On August 21, the Mokdad clan kidnapped two Turkish citizens with the intention of holding them hostage until a member of their family who went missing in Syria is released. Meanwhile, the families of the 11 kidnapped Lebanese in Syria held a sit-in in front of the Turkish embassy, and threats were issued against Turkish military personnel working with UNIFIL in the South.
These incidents in Lebanon have coincided with rising tensions between Turkey and Iran due to shifts in the Syrian conflict and the kidnapping of 48 Iranians by rebels there. Tehran has issued warnings to Ankara and the situation threatens to deteriorate into an open confrontation – a scenario both Turkey and Iran seem keen to avoid.
When Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu outlined a new approach to foreign policy in his book, Strategic Depth, he wanted a smooth implementation of certain principles based on his theory of eliminating all sources of tension with neighboring countries: solve thorny disputes by dialogue (or put them off, if they cannot be immediately resolved) and develop channels for cooperation. Dialogue had even begun to move forward with Armenia, albeit slowly. Davutoglu himself described it as a policy of “no fighting with the neighbors.”
Turkey has decided to ride the wave of change sweeping across the region for the purpose of extending its own influence. This policy of “eliminating problems” has failed. It worked when the region was relatively peaceful, the ordinary conflicts notwithstanding. But we are currently living through an exceptional period. The Arab Spring foiled all calculations and overturned the scales.
Turkey has decided to ride the wave of change sweeping across the region for the purpose of extending its own influence. It is supporting the Arab revolts under the pretext of establishing relationships within the new order, while at the same time sliding deeper into regional conflicts.
There was a time when Turkey could have avoided getting directly involved in these struggles – Egypt and Tunisia are geographically at a distance from Turkey, and the regimes there fell quickly. In Libya, Turkey supported the revolutionaries under the umbrella of the UN Security Council, and Gaddafi's regime fell after a few months of intense fighting.
In Syria, the situation is different. From the very beginning, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that what was happening in Syria directly affected Turkish national security, lending geopolitical justification to Ankara’s position.
Syria, which shares a 822-kilometer border with its northern neighbor, was Turkey's gateway to the Middle East. Trucks carrying Turkish goods once travelled through Syria and on to Jordan, Iraq, and other Arab countries.
Turkish trade has suffered with the closing of this passage, and the sea route through the Mediterranean to the Red Sea via the Suez canal is long and expensive. According to informed sources, the Turkish foreign minister has been discussing the possibility of cutting customs taxes on Turkish ships with the Egyptian government.
It was for these reasons Turkish diplomats initially tried to find a quick solution to the Syrian crisis by supporting radical reforms that would include the opposition in the political process, while keeping Bashar al-Assad in power until the end of his mandate.
Turkish diplomats initially tried to find a quick solution to the Syrian crisis by supporting radical reforms that would include the opposition in the political process.At that stage, even Iran was advising Assad, through its president and the secretary general of Hezbollah, to open dialogue with the opposition. But Ankara was embarrassed by Assad's intransigence, the cosmetic reforms he rolled out, and his decision to pursue the military option, and so it excused itself as mediator and thus became party to the long conflict alongside the opposition.
It was natural that this position placed Turkey in conflict with allies of the Syrian regime, especially Iran. But neither country wants a confrontation. They would prefer to maintain a sort of “civil competition” for influence in the region (in the words of the Turkish ambassador to Lebanon), or at least to postpone any conflict between them.
The Islamic republic is busy with its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program, and it is not in Tehran’s interest to enter into a direct conflict with Turkey, which would only serve to push Ankara towards the Sunni-Arab military alliance against the “Shia crescent.”
Moreover, Iran needs Turkey to break the economic siege that has been imposed upon it. Turkey's interest, meanwhile, lies in reassuring Iran that its Middle East policy is not a threat to Iranian interests and influence, which explains Turkey's joint initiative with Brazil to find a solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma.
Turkey also has an interest in developing its economic ties with Iran, with trade between the two countries reaching approximately $10 billion in 2011, not to mention an agreement to build a gas pipeline from Tabriz to the Gulf of Ceyhan on the Turkish coast.
The economic and political cooperation between Turkey and Iran is not an alliance, but rather an arrangement imposed on the two countries by political realities.
The economic and political cooperation between Turkey and Iran is not an alliance, but rather an arrangement imposed on the two countries by political realities. Iran is closely monitoring the evolution of Turkey's role in the region, especially in areas where Iran exerts influence: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. In recent years, Iran expressed concerns over Turkey and Syria’s increasingly close relationship, as it was also wary of Ankara's influence in Iraq in the form of significant investments in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran was also caught off guard by Turkish support for the Palestinians in Gaza.
Before Syria became a battlefield, hints of an impending Turkish-Iranian rift appeared in Lebanon, when the leaders of both countries visited Lebanon in 2010. Hezbollah toppled Saad Hariri's government just one month after the Turkish leader's visit, with Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah rejecting a bilateral request from Davutoglu and the Qatari prime minister to reinstate the Future Movement leader as the head of the next government.
In November of 2011, in response to Ankara's support for the Syrian opposition, Tehran threatened to strike the NATO missile shield in Turkey in case of an Israeli-American attack. Today, Iran’s threats are economic in nature and influenced by fundamental shifts taking place in the Syrian conflict.
The Syrian opposition – with support from Ankara and various Western states – is locked in a battle for control of Aleppo, which it intends to make the seat of its military leadership and transitional government, a development that threatens to tilt the balance of political and military power in favor of the opposition.
Turkey does not need Iranian oil or gas like China does, and its interests, as opposed to those of Russia, lie in the weakening of Iran in the Middle East and central Asia. The Iranian-Turkish rift is still in its beginning stages. Iran is losing its cards one after the other. It lost the Palestinian card after the Hamas leadership left Damascus and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt. It is also supporting a dying Assad regime.
Iranian diplomacy too has lost its nerve, and if it makes economic threats against Turkey, it will come out the loser. Turkey does not need Iranian oil or gas like China does, and its interests, as opposed to those of Russia, lie in the weakening of Iran in the Middle East and central Asia.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah is being pulled deeper into internal politics due to its support for a helpless government and its March 8 allies, who are busy fighting over how to divide the “pie” of power. The party is attempting to compensate in terms of popular support by drumming up fears of what will happen if the Assad regime falls, with Hassan Nasrallah explicitly stating that “the situation is out of control.”
However, Hezbollah has not realized that this approach pushes the country towards chaos, and perhaps war. What we fear most is that the party will try to use the hostages card as it did in the 1980’s. But the geopolitical reality in the region is completely different. The power of Hezbollah's allies, Syria and Iran, is in decline, while the regional role of their enemies is on the rise.
Fadi al-Ahmar is a Middle East researcher and a professor at Kaslik University, Lebanon.