The Basher Assad regime has been busy setting up both regional and nuclear alliances. Together with its closest partner and ally the Islamic Republic of Iran, they have recruited North Korea to serve as a third leg in a nuclear alliance (shades of G.W. Bush’s Axis of Evil, except instead of Iraq, it is Syria ). Israeli investigative journalist and author Ronen Bergman reveals in his book The Secret War with Iran the extensive nuclear partnership between these three countries. In this close collaboration Iran provides the money, Syria the territory, and North Korea the expertise, nuclear hardware and software.
Another emerging alliance is being forged - mostly off the radar screen. It is the regional alliance between Iran, Syria and Turkey. One common denominator all three states have is a large Kurdish minority. All three countries have at one time or another suppressed the Kurdish quest for independence and/or autonomy. Kurds in Iran, Syria and Turkey have been denied equal rights and have been harshly treated by Ankara, Damascus, and Tehran.
According to Syrian press reports these countries share the same views on major regional issues including the geographic unity of Iraq (no separate Kurdish state), Iran’s right to nuclear technology, and the intra-Palestinian conflict. To lend credence to Syrian assertions, the Turkish parliament last month cleared the minefields along the Turkish-Syrian border, while in April 2009; Turkish and Syrian forces conducted joint military operations.
Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan have moved closer to the Islamic world. Its relationship with Iran and Syria has warmed significantly in recent years at the expense of its close relations with the U.S., Israel and the E.U. countries. This was particularly apparent on January 29, 2009 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, when Erdogan walked out on a panel discussion that included Israel’s President Shimon Peres. At a press conference held in Turkey, following the conference, Erdogan’s comments reflected those of a Hamas spokesperson - which pleased the Iranian and Syrian dictators.
Erdogan has intimated to his European and American interlocutors that if not admitted into the EU, Turkey would definitely become Islamic. Turkey’s demography reveals however that the vast majority of its population, especially rural Anatolia, is conservative and Islamic. While westernized and secular elite does exist, and the military is still the guardians of secularism, their numbers are too small to win in any democratic election. The success of Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) is due in large measure to the fact that most Turks have remained Muslims in their belief, value system, and worldview.
The Justice and Development Party succeeded Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party. The first Islamist party since the Turkish Republic was established in 1923; the Welfare Party and its leader and Prime Minister Erbakan lasted only a year when it was removed by the secular/military establishment in 1997. Erbakan’s choice of Iran as his first foreign visit coupled with his D-8 initiative which aimed to foster political and economic unity among large, developing, Islamic countries (Turkey, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nigeria) and his anti-Zionist rhetoric angered the secular/military elites.
Today Erdogan’s Turkey, while working to be admitted into the E.U., is also pursuing a foreign policy which seeks to make Turkey the linchpin of peace and stability in the Muslim world. To that end, Ankara has forged closer ties with Syria and Iran, hoping to mediate between Iran and the U.S. on Iran’s nuclear program (President Obama however, prefers direct negotiations with Iran). Simultaneously, the Erdogan government, in its efforts to forge close relations with the Arab world, has undertaken to mediate between Israel and Syria, and perhaps on other Arab-Israeli issues.
The Arabs, principally Saudi Arabia, would like to see Turkey de-couple the Syrian-Iranian marriage. The U.S. and Israel are unhappy with Ankara’s continued purchases of Iranian natural gas. While mending fences with Iran and Syria, Turkey had antagonized the Bush administration when it refused to take part in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Turkey, a member of NATO, refrained from participating in the 2003 U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, albeit, allowing with reluctance U.S. over flights. Conversely, Iran and Turkey supported each other during their military incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan.
The abolition of the Caliphate by Ataturk in 1924, and the secularization of Turkey created an open wound between the Arab/Muslim world and Turkey. Turkey’s efforts to become part of Europe and its close ties with Israel and the U.S. antagonized the Arabs. The Arabs viewed Turkey as a subordinate Western client while in denial of its glorious Islamic past. The Erdogan government has sought to reverse this antagonism with various gestures and diplomatic outreach, as well as with concrete efforts to establish political, economic, military, and economic ties with the Arab world.
An editorial in the Syrian weekly Abyadh Wa-Aswad (8/10/08) concluded that, “In light of the economic interests and common denominators shared by Turkey , Syria and Iran- including geographic proximity, religion, beliefs and positions - it has become more important than ever to conduct a political process that reflects this reality and protects these interests…especially since their main common denominator is their categorical rejection of all western dictates, and their rigorous adherence to the national; and regional interests of every country…”
That same editorial stated that, “Turkey has rejoined the Arab world through the Syrian gate…Perhaps it was the threats to which the West has exposed it – especially after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its support for the establishment of a Kurdish state which could threaten Turkey –that caused the Turkish leadership (Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gul) to advance in the correct and logical direction…The factors uniting the three countries (Iran, Syria and Turkey) far outweigh their links with the West and the U.S.”
Should Iran, Syria, and Turkey forge a strategic alliance as envisioned by Bashar Assad, the U.S., Israel, and the West would have to recalculate their own strategic position in the region.