Why did Turkey’s foreign minister go to Iran?

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Sinan Ciddi | Non-Resident Senior Fellow

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan meets with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Tehran, Iran on September 03, 2023. (Murat Gok/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s foreign minister, paid a visit to Iran on Sunday. The invitation, extended to him by his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, was publicized as an “opportunity to discuss the possibilities for further advancing our bilateral cooperation in all fields with Iran and to exchange views on current regional and international developments.”

While Ankara maintains an interest in expanding its horizons with Tehran, the actual focus of the high-level meeting between the foreign ministers was to discuss Syria.

Since 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been keen to facilitate the normalization of ties between Ankara and Damascus. This is easier wished than accomplished as Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Bashar Assad of Syria are bitter enemies. Erdogan spent the better part of the last decade trying to overthrow Assad. Given that Assad is likely to hold on to power, Erdogan has few options other than to rekindle a functional relationship with Assad.

Damascus, however, is in a strong bargaining position: In return for even beginning talks to normalize ties with Ankara, the Syrian government has demanded that all Turkish troops, presently occupying large swaths of northern Syria, leave its territory.

Erdogan needs the cooperation of Assad for a number of reasons: He would like to return a symbolic number of Syrian refugees, which number close to four million in Turkey. He would also like the Syrian government to work with Turkey to contain, ideally dismember, the Syrian Kurdish military entity, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is considered a terrorist entity by Turkey and which is a key U.S. partner in the fight against ISIS.

Since the May elections, Erdogan has been under immense pressure to make headway on these two issues. Independent of the Turkish public, Erdogan is also under pressure from Putin to mend fences with Assad. Turkey’s political and economic exposure to Moscow is too high for Erdogan to ignore. Turkey depends on Russia for its natural gas supply, tourism revenues, nuclear energy capability, and bilateral trade.

In light of this, what is the relevance of Fidan’s visit to Tehran? It is likely a diplomatic push by Fidan to get Assad to drop his precondition to remove Turkish troops from Syria before Assad and Erdogan can meet. Assad has no motivation to make Erdogan’s life easier, but he may listen to Moscow and Tehran, his two big patrons. Fidan’s visit to Tehran was preceded by a visit to Moscow, where he met with his Russian counterpart SergeyLavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Similarly, Fidan’s diplomatic efforts were mirrored by Erdogan, who met with Putin on Monday. In all of these meetings Ankara is trying to achieve two major goals: To solicit Moscow and Tehran’s help in getting Assad to the negotiating table without preconditions and to highlight Turkey’s importance to the West by exploring opportunities of getting Russia to reenter the grain deal.

All of this helps underscore what Erdogan would like to label as Turkey’s strategic autonomy. In reality, playing diplomatic footsie with Russia and Iran is a further demonstration of Turkey’s drift from the West. On the one hand, the Turkish government has been in quiet negotiations to secure $35 billion worth of stabilization funding, likely facilitated by the Biden administration. On the other, we see little to no commitment on the part of Ankara to back international sanctions against two of the greatest threats to the liberal international order. It is likely that the $35 billion line of credit that may come from Washington is a quid pro quo for Ankara to approve Sweden’s NATO membership in October. It is worth noting that while leaning on the West for bailout funding, Erdogan referred to Putin as his “valued friend” during their meeting in Sochi.

The previous three U.S. administrations have struggled with how to handle an increasingly anti-Western Erdogan. Professor Henri Barkey recently published a refreshingly concise set of recommendations in a Foreign Affairs article, which the Biden administration appears reluctant to read, let alone implement. There is little sense in offering cash incentives to Erdogan while he continues to further distance Turkey from the West and move into the orbit of Moscow and Tehran.

Sinan Ciddi (@SinanCiddi) is a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power.  Follow Sinan on X @SinanCiddi. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Source: Foundation for Defense of Democracies




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