Turkey Seeking to Deescalate Iran-US Crisis without Military Involvement
NATO-member Ankara sensitive about taking sides following death of top Iranian commander in American drone strike
Turkey will try to limit its military role in the crisis between the United States and Iran, analysts told The Media Line on Wednesday as the latter launched ballistic missiles at US-led forces in Iraq in response to the killing of a top Iranian commander.
Concerns of a wider regional conflict in the Middle East skyrocketed early on Friday when an American drone killed Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, as he traveled in a small convoy at Baghdad’s international airport. The drone strike killed as many as nine other people, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a top commander of Iraq’s pro-Tehran Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
Iran said it launched 15 missiles early Wednesday, aiming them at what state television said were US targets in Iraq. The television report claimed that some 80 “American terrorists” were killed, although the US military said two facilities had been targeted without immediately commenting on casualties.
While Turkey is a NATO ally of the US, it considers its relations with Iran to be highly important. Tehran and Ankara are major trading partners, with the latter being a major consumer of Iranian gas.
Yet if tensions escalate to a direct conflict between the US and Iran, Turkey will have to choose sides, says Attila Yesilada, Turkey director for Global Source Partners, a New York-based strategic consultancy.
“Neutrality doesn’t work,” he told The Media Line.
According to Yesilada, Ankara is also interested in limiting Iranian instability because it could lead to more refugees coming its way, especially from war-torn Afghanistan. He adds that tens of thousands of Iranians have already headed to Turkey this year.
“These numbers could easily double or triple if fear of war [or] conflict with the United States escalates,” he said.
The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Monday that he had spoken with US and Iranian officials about Soleimani’s death.
Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Texas-based Stratfor, another global consultancy group, told The Media Line: “They want to look like they are part of the de-escalation path,” adding that the Turks “are trying to turn this to their advantage.”
Bohl believes Ankara will avoid allowing Washington to use its bases to launch strikes against Iran but could let these facilities be used by the US for logistics and to monitor potential missile attacks against regional bases hosting American troops.
He notes, however, that the two countries have had an increasingly fraught relationship, with the Americans weighing sanctions for Ankara over its purchase of Russian weapons.
“Turkey is an option [but] it might not be their first option because of all the friction points,” he said, adding that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is interested in expanding his country’s economic relations with Iran because Tehran is less likely to criticize Turkey over human rights than are Washington and the European Union, which currently maintains major trade ties with Turkey.
On Saturday, the United Kingdom issued a warning for tourists in Turkey to “remain vigilant” following Soleimani’s death. This likely raised concerns among Turkish officials, who are keen to present their country as a safe place for visitors.
Tourism is a key part of Turkey’s economy, with 40 million people arriving in the country last year.
It should also be noted that Turkey and Iran have historically been regional rivals. As just one example, the two support opposing sides in the Syrian civil war.
Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who previously worked on Turkish affairs at the US State Department, says Turkey could benefit from the death of Soleimani, who at times backed the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has been agitating for autonomy in Turkey and which both Ankara and Washington have classified as a terrorist organization.
“The Turks’ public criticism – mild and issued only 10 hours after the killing of [Soleimani] – belies their private glee over his demise,” Makovsky wrote in an email to The Media Line.
“Iran has been a primary backer of the Assad regime and, off and on, of the PKK, with [Soleimani] the primary architect of both efforts,” he stated. “The Turks are no doubt hoping, with some reason, that Iran without [Soleimani] will be a far less effective adversary.”