Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Turkey, Zarif, Syria, Kurds

The failed coup of 15 July in Turkey has ushered in a period of significant shifts in Ankara’s foreign policy, with Erdogan emerging more strident than ever, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Though not his first, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif’s visit to Turkey last week occasioned a particularly warm and generous welcome. Clearly impressed, Turkey’s “great friend” expressed his heartfelt gratitude for the reception accorded to him and the members of his delegation. Zarif must also sense how well his country stands in Turkish eyes at the moment given its rapid condemnation of the attempted coup in July and the fact that Zarif, himself, called up his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, five times in the course of that fraught Friday night. He further warmed his hosts’ hearts during the joint press conference he and Cavusoglu held after their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Ankara when he reiterated his congratulations “to the Turkish nation for the defiance they showed against the coup-plotters” and for showing the people of the region that “they would not allow democracy and their rights to be taken away from them through coups and the use of force”.

During that visit, the senior Iranian diplomat took a brief stop at the Turkish parliament building where he appeared genuinely moved as he contemplated the crumbled ruins and scarred remains left by the missiles the coup-makers fired from a military helicopter on the night of 15 July.

As though keen to return the Zarif’s complements, the Turkish government’s Arabic-speaking channels featured a special documentary on Tehran, “The city of antiquity and modernity”. The programme took viewers on an excursion through the various streets and squares of the Iranian capital and, most notably, Azadi (Freedom) Square with its famous monument, the Azadi Tower.

One cannot help but remark on how the myth-like democratic pietism comes at a time when demonstrations have swept Western capitals to protest the executions of Iranian opposition figures. As most of those are Kurds, the media in Turkey, which for the most part is now effectively state run, has kept mum on that issue, though this comes as little surprise given the war that Ankara is waging in predominantly Kurdish southeast Anatolia.

The frenzy of democratic flag waving also comes at time of escalated clampdowns in both countries. In Anatolia, the campaign uses “FETO/PDY” — standing for the “Fethullah terrorist organisation” and the “parallel state structure”, both attributed to the Islamist pundit Fethullah Gulen accused of masterminding the 15 July coup attempt. In Iran, dozens if not hundreds of Ahwazis of Arab Sunni origin have been arrested and persecuted. On this, too, the media in Turkey has kept an enigmatic silence.

It is odd indeed that these two countries should choose to shower each other with democratic compliments. While in Turkey there still remain some remnants of a democracy that has been relentlessly curtailed, in Iran it doesn’t exist at all. In all events, Ankara clearly has reasons to court its Iranian neighbour — some obvious, others less so.

Of course, it is easier for both capitals to start with the more concrete economic and commercial issues, as political issues are still quite delicate. Accordingly, Tehran took the initiative to end its ban on tourist trips to Turkey, which President Hassan Rouhani had announced in the immediate aftermath of the aborted coup. In a few days, Iranian travel and tourist agencies will be communicating with their Turkish counterparts preparatory to the resumption of the flow of Iranian tourists to Turkey. Certainly, all in the Turkish tourist industry and related industries are desperate to bring that flow up to pre-coup levels and, if possible, to increase it so as to compensate, at least in part, for the huge losses due to this year’s unprecedented slump.

Iranian and Turkish officials discussed ways to increase the volume of bilateral trade as well as energy sales. With regard to the latter, the Turks are eager to buy more quantities of Iranian gas and both sides are keen to resolve their differences over prices without resorting to arbitration.

But perhaps the most significant development in that meeting related to Syria. It appears that Ankara, seemingly motivated by its pique against the US and Europe, is in the process of a foreign policy reorientation and that it has brought itself around to recognising certain realities that do not conform with the conditions it had once set for a solution to the crisis in that country with which it shares a 900-kilometre long border. It was no small gesture for Cavusoglu to say: “We have emphasised from the outset the importance of the constructive role Iran plays for a permanent solution in Syria.”

The Turkish foreign minister did add, however, that his government hoped for “more positive” policies from Iran, implying compromises in favour of Turkish positions on Syria. Zarif, for his part, responded that his country hoped to minimise the differences in points of view with Turkey on the subject of Syria, but at the same time he took the opportunity to stress that the Syrian people had the right to determine their own future.

It was no coincidence that the Iranian foreign minister’s visit to Ankara came on the heels of Erdogan’s meeting with Putin in St Petersburg. Perhaps it was to underscore this that Zarif, upon arrival in Ankara, said: “We are very happy with the new cooperation between Turkey and Russia.” In fact, before setting off for Ankara, Zarif consulted with his counterpart in Moscow, Sergey Lavrov, most likely to consult and coordinate with regard to how to respond to Turkey’s new and sudden foreign policy shifts.

One of Turkey’s concessions or reversals with respect to Syria is that it no longer demands a no-fly zone inside Syria at a sufficient depth to prevent the creation of an independent Kurdish entity there. That praiseworthy shift earned the Russian response of closing the office of a Kurdish party to coincide with Erdogan’s fence-mending trip to St Petersburg.

Turkish media have been billing the trilateral regional cooperation a painful blow to Washington, with which tensions have been rising over the extradition of Gulen. These tensions are being fed on an almost daily basis by official statements in Ankara suggesting that the US was behind the aborted coup attempt and that the US had given the coup-makers tactical support from Incirlik airbase. But the tensions had been mounting long before this due to the US’s support for Syrian Kurdish groups, which have been the strongest forces on the ground against Daesh (the Islamic State group).

Developments surrounding Turkey have acquired an increasingly surreal quality since 15 July, with all their strange inconsistencies and contradictions. This is the backdrop that awaits John Kerry who is scheduled to arrive in Turkey later this month. Still, between now and then surprises may be in store for the US-Turkish relationship in light of the increasing stridency of Erdogan’s repeated demand that Washington must choose between Turkey and Gulen. In fact, given the recent victory over Daesh in Manbij, the Turkish ultimatum to the US might be escalated to: “Choose between Erdogan, Gulen and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria!”

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