On Wednesday, the chief of the Iranian Armed Forces met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli in Ankara to discuss ways of boosting bilateral defense ties, coordinating joint counterterrorism efforts and reconciling the two countries’ policy differences in Syria and Iraq. After the meeting, General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri said the two sides agreed that the Iraqi Kurdistan’s plan to hold an independence referendum would destabilize Iraq and adversely affect the broader region. He also claimed that Turkey and Iran agreed to coordinate their efforts to establish de-escalation zones in Syria and continue to pursue a peaceful resolution of the Syrian civil war through the Astana process. Bagheri further noted he visited Ankara upon an invitation by the Turkish government, and that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei approved of the trip. After meeting with Erdogan today, Bagheri announced that the Turkish president will soon visit Tehran as well.
Bagheri, who is heading a high-profile delegation, arrived in Ankara on Tuesday. Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour, the chief commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) Ground Force, Brigadier General Gholam Reza Mehrabi, the deputy chief commander of the Iranian Armed Forces, Mohammed Hassan Bagheri, the deputy minister of defense, and Ebrahim Rahimpour, a deputy foreign minister, are part of the Iranian delegation.
The trip is significant as it is the first time that an Iranian military chief travels to Turkey since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, and it comes amid major political and military developments in the Middle East.
Iran and Turkey have pursued divergent policies in Iraq and continue to support opposing sides in the Syrian civil war. In recent months, however, the two non-Arab Middle Eastern powers have taken steps to narrow their differences and accommodate each other’s interests and concerns to a certain extent.
“This trip was necessary for better consultation and cooperation on various military and regional issues,” Bagheri said in a statement to state-run Islamic Republic International Broadcasting. “We have had friendly relations with Turkey for hundreds of years, and we have secure and safe borders. But this trip was necessary to exchange views and cooperate more in military matters and other regional issues,” he added.
Unlike the usually acrimonious rhetoric on both sides, Turkish and Iranian officials and state-run media outlets praised the visit as an “unprecedented” event and a “turning point” in Tehran-Ankara relations. Quoting diplomatic sources, pro-government Turkish Daily Sabah wrote that the visit would “not have taken place if both sides had not showed signs of willingness to cooperate and strike deals in the region.”
Previously, Erdogan had repeatedly called for the ouster of Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad and blasted the Islamic Republic’s “Persian expansionism” in the region. But Ankara and pro-government Turkish media have recently dialed down hostile rhetoric against both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his chief backer Iran.
Likewise, Iran has also taken a more conciliatory approach toward Turkey. I.R.G.C.-affiliated outlets have stopped accusing Ankara of aiding terrorism in Syria and the broader region. Interestingly, Iranian-backed units within the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Force (P.M.F.) have also toned down their criticism of Turkey and instead have dialed up propaganda against the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
According to Turkish and Iranian media, the conflict in Syria topped the agenda of today’s meeting.
At present, the main concern for Ankara appears to be the growing strength and presence of the U.S.-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Y.P.G.) close to its border with Syria. Having failed to convince Washington to halt its support for the Kurdish forces in Syria, Ankara now thinks Russia and Iran could be more helpful. Speaking to Turkey’s TRT channel on Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Russia understands Turkey’s sensitivities regarding the Y.P.G. While Y.P.G. is a main U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, the Turkish government considers it a terrorist organization and an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (P.K.K.), which has fought a violent insurgency against Turkey over the past three decades.
In addition to the Kurdish issue, the Turkish government is concerned about the concentration of terrorist groups in Syria’s Idlib Governorate and its security and humanitarian implications for Turkey. Last month, a senior Turkish delegation from the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Foreign Ministry met Iranian and Russian officials in Tehran to discuss latest developments in Idlib and Aleppo, particularly in the district of Afrin.
“The restlessness in Idlib, Syria, and People's Protection Units-held (YPG) Afrin have forced Turkey and Iran to communicate and collaborate more than ever,” the report in Daily Sabah said, quoting Turkish officials. "If Turkey can achieve to convince the opposition to withdraw from some areas in the south, Iran and Russia may keep silent over the handover of Afrin," it added.
Turkey has threatened to invade Afrin, which is controlled by the Y.P.G. and its allies.
According to Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News, the Turkish and Iranian leaders today discussed the mechanism for the Russian-sponsored de-escalation zones. “Ankara and Tehran have no agreement on the checkpoints to be established inside Syria to ease the access of humanitarian aid and the return of Syrians to their lands,” the daily wrote. “Turkey has not approved seven planned checkpoints over concerns that they could increase Iran’s area of influence in Syria,” it added. “No major military force will be sent for the checkpoints. Small groups such as teams and squads may resume responsibility,” the outlet quoted a Turkish official as saying. Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that negotiations between Turkey, Iran and Russia over Idlib were still continuing.
Other Turkish and Iranian newspapers also reported that Ankara has asked Tehran not to deploy its Shiite militia groups to certain parts of Syria.
Common Ground in Iraq
The Iranian delegation’s visit to Turkey also comes amid two major developments in Iraq: the start of Tal Afar military operation and the Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum plan slated for Septemeber 25.
Tal Afar, a town 40 miles west of Mosul, has a sizable Sunni Turkmen population and is still held by the Islamic State. Ankara has repeatedly warned that it would not remain idle if Iranian-backed Shiite P.M.F. units enter Tal Afar and engage in sectarian violence. Despite concerns by Iraqi Sunnis and regional Sunni governments, P.M.F. Spokesperson Ahmed al-Assadi said last week that his forces would participate in the upcoming ground operation to liberate Tal Afar. So far, the Turkish government’s reaction has been far feebler than in the past – suggesting that Ankara might accept a role for Iranian proxies in western Mosul in exchange for cooperation against Y.P.G and other concessions in Syria.
Bagheri acknowledged that the two sides discussed Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum plan in today’s meeting as well. Both Turkey and Iran oppose the Iraqi Kurds’ move because of the concern that it could energize calls for separatism among their own restive Kurdish populations. “Creating an independent political entity in the region will lead to new problems and challenges absolutely unacceptable to Iraq’s neighbors,” Bagheri said. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also warned on Wednesday that the referendum plan could reignite “civil war” in Iraq.
Border security was another item on the agenda at today’s meeting. In recent years, Kurdish separatist groups have conducted attacks inside both Iran and Turkey, not only attacking the two countries’ security forces but also disrupting bilateral trade. Turkey has begun the construction of a “security wall” along parts of its border with Iran – a move the Iranian government has supported. Tehran and Ankara signed an agreement in 2014 to boost security along their shared borders.
Marriage of convenience
Although Iran and Turkey have signaled a willingness to accommodate each other’s concerns in Syria and Iraq, the thaw in relations represent more a marriage of convenience than a strategic partnership. Divergent interests in the region and a long history of mistrust are likely to continue to mar relations between the two major Middle Eastern powers.