How will the U.S.-Iran crisis affect Turkey?
It appears Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan is feeling highly disgruntled and resentful of U.S. President Donald Trump for not notifying him in advance that they were going to shoot Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani. He expressed his feelings on the evening of January 5 as such: “We had a conversation with Trump on that evening; this happened 4-5 hours later. There must have been preparations and plans; we were shocked to hear about the news only at this point”.
Besides, during that January 2 telephone conversation, Erdoğan and Trump had also discussed the growing U.S.-Iran tension in Iraq. And, from what we can gather, Erdoğan had asked Trump not to pressurize Iran too much, while Trump had asked him not to send troops to Libya. What angered Erdoğan, probably, was that Trump, he called his “friend” (and who currently is his only friend among the U.S. governmental bodies) had done just the opposite of what he asked him to. Although, Erdoğan is also doing just the opposite of Trump’s request. In fact, Erdoğan also said that Turkey started to gradually send troops away to Libya, on the same day, January 5, when news came of assaults leading to bloodshed at the Libya Military Academy, amid unconfirmed reports that Turkish military officers were present as instructors. It looks like friendship and political interest are two separate things.
Background of the Soleimani attack
The argument that Trump is staging the Iran conflict to evade impeachment, and that former U.S. President Bill Clinton had done just the same by attacking Iraq when he was facing impeachment himself, is alluring but it’s an argument that lacks depth. First of all, Trump’s impeachment process is highly unlikely to result in his removal from office; it’s nearly impossible that such a proposal would pass the Senate. Trump’s order to assassinate Soleimani could be interpreted as his surrender to what Dwight Eisenhower coined the “military-industrial complex”; Trump had been critical of this seeking of U.S. political interest in the Middle East so far but it looks like he’s now given in to that group within American politics.
Because U.S. domestic politics is not the only reason for the dangerous ventures we’re going through. As the Syrian-war-related ISIS threat diminished, the U.S.’s indirect cooperation with pro-Iran armed groups in Iraq (like with the YPG/PKK İN Syria) such as al-Hasd al-Shaabi and Kata’ib Hezbollah has weakened. The recent wave of protests that emerged in Iraq and that opposed to both U.S. and Iran influence, even though they are mostly Shiite groups, has not only frayed the Iran and U.S.-backed government of Baghdad. They have also forced both Washington and Tehran to make moves against each other for political influence. When pro-Iran groups began attacking U.S. bases to prove their existence, things escalated quickly: there was a retort, the U.S. embassy was raided and then Soleimani was killed.
Will the U.S. leave when told to leave?
The U.S. has reopened a very dangerous chapter in its global politics. It has killed another country’s official functionary without getting the secret service or any other proxy organization involved, by the will of the state and using official armed forces. After all, even though Soleimani was thought to be the mastermind of a number of organizations outside Iran who have engaged in terrorist actions, he was also officially a Major General, the head of the Quds Force, the foreign operations division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – one of Iran’s official armed forces. The U.S. might have launched the period of foreign state assassinations.
Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s reciprocal threats are escalating. The pro-Iranian Iraq Hezbollah has called on the Iraqi security forces to steer clear of U.S. targets; this could refer to any American agency, base and even facility all across the globe. The things a cornered Iran could do could be distressing.
On the other hand, Iran has declared that, despite EU efforts, it has suspended the nuclear deal following Soleimani’s assassination. Iran’s blockage of the Strait of Hormuz that connects the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean can have a strain on the economies of countries that take oil from the Middle East, such as Japan, India and China. The Iraqi parliament responded to the U.S.’s decision to send 3500 soldiers to Iraq by their decision to take U.S. (and other) armed forces out of the country. But U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already implied that the U.S., who had entered Iraq by force in 2003 and overthrown Saddam Hussein, is not likely to abide by the wishes of the Iraq parliament that already relies on U.S. support.
Russia and China are disturbed but inert, for now…
Yet Trump continues to make moves that can set the world on fire and does so around Turkish borders: Iraq, Syria, and now Iran through Iraq.
How will Turkey be affected?
Due to U.S. sanctions, Turkey has started to shift its oil imports from Iran to other places in 2019; in 2018, half of the oil import was from Iran. The U.S.-Iran tension in Iraq, on the other hand, could affect Turkey in several ways. Commercially, one of the remaining doors for Turkish activity in the Arab market has been Iraq, as the relations had considerably soured with Syria, Egypt and Israel. There are oil deals at present with both Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government; the two oil lines extending from Kirkuk and Mosul to Ceyhan are still important. Likewise, Iran is the most crucial route for Turkish trade with Central Asia. This situation will take a toll on the Turkish economy, which is already struggling to redress itself, and it will not be limited to the border provinces: it will affect the nation as a whole.
But the real risk is political. Turkey has not been fighting Iran since the 1639 Qasr-e Shirin border agreement, and that’s a good thing. The U.S.’s support request against Iran could further complicate the existing contradictions between Turkey and the U.S. And if we read between the lines of what Erdoğan said following Soleimani’s assassination, we see that he clearly tells Trump “not come to us for Iran”. If the U.S. continues to push Turkey against Iran, it will do no good to any party, including the U.S.
On the other hand, turmoil in Iraq and an atmosphere of conflict with Iran could give Turkey a strategic advantage. In a setting where Syria has been ravaged by civil war, Iraq remains in deep instability and Russia is lurking up north, Turkey’s importance within NATO could be remembered. Even some benefits regarding the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. One must not forget that there was a similar situation when the U.S. had backed the September 12, 1980 military coup in Turkey following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. But at that time, the result of such opportunism has not been in the interest of Turkey and the Turkish people democratically or on a humanitarian level. The West had put its strategic interests first (such as the return of Greece into NATO’s military wing and the continuation of a stern stance against Moscow) and turned a blind eye on the violation of human and democratic rights by the military regime but hadn’t taken Turkey into the EU despite promises that Ankara had chosen to believe. So one must bear in mind that opportunistic politics, though, perhaps, beneficial for the leaders on the short term, can work against a country’s interest in the long run.
What should Ankara do?
Turkey must pursue a peaceful policy, not an opportunistic one. The political, economic, geographical, historical and humanitarian interest of Turkey and its people lies not in war but peace in the region. The toll of our involvement in the Syria civil war on politics, economy and security of the country and on social issues is clear. The wounds are still fresh.
Turkey, in this context and region, must strive to prevent bigger conflicts and wars and to avoid being part of any of them. That’s why the emphasis should be put on diplomacy.
Our need to remember and apply the “peace at home, peace in the world policy” of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of our Republic, is more urgent than ever. And also his words “War is murder, unless life of a nation is at stake” as a former general who fought many wars.