Iran Cautiously Supports Turkey’s Operation in Afrin

The Turkish offensive in the Afrin enclave has elicited a strong reaction from Damascus, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad condemning the operation as part of Turkey’s plan to aid extremist groups. Damascus is genuinely fearful that Turkey is using national security concerns as a cover to advance its position in Syria, in addition to boosting its regional geopolitical profile, Middle East Eye reports.

Syria also has deeper concerns about the effect of the Turkish operation on the complex set of power relations in the conflict, notably the effect it has on the Russian, American and Iranian postures in Syria.  To that end, Damascus is alarmed by apparent Russian acquiescence to Ankara’s latest incursion into Syria. Specifically, Damascus is fearful of excessive Russian accommodation of Turkish demands, notably the near-permanent entrenchment of pro-Turkish Syrian rebels in the north-west corner of the country.

The political legitimization of these factions – who have little public support – is inimical to Damascus’ plans to restore full sovereignty across the country.

Iran’s position though is harder to decipher. While officially the Islamic Republic has expressed concern at the Turkish operation, privately there is a reason to believe the Iranian position is more nuanced and in some important respects cautiously supportive of Turkish policy. Iran shares Turkey’s concerns over the empowerment of forces aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria. While the Islamic Republic is wary of Ankara’s strategic intentions in Syria, nonetheless it is willing to accommodate legitimate Turkish national security concerns.

Furthermore, the prospect of a potential Turkish-U.S. clash in Syria – albeit by proxy – is naturally relished by Tehran. In addition, Tehran is hoping the outcome of the Turkish offensive will boost Damascus’ position in the final stage of the war.

The rise of the PKK in Syria is in part due to a conscious decision by the Syrian government to withdraw from Kurdish-populated regions of the country in 2012. That decision may have in turn been influenced by Iranian “advisors” who from late 2011 onwards were providing a wide range of political, information warfare and intelligence services to the Syrian government.

Damascus is acutely aware of Turkey’s propensity to conflate its legitimate national security concerns with regional geopolitical ambitions. In respect of operation “Olive Branch”, the risk of a long-term Turkish military presence and the consequent galvanization of the pro-Turkish faction of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is hard to mitigate. “Olive Branch” is the second major Turkish military incursion in Syria, following operation “Euphrates Shield” which began in August 2016 and concluded the following March.

While the latter was also framed as a counter-terror operation – and primarily aimed at containing the Islamic State (IS) group – Damascus was understandably perturbed by the precedent it set in the form of repeated sovereignty violations by an unfriendly neighbor.  While some Iranian analysts share Syrian concerns about Turkey’s ultimate intentions – and wonder aloud if Iran could be one of the losers from Turkey’s latest incursion – the real Iranian position is somewhat different.

The dominant analysis flowing from the Iranian foreign policy establishment – as expressed by the head of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations – centres on intra-Kurdish disputes and miscalculations in the midst of complex geopolitical processes.

More broadly, Tehran can hardly be displeased by rising tensions between NATO allies Turkey and the United States. The U.S. alliance with the Syrian faction of the PKK – which flies in the face of the latter’s terrorist designation by the U.S. State Department – is the lynchpin of U.S. policy in Syria.

The U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has just framed the U.S. military presence in Syria as primarily aimed at countering Iranian influence in the country. In view of this clear-cut strategy, Tehran will be aiming at securing operational and strategic outcomes which counter hostile U.S. plans. Integrating Turkey deeper into the Iranian-Russian axis could be a winning strategy for Tehran. While Turkey is officially part of the Astana peace process whose “National Dialogue Congress” has just ended in the Russian resort of Sochi, nonetheless the Turkish posture in Syria significantly diverges from both Russia and Iran.