After US cuts Iran’s Kurdish road to the sea, new Turkey-US alignment may emerge

After US cuts Iran’s Kurdish road to the sea, new Turkey-US alignment may emerge

The Turkey-U.S. row following President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to directly arm the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces has obscured the fact that the U.S. intervention in northeastern Syria has recently provided Turkey a major strategic boon. The U.S. has forced Iran to abandon its plan to create a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea through the Kurdish-dominated region in Syria along Turkey’s southern border.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Washington last week to confer with his American counterpart on their future strategic cooperation in Syria and Iraq. Despite the failure to reach a consensus on the YPG, the two sides’ reaffirmation of their cooperation to fight terrorism may reflect a new alignment in the next phase of the campaigns in Syria and Iraq. 

Just prior to Erdoğan’s visit, Iran made the strategic decision to re-route the Syrian segment of its planned Tehran-to-Latakia corridor 225 km farther south to avoid U.S. troop concentrations. The order reportedly came from Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, the overseas division of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, and Hadi al-Amiri, a commander in Hashd al-Sha’abi, the Shiite-dominated coalition of Iraqi militias.

Beginning in Iran and then crossing northwest through territories controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish parties allied with Tehran, the Tehran-to-Latakia corridor’s Syrian segment was slated to pass through Kurdish-controlled Qamishli and Kobane. To this end, Iran began the construction of a railroad from Tehran to Sanandaj, the capital of Iran’s Kurdish province bordering Iraq. In his March campaign visit to Sanandaj, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani touted the railroad as one of “the most important infrastructure projects,” explaining to his audience, “By extending the railway from Sanandaj to the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, we will connect Iran to the Mediterranean Sea through Syria.”  

Critically important for Ankara, the re-routing of Iran’s corridor means that Tehran will less easily be able to extend its hegemony to the Kurdish regions of Syria.

A corridor to the Mediterranean Sea via Syria remains a vital strategic goal for Iran, with Tehran’s hardline strategists regarding the corridor as an existential necessity. As Soleimani told late Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi in 2014, “If we lose Syria, we lose Tehran.” In Chalabi’s recounting, Soleimani added, “We will turn all this chaos into an opportunity.”

That opportunity has come in the form of the Hashd al-Sha’abi coalition. Ostensibly an “Iraqi” coalition that includes Sunni and non-Muslim militias, Hashd al-Sha’abi, also known as the Popular Mobilization Units, is dominated by Shiite militias. These militias comprise a significant proportion of the forces fighting for the Bashar al-Assad regime, but under the direction of Iran.

For example, the Abu Fadl Al Abbas Brigade has fielded some 10,000 combatants in Syria, about three-quarters of which are Iraqis. This brigade has created two affiliated militias fighting in Syria – the Fatima Brigade composed of Shia from Afghanistan and the Zaynab Brigade composed of Shia from Pakistan. Hardened by sectarian conflict in their own countries, these and other Shiite militias fighting in Syria are mobilized by a pan-Shiite, revolutionary ideology instilling an absolute loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Soleimani. In 2015, Hashd al-Sha’abi leader Hadi al-Amiri declared Khamenei to be “the leader not only for Iranians but the Islamic nation.”
Despite Turkey’s important bilateral trade and energy relationships with Iran, it becomes clear why Erdoğan, in his April 20 television interview with Al Jazeera, described Hashd al-Sha‘abi as a “terrorist organization” and part of a “Persian expansion policy.”  

Tehran’s corridor now depends on its proxies capturing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)-controlled territory in Tel Afar in Iraq and the Deir ez-Zor region in eastern Syria. Tehran’s corridor also benefits from the Kurdistan Worker’s Party’s (PKK) control of Sinjar. To thwart this new route to the sea, an alignment may emerge, in which Washington supports a Turkish action in Tel Afar and in Sinjar in exchange for Ankara’s increased support of U.S. operations.    

Dr. Micha’el Tanchum is a fellow at the Energy Policies Research Center at Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey. Follow him on Twitter at @michaeltanchum