Iran and Turkey prepare to clash in Syria

Separated by opposing regional interests, Turkey and Iran seem to be heading for a confrontation in Syria, with Tehran explicitly opposing Ankara’s plan for a new military operation against Kurdish-held areas, wary of the risks to its own position in the region.

Turkey has failed to get the green light from the United States to move forward with the plan, while Russia appears to be stalling. The Iranians, meanwhile, have sent militia reinforcements to two Shia settlements northwest of Aleppo, not far from a key area in Ankara’s crosshairs, while trying to dissuade Turkey from moving – apparently with little success so far. Iran’s foreign minister was due to hold talks in Turkey on June 6, two days before a critical visit by the Russian foreign minister, but the trip was canceled due to what the Iranian press described as scheduling issues. An Iranian journalist who follows Turkish-Iranian relations closely told Al-Monitor that Tehran sent a military intelligence official to Ankara to voice its objections. Al-Monitor could not independently verify the claim. The journalist asked to remain anonymous.

The notion of rivalry has become an understatement in defining Turkish-Iranian relations. Disagreements between the two neighbors have deepened amid an array of issues over Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, coupled with friction over the sharing of cross-border waters and a seemingly uncontrolled flow of Afghan refugees to Turkey from Iran. The two sides fought opposing blocs in the stalemate of government formation in Baghdad and contested influence in Mosul, Kirkuk and Sinjar. Tehran has courted the Shiite section of the Turkmen minority to divide Ankara’s main ally in Iraq. He denounced Turkey‘s pursuit of banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in Iraqi territory, and Iran-backed militias attacked a Turkish base there amid Turkish accusations that the Iran secretly supports the PKK. Moreover, Ankara has moved closer to the emerging Arab-Israeli axis against Iran and has begun to please the Saudis in Yemen again as part of normalization efforts with Riyadh.

It was in this atmosphere that the Iranian Foreign Ministry criticized Turkey’s intervention plan, warning that it would only exacerbate tensions and the humanitarian suffering in Syria.

It is no secret that Turkey’s military presence in Syria following three interventions since August 2016 is of greater concern to Iran than that of Russia. Iranian media described Turkey’s presence as a “invasionand called the Syrian National Army (SNA), Turkey’s rebel allies, “Turkey-backed terrorists”. They accused Turkey of pushing demographic changes to the detriment of the Kurds, expanding the space of “terrorists” under the guise of safe zones, seeking gains to use against Damascus in future talks or preparing the ground for the annexation of Syrian territory. Conversely, Turkish government-controlled media has used the label “terrorist” for Iran-backed Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey’s seizure of Tel Rifaat, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has explicitly named as a target along with Manbij, would jeopardize the neighboring Shia settlements of Zahra and Nubl as well as the city of Aleppo, hence Tehran’s vocal objections and its strengthening efforts in the region. Commenting on Turkey’s intervention plan, the SNA spokesperson Youssef Hamoud told Baladi News that he expects Iran to “resist both politically and militarily, as evidenced by the military support it has provided by deploying several columns in the region.” All Syrian government forces and allied militias in the region are assisted by advisors from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and could intervene militarily, he added.

Separately, Hammoud told Reuters: “The Syrian regime and its Iranian militias have mobilized and [are] Sending in progress reinforcements to the YPG– a reference to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which Ankara has vowed to oust from Tel Rifaat.

Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency, meanwhile, reported that the Iran-backed Shia militia tried to deploy Grad-missiles in the area on May 30, but were arrested by Russian forces. A Kurdish source confirmed to Al-Monitor that the Russians alerted the YPG to the Iranian decision.

Iran had taken a similar hard line against Operation Olive Branch in 2018, which culminated in Turkey’s capture of Afrin. Shiite militants were dispatched to help the Kurds in Afrin but their convoy was stopped by a Turkish airstrike en route. The Kurds have coordinated with Iran-backed militias in the Aleppo region, even though they see them as a primary threat in the event of a power vacuum in areas east of the Euphrates.

Could Iran go even further now at the risk of a showdown with Turkey? According to the Iranian journalist, Turkey is “well aware” that Iran will defend Zahra and Nubl, even though Iran has so far avoided directly confronting Turkey in Syria, except for Iranian participation in a 2020 offensive in Idlib that saw Damascus regain crucial control. M5 Motorway.

Although Ankara did not mention Zahra and Nubl as targets, they would be within reach of Turkey if it took control of Tel Rifaat. The two settlements and Tel Rifaat are seen as a barrier protecting Aleppo. Tel Rifaat is located just 27 kilometers (16.8 miles) north of Aleppo, while Nubl and Zahra are both within 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) of the city. Iran is wary of a scenario similar to a three-year siege by the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) on the Shia towns of Fua and Kafriya in Idlib. Residents were evacuated in 2018 in exchange for the release of 1,500 government opponents from Syrian prisons.

Zahra and Nubl themselves remained besieged by rebel forces, including Jabhat al-Nusra, the predecessor of HTS, from 2013 to 2016. In February 2016, Turkey unsuccessfully tried to prevent the Syrian army and the YPG to seize Tel Rifaat and its surroundings by mobilizing the Free Syrian Army and even transferring Islamist fighters from Idlib to northern Aleppo via Turkish territory. The return of government forces to the area not only broke the siege of Zahra and Nubl, but cut the road to the Turkish border, which was supporting rebel forces in Aleppo. Eventually, the government took over the entire city.

Today, Kurdish and government control in Tel Rifaat and its surroundings prevent rebels from Idlib from crossing the Turkish-controlled Euphrates Shield pocket and gaining access to Aleppo. The region’s importance fuels suspicions that Ankara’s goals may go beyond weakening the Kurds.

According to various sources, local groups trained and equipped by Hezbollah, Iranian-sponsored Shiite groups such as Fatemiyoun, Hashemiyoon and Zainabiyoun and the Syrian government militia, the National Defense Forces, are all present in Zahra and Nubl. They would be coordinated by the IRGC, which has a headquarters in the region.

from iran Mehr press agency notes that some Syrian rebels see Turkey’s intervention plan as a way to advance towards Aleppo and warns that Tel Rifaat’s proximity to Zahra and Nubl could provoke “the axis of resistance” and “make things more difficult for Erdogan”.

Turkey offers three arguments for regarding Tel Rifaat as a target. First, the YPG uses the area to launch attacks against Turkish-controlled Afrin and the Euphrates Shield Pocket. Ankara also claims that 250,000 people who fled Tel Rifaat in 2016 want to return, even though the local population was around 80,000 before 2016. Third, Tel Rifaat provides 60% of the region’s drinking water.

Russia’s continued contact with Turkey may be an insurance policy to reduce the risk of confrontation between Turkish troops and Iranian-Syrian forces, but Tehran feels sidelined as a guarantor of the Astana trilateral process on Syria. The toughening climate could undermine the whole process as the three sides prepare to hold an 18th round of talks later this month. Could Turkey suddenly spring into action and go wild before the meeting? In the absence of predictable leadership in Ankara, the question is uncertain.

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