Iran urges Turkey to cooperate on Syria

Iran urges Turkey to cooperate on Syria

“I was there, watching the parade in the Red Square, and everything was the same as the year before,” said Ali Reza Bigdeli, the Iranian ambassador to Ankara, speaking about the Soviet Union’s traditional October Revolution celebrations in 1990. “Yes, there was some unrest around, but the parade was no different to the one in 1989, or in 1979. But only 23 days later, the union collapsed.”

“We saw the disintegration of the the Soviet Union,” Bigdeli emphasized during a press dinner with journalists in Istanbul on Nov. 12. “There is no room to be over-optimistic. It would be too simplistic to think that what has been happening in Egypt, Iraq and Syria could not take place in other countries in the region. The wars are expanding from a national level to a regional level. We all observe that Syria’s borders are under threat right now. Ethnic conflicts in countries [in the region] will inevitably inflict other borders.”

He also said Iran had been urging Turkey "for some time" to work together to contain the crisis in Syria, by "trying to highlight common points rather than discrepancies."

The points in common between Iran and Turkey regarding Syria are quite general principles, such as supporting the territorial integrity, national sovereignty and stability of the civil war-hit country. But there is one big difference in Ankara and Tehran’s approaches.

The Turkish government considers the deposing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to be a must for the stability and unity of the country, while the Iranian government does not. Both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have made it clear that the fight against the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria, which brought the civil war closer to the gates of Turkey, should not cause the U.S.-led coalition’s focus to be distracted from forcing al-Assad to go.

“Al-Assad might be an oppressor,” Bigdeli said in response to this line of thinking. “But sometimes, in order to avoid a worse situation, you may want to keep the oppressor in place. A failing government is better than no government at all.” He claimed that Iran’s interest in Syria has nothing to do with the sectarian gap between Shiites and Sunnis, but more about the common national interest.

“It is true that Turkey and Iran have differences, like France and Germany once had,” Bigdeli continues. “But we can focus on our common interests. If Turkey and Iran can work together on Syria, then Arab countries [of the Gulf] can no longer be as influential as they are today,” he said, particularly implying Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Admitting that Syria – like Iraq – has been effectively divided into three, especially after the emergence of ISIL, the Iranian ambassador suggested that the “Syrian situation puts the unity of both Iran and Turkey into jeopardy” if events continue unfolding as they are now.

When Iran and Turkey talk about territorial integrity, they actually mean the possibility of a Kurdish state being carved out of their own territories. It is a fact that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has appointed an “ethnicities adviser” (muavenet-i ekvam) as a pre-emptive move regarding the possibility of ethnic problems worsening. It is not only Kurds, of course, as Iran is made up of a number of different ethnicities. But Kurds are high on the agenda because of the situation in Iraq and Syria and because of Turkey’s own dialogue for a political settlement.

“It was not only in Diyarbakır where people took to the streets in protest for Kobane; they were doing the same in Urmia too,” Bigdeli said, referring to the predominantly Kurdish-populated city in Iran, near the Turkish and Iraqi borders. “Fortunately there was no loss of lives there.”

“The first question we, Iran and Turkey, should ask for ourselves, is whether the moves [we make] will help the interests of the Syrian people as a whole, not for a particular ethnicity or sect," the Iranian envoy added. "Turkey had the chance to attract all sects, religions, ethnicities, government and opposition in Syria, before siding with the opposition. But there is still a chance for cooperation.”