Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, June 13, 2017. . (photo credit:KAYHAN OZER/PRESIDENTIAL PALACE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
On June 17th the Iranian ambassador to Turkey said that Tehran wanted to cooperate with Turkey in the struggle against terrorism. According to a report at the Daily Sabah Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian Fard was asked if his country views Kurdish groups in Syria, the People’s Protection Units and Democratic Union Party, as terrorists, the way Ankara does. “[Iran] describes the PKK, the PYD and the YPG to be terrorist groups,” the ambassador said.
The latest Iranian comments, as well as Turkey’s decision to send troops to Qatar amidst a dispute with Saudi Arabia represent the creation of a new Qatar-Turkey-Iranian sphere of influence that has a potential to influence the region and Israel.
Qatar and Turkey have both had close relations with Hamas over the last decade. The creation of a new warm relationship between Doha, Ankara and Tehran could threaten Israel and could bring Jerusalem closer to Riyadh and Cairo. It also marks a departure from the narrative that the Middle East is divided between a Sunni-led alliance in Riyadh and a Shia-led alliance in Tehran.
By aligning itself with Turkey in views on these left wing Kurdish groups in Syria, Iran is sending an important message. Several months ago experts and commentators were suggesting that Iran’s influence in Syria and its attempt to construct a “road to the sea” would go through Sinjar in Iraq and via Rojava in Syria, two areas where the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the YPG are influential. Now Iran has pulled a 180-degree policy shift. It wants to warm relations with Ankara.
Over the last decade Iran and Turkey have often been at odds over policies in the region. In 2012 Iran’s Press TV ran a segment blaming Turkey for “executing Saudi and Qatari plans of instigating and stirring up sectarian violence” in Iraq and Syria. In January 2016 Turkey complained to Iran over Iranian press comments critisizing Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the execution of a Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia.
To smooth things over, in 2016 Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Tehran to discuss their differences in Syria, where Iran backs Bashar al-Assad and Turkey supports the rebellion. However in 2017 Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusogly told the Munich security conference that Iran had a “sectarian policy” undermining Turkish allies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Iran foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi responded by intimidating that Turkey “supported terrorist groups.” Iran condemned a Turkish air raid in Iraq in April that targeted the PKK.
Things changed when Turkey had to choose between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf crises that erupted on June 5th when Saudi Arabia and a half dozen other countries severed relations with Qatar and began to isolate it by closing its only land border.
Within two weeks Turkey sent solders to Qatar and supplied food to the small state. Al-Jazeera reports that up to 1,000 Turkish troops may be deployed. Qatar is accused by commentators in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of working closely with Iran and supporting extremists in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. In late May, as the UAE and Saudi were planning their moves against Qatar, Gulf News claimed that the Emir of Qatar, Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani had “described Hamas and Hezbollah as legitimate resistance movements.”
The Qatar crises brings Turkey and Iran closer. Turkey has sought a way to solve the crises in discussions with Donald Trump on Friday and called on Saudi Arabia to relax its policy. Qatar’s defense minister visited Turkey over the weekend. Erdogan has also said that it considers a 13-point list of demands presented to Qatar as “against international law.” At the same time Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani recently condemned the “siege of Qatar.”
In recent years the Middle East has been seen through a sectarian lens. Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Houthis in Yemen on one side are opposed by Sunni states. Conflict in Iraq and Syria symbolize this cleavage. However the relations between Qatar, Iran and Turkey creates a third sphere and counterbalance to the sectarian divide. Both Turkey and Qatar supported the rebels against Assad and both have close relations with Hamas. Iran also support Hamas financially. Qatar has had cordial relations with Hezbollah in the past.
The US Embassy in Qatar warned in diplomatic cables in 2009 that Qatar was “maintaining relations with bad actors such as Hezbollah and the Iranians helps ensure Qatar’s security by serving as an insurance policy against attack.” Today Qatar has Turkish troops as that security. The question is how deeply the Qatar-Turkey nexus strengthens Iran’s hand and creates a third side to the Middle East.
The effect on Israel in this puzzle is that Israel continues to grow close to Saudi Arabia. However Israel has relations with Turkey which means Turkey is a key trading partner and a important actor in regional security. In the past Turkey has sought to play a role in the Gaza Strip. In 2009 an unnamed western official was quoted in Time Magazine as saying Turkey could send peacekeeping troops to Gaza. “Turkey has done a good job as part of military contingents in Lebanon and Afghanistan. Their ability to talk to all sides.”
Today Jerusalem is happy no Turkish peacekeepers ended up in Gaza or Israel would find itself facing Turkish troops the way Saudi is at the border of Qatar. Recognizing the Turkey-Qatar-Iran relationship is a key for Jerusalem today in weighing its policy approaches to Saudi Arabia and also tensions in Syria and along the Lebanese border.