Conflict with Iran a new test of Turkey-US ties
One thing almost all experts, diplomats and pundits agree on is the fact that the United States’ drone attack against top Iranian military figures will change the game in the Middle East for the worse.
The Iranian leadership has vowed harsh revenge against the U.S. with no details on the timing, the scale and the scope of potential retaliation. In reply, U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened Iran with harder strikes should it choose to hit U.S. bases in the region.
In the meantime, both sides have engaged in intense diplomacy to garner the support of the international community to their advantage. In this context, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had a phone conversation with Iran’s President Hasan Ruhani while Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu spoke to his Iranian and American colleagues, Javeed Zarif and Mike Pompeo respectively, over the weekend.
A statement issued by Morgan Ortagus, a spokesperson for the State Department, has revealed that Pompeo spoke to Çavuşoğlu “to discuss President Trump’s recent decision to take defensive action in response to imminent threats to American lives.
“Secretary Pompeo reiterated the importance of countering the Iranian regime’s destabilizing activities in the region and underscored the Trump administration’s resolve in protecting American interests, personnel, facilities and partners,” added the spokesperson.
Although the context of this conversation has not been revealed yet, it would not be surprising if Pompeo would demand Turkey’s support in the U.S. strategy to counter Iran’s actions in the region.
In an interview over the weekend, Pompeo admitted that he sought support from some European allies after the killing of Soleimani.
“Talking to our partners in other places that haven’t been quite as good. Frankly, the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they could be. The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did, what the Americans did, saved lives in Europe as well,” Pompeo said.
Killing the Iranian operative was, therefore, a good thing for the entire world, claimed Pompeo, saying, “And we are urging everyone in the world to get behind what the United States is trying to do to get the Islamic Republic of Iran to simply behave like a normal nation.”
For many reasons, Turkey will not get behind the U.S. action. Turkey has officially made clear that it regards the killing of Soleimani as an assassination and not as an act of self-defense as suggested by the U.S. officials.
“It should also be noted that such escalatory moves threatening regional stability will further exacerbate the cycle of violence and gravely harm all parties’ interests.
Turkey has always been against foreign interventions, assassinations and sectarian conflicts in the region,” read the foreign ministry statement on Jan. 3 with hints that it does not endorse the U.S. attack on Iranian military officials.
The second aspect regarding Turkey’s position is about the fact that all these conflicts take place on Iraqi territories, and it’s very difficult for the ailing Iraqi leadership to survive an intensified row between the U.S. and Iran. Iraq’s stability is of vital importance for Turkey and others in the region, and that’s why no action that would further de-stabilize this country should be allowed, according to Ankara.
The third is about the general situation in the Middle East and in the world. Instead of taking sides in this conflict, Turkey should use its existing channels with both nations to defuse the tension. Turkey has long been following a thin line on its Iran policy since the U.S. has re-imposed sanctions. Although it denounced sanctions on Iran, it had to cut the oil transport from the Iranian sources to avoid punitive measures from Washington.
There is another but very important angle one must take into consideration on a Turkish response to U.S. demands. Developments in recent years have brought Turkish-American ties to a historic low point, and there seems no breakthrough to reverse this trend in 2020. One of the contentious issues between the two allies is the continued support of the U.S. to the YPG, a group Turkey regards as terrorists.
Turkey has recently threatened the U.S. and NATO that it could shut down İncirlik airbase and a radar installation in Kürecik province of Malatya in the case the allies do not support the Turkish struggle against the YPG.
No need to emphasize how both installations are crucial for the U.S. Kürecik is one of the largest radar installations with a mission of surveillance of the Iranian actions. İncirlik still stands as one of the top military bases in the region although the U.S. has enormous deployment in the Gulf region as well.
It would be difficult to suggest to what extent ties between Turkey and the U.S. would be affected in the light of the changed game in the Middle East. It would also be difficult to predict whether Turkey will continue to use its Kürecik and İncirlik bases as trump cards against the United States’ continued support to the YPG.