powerful.[[iv]]As a result, Israel remains incapable of leading a regional effort to counter Iran, despite its strength in deterring Iran along its own borders.
Alternatively, U.S. partners Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) might counter Iran’s broader regional influence, as both countries have called for regime change in Iran, arguing Iran is a threat to the region.[[v]] However, joint Saudi- UAE actions in the region have worked against their stated goals. The Saudi- led blockade of Qatar led Qatar to seek assistance from Iran.[[vi]] The Saudis also forced the Prime Minister of Lebanon to temporarily resign, giving Hezbollah, Iran’s strongest proxy, major gains within the Lebanese government.[[vii]] By empowering Iran through foreign policy gaffs, the Saudi-UAE alliance conveys an unreliability in leading regional opposition to Iran.
Turkey is the only state in the region with the military infrastructure, capability, and diplomatic relations necessary to spearhead the counter-Iranian strategy. Its image amongst ordinary people across the Middle East is relatively positive, arguably more so than Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Israel.[[viii]] Additionally, amongst the aforementioned states, Turkey is the only one with full diplomatic relationships with all states in the region. [[ix]] These diplomatic ties only serve to increase its existing regional soft power.[[x]] Militarily, Turkey is capable of competing against Iran in multiple theatres. Its military is NATO’s second largest standing military, similar in size to Iran.[[xi]] [[xii]] Turkey’s military- deployed to Afghanistan, Qatar, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia – further demonstrate Turkey’s regional leadership ambitions and a willingness to act as guarantor of security in the region.[[xiii]] [[xiv]]
Thus, the question with Turkey is not one of capability but rather willingness to counter Iranian encroachment. Unfortunately for the United States, Turkey’s mixed relationship with Iran means that it will not view Iran as a major adversary. For instance, in Syria both have taken the similar position of prioritizing stability of the country, despite Turkey’s previous push for regime change. [[xv]] [[xvi]] However, Turkey and Iran support opposite sides in Iraq. Additionally, economic stability in the region drives Turkey’s foreign policy, which Iran’s destabilizing activities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon undermines. Turkey is also concerned with Iranian backed militias in Iraq, fearing they pose a threat to ethnic Turks in Iraq.[[xvii]] Thus, while Turkey and Iran have limited areas of mutual interest in the Middle East, such interests might make Turkey’s cooperation with the United States possible.
To gain Turkey’s cooperation, the U.S. may also have to remedy its own rocky relationship with its ally. U.S. refusal to extradite Fethullah Gülen, a powerful religious cleric blamed for the attempted coup on President Erdogan in 2016, along with its support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, which Turkey claims to be a terrorist group backing separatist Kurds in Turkey, further increases tensions with Turkey. [[xviii]] U.S.-Turkey relations have also deteriorated because of Turkey’s decision to buy Russian made S-400 missile defense system, a purchase the U.S. vehemently opposed. [[xix]] Such areas of disagreement will likely make Ankara view cooperation with the U.S. in narrow terms, producing policy decisions that suit Turkey’s direct interests, rather than fully committing to countering every Iranian encroachment in the region.
[[i]] Reuters, “Hezbollah Says Rocket Attack on Israel Marks ‘New Phase’ in Syrian War.” Haaretz, May 14, 2018, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/syria/hezbollah-says-rocket-attack-on-golan-marks-new-phase-in-syrian-war-1.6091446
[[ii]] Yaroslav Trofimov, “After Islamic State, Fears of a “Shiite Crescent” in Mideast,” Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/after-islamic-state-fears-of-a-shiite-crescent-in-mideast-1475141403
[[iii]] BBC News. “Syria war: Israel ‘strikes Damascus military complex’.” BBC.com, February 7, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42973662
[[iv]] Tamer El-Ghobashy and Mustafa Salim, “As Iraq’s Shiite militias expand their reach, concerns about an ISIS revival grow,” The Washington Post, January 9, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/as-iraqs-shiite-militias-expand-their-reach-concerns-about-an-isis-revival-grow/2019/01/09/52da575e-eda9-11e8-8b47-bd0975fd6199_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.55c76dbb5724
[[v]] Al Jazeera, “Saudi, UAE officials call for regime change in Iran at US summit,” Aljazeera.com, September 26, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/09/saudi-uae-officials-call-regime-change-iran-summit-180926120309913.html
[[vi]] Hillary Clarke, “Iran Sends Planes Stuffed with Food to Qatar,” CNN, June 11, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/06/11/middleeast/iran-qatar-planes-food/index.html
[[vii]] Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad, “Lebanon Elections Boost Hezbollah’s Clout,” The New York Times, March 7, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/07/world/middleeast/lebanon-election-hezbollah.html
[[viii]] Janell Fetterolf and Jacob Poushter, “Key Middle East Publics See Russia, Turkey and U.S. All Playing Larger Roles in Region,” Pew Research Center, December 11, 2017, http://www.pewglobal.org/2017/12/11/key-middle-east-publics-see-russia-turkey-and-u-s-all-playing-larger-roles-in-region/
[[ix]] Republic of Turkey Ministery of Foreign Affairs. “Middle East and North Africa.” http://www.mfa.gov.tr/sub.en.mfa?59f21ff8-791d-4e37-9f39-b4513dfe9399
[[x]] Gönül Tol and Birol Baskan, “From “hard power” to “soft power” and back again: Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East.” Middle East Institute, November 29, 2018, https://www.mei.edu/publications/hard-power-soft-power-and-back-again-turkish-foreign-policy-middle-east
[[xii]] “Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa,” The Military Balance 119, no. 1 (2019): 320-379, https://doi.org/10.1080/04597222.2018.1561033
[[xv]] Reuters, “Turkey would consider working with Assad if he won a democratic Syrian election,” Reuters, December 16, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-syria-assad-us/turkey-would-consider-working-with-assad-if-he-won-a-democratic-syrian-election-idUSKBN1OF0DP
[[xvi]] Patrick Wintour, “Russia, Turkey and Iran Reach Agreement on Syria Committee,” The Guardian, December 18, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/18/russia-turkey-and-iran-reach-agreement-on-syria-committee
[[xvii]] Al Jazeera, “Turkey warns Shia militias fighting ISIL for Iraqi town,” Aljazeera.com, October 31, 2016, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/turkey-warns-shia-militias-fighting-isil-iraqi-town-161030172800454.html
[[xviii]] Carlotta Gall, “U.S. Is ‘Working On’ Extraditing Gulen, Top Turkish Official Say,” The New York Times, December 16, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/16/world/europe/fethullah-gulen-turkey-extradite.html
[[xix]] Reuters, “Despite U.S. Threats, Turkey to Purchase Russia’s S-400 Missile System,” Haaretz, February 14, 2019, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/turkey/turkey-to-purchase-russia-s-s-400-missile-system-lawmaker-says-1.6936836