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August 25, 2011

When the call came in from Iran on Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered his convoy to pull off onto the shoulders of a busy highway for a conversation that last some 40 minutes.

What the Turkish leader and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke about hasn’t been revealed in any detail. The Turkish media said virtually nothing, while Iran’s press reported that their country’s leader urged Erdogan to help mediate between region’s beleaguered despots and the opposition. Almost certainly the conversation was tense.

Just a few months ago the two countries were friends – joined together by growing trade ties, worries about their restive Kurdish populations and by shared Muslim sentiment. But the turmoil of the Arab Spring has quickly found the two countries in opposing camps, especially over Syria and its president, Bashar Al-Asad.

“There’s no doubt that Syria is becoming a battleground,” said Fadi Hakura, Turkey expert at London’s Chatham House. “Turkey has expressed deep dissatisfaction with the approach of the Syrian regime and has called on Al-Asad to implement radical reforms and meaningful dialogue with the opposition, which will inevitably dilute the strategic relationship between Syria and Iran. Iran views the existence of the current regime as an existential issue.”

Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders have framed the fighting in Syria as a battle by Al-Asad to stop U.S. from meddling in the country’s affairs while Turkey’s Erdogan has focused on the bloodletting and the regime’s failure to meet demands for democratic reforms. He has stopped short of calling for Al-Asad to step down.

But the fight is more than a war of words. Although Tehran denies it, Iran is believed to be proving material support to the Al-Asad regime. Newspaper reports cite stories of Iranian snipers firing on protestors, technicians helping to block social networking and others providing advice on containing unrest gleaned from Iran’s experience putting down street protests following the disputed 2009 presidential elections.

Turkey’s role in aiding the Syrian opposition has been more upfront but just as crucial. It has allowed about seven thousand Syrian refugees to cross into its territory and provide eyewitness accounts to the world media, thereby serving as an outlet for news of the Al-Asad regime’s repression. Istanbul has also hosted meetings of opposition groups. Some analysts say Ankara – together with the U.S. – is working to bring cohesion and organization to the disparate groups.

On Tuesday, Syrian activists gathered in Turkey declared a national council to coordinate protests and bring about Al-Asad’s ouster.

In spite of the deep interests at stake, Iran had been hesitant to criticize Turkey until relatively recently, Alex Vatanka, a scholar of Iran at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, told The Media Line.

“The Iranians deeply appreciated improving relations with one of their most important neighbors, which has helped them in the nuclear issue in terms of economics and trade they didn’t want an issue like Syria to bring it all to an end,” Vatanka said. “But in end of the day, they reached a decision.”

Syria is not the first Arab Spring hotspot where Turkey and Iran have found themselves on opposite sides. Turkey backed Saudi Arabia when it helped crush a Shiite-led revolt in Bahrain, angering Iran’s Shiite regime. Iran praised Turkey’s initial opposition to NATO’s helping Libyan rebels, but Ankara eventually came around to supporting the bombing campaign. But Syria – whose president has since March struggled to contain a revolt seeking to topple him – is the place where the two powers have the most at stake.

Al-Asad’s regime is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world, sharing a strong antipathy to Israel and Western intervention in the Middle East and acting as a conduit to arms and supplies to militant groups like Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Belonging to the Alawi sect, an offshoot of Islam, Al-Asad has fewer problems with Iranian Shiism than the Arab world’s Sunni leaders do.

Under Erdogan, Turkey had worked assiduously in recent years to cultivate ties. Turkey shares a long border with Syria and the two countries both have large Kurdish populations they worry about. In recent years, the two countries signed a free-trade agreement and abolished visa requirements, enabling trade to double in the five years to 2010 and tourism to boom.

Warming relations with Syria were part of efforts by the prime minister – who leads the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) – to reorient Turkey away from the West and towards the Muslim Middle East. Turkey even viewed itself as a bridge between Sunni and Shiite Islam.

But, Hakura told The Media Line, the Arab Spring has put Turkey firmly in the Sunni “camp,” which not only includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Gulf emirates and Jordan but, by virtue of their Western orientation, the U.S. and Europe. The shift in Turkey’s policy hasn’t been dramatic – it remained a NATO member and never abandoned its aspirations to join the European Union ¬ – but it made Tehran’s rulers livid.

Reflecting the views heard frequently in Tehran these days, Iran’s hardline Qods daily scored Turkish leaders for surrendering to U.S. pressure. “If Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government does not change its political behavior toward Syria, Turkey will be the main loser of the Syrian events if Damascus gets out of the current crisis,” it wrote in a recent editorial.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford to let their conflict ratchet up too much. Turkey gets 20% of the natural gas its needs for its booming economy from Iran, Hakura said. Facing United Nations sanctions, Iran can’t afford to lose a good customer.

Vatanka said that among top Iranian leaders, Ahmadinejad is probably the least inclined to sacrifice the relationship with Turkey to help save Al-Asad because of the damage fraying ties with Turkey would do to the economy.

“The president is looking at his own position in Iran and says ‘I’m someone who needs to reach out to the masses and get as much grassroots support as I can,” explained Vatanka. “So, one of the issues he has to worry about is bread and butter issues that ordinary Iranians care about the most.”

Source: Rise of the Iranian People.
Link: http://riseoftheiranianpeople.com/2011/08/25/turkey-iran-bump-heads-over-syria/.

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