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Turkey’s complicated calculations over Soleimani’s assassination 

January 9, 2020 at 1:00 pm

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani (L) shake hands during an official welcoming ceremony at Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on 20 December 2018. [Halil Sağırkaya – Anadolu Agency]

It is a bit of a cliché, but Turkey’s calculations about Iran’s response to the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani are complicated. The Iranian general was, after all, the main actor for his country in Syria and Iraq, the two most important arenas for the regional competition between Ankara and Tehran.

Even though the latter announced Soleimani’s successor as head of the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps very quickly, his loss was a great blow to Iran. Perhaps there is some long-term benefit for Turkey in this, especially in Syria, where there is a wider divergence between the Turkish and Iranian visions.

As a NATO member with whom the US has had a strategic partnership since 1995, despite the generally strained relations recently, it has not been possible for Turkey to align itself with Tehran in this new crisis. This could have helped to shape the statement by the Turkish Foreign Ministry about the assassination, which referred to Soleimani’s “death” as a result of an American air strike. The ministry neither rejected the US move nor condemned it, although it affirmed that Turkey rejects all assassinations and external interference.

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It was probably also a significant factor in the denial by a Turkish official that Erdoğan used the term “martyr” to describe Soleimani. This was reported by some media outlets quoting the Iranian Embassy in Turkey. The official stressed that his president had urged his Iranian counterpart to avoid escalation.

Ankara could neither support this type of operation nor simply remain silent about it because, according to Erdoğan, it was a clear violation of international law for one country to kill a senior government figure from a second country in the territory of a third country. The situation is made more difficult by America’s explicit admission that it carried out the air strike. The fact that the US made such a decision would not reassure a country like Turkey with whom it has a difficult relationship, even though it is very different to US-Iran relations.

Thousands of people attend the funeral ceremony of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Forces, who was killed in a US drone airstrike in Iraq, in Tehran, Iran on 6 January 2019. [Fatemeh Bahrami - Anadolu Agency]

Thousands of people attend the funeral ceremony of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Forces, who was killed in a US drone airstrike in Iraq, in Tehran, Iran on 6 January 2019. [Fatemeh Bahrami – Anadolu Agency]

What is most important to Turkey are the repercussions that could affect the entire region, especially itself, in light of the inevitable Iranian response which targeted US bases in Iraq. A bank of US targets for additional responses is available to decision-makers in Tehran. Although neither side apparently wants a full-blown conflict, the engagement of allied parties and proxies still make the situation volatile and potentially difficult to control. With a major US-NATO base in Turkey, that is worrying for Ankara, although Iran is unlikely to strike on Turkish soil given that there are targets closer to home.

Turkey’s calculations and approach since the assassination of Soleimani are based on several steps. The first was for Turkey to distance itself from the event; this was evident in Erdoğan’s statements when he mentioned a phone call with Trump hours before the operation, which surprised him. This was an implicit denial of Ankara’s advance knowledge of the drone attack and in line with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s thanks extended to several regional parties; Turkey was not among them.

There was also a near-total commitment to neutrality by Turkey, so that both approval and condemnation were absent in official statements about Soleimani. The description of the operation was purely descriptive, without expressing any opinion one way or another. There were also Turkish calls to avoid escalation directed at both sides, although they focused more on Iran, as it was the affected party that threatened retaliation and revenge.

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Furthermore, it seems that Ankara has tried to enter the mediation space between the US and Iran, or at least test the waters in this regard due to its relatively positive relations with both, which would allow it to play this role. It has such experience in several crises, including some related to Iran, one of which resulted in a tripartite agreement on uranium enrichment in 2010. However, Turkey’s initial and silent efforts clashed with what seemed to be Iran’s determination to respond to the “American crime”.

Moreover, and importantly, there is Turkey’s position in the event of the outbreak of war between Iran and the United States, because the fifth article of the NATO Charter requires member states to support any member subjected to aggression. Turkey could possibly be engaged in a confrontation with Iran along with the rest of NATO. This is unlikely for many reasons, including the difficulty of implementing this clause, which was only referred to once after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US mainland. What’s more, the US initiated the latest incident, not Iran, if the assassination of Soleimani is taken as the starting point for any escalation. There is also the sensitivity of Ankara’s position in any possible confrontation, which could provide some degree of exceptionalism from clause five in the event that its terms are enforced.

In summary, Turkey has expressed great concern about the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, its implications and its possible repercussions for the region in general and itself specifically. However, it is not likely to side with either party and will commit to its call for a truce, rationality to prevail and the avoidance of any escalation. It will seek to communicate with various parties, including Washington and Tehran, in order to work to contain the issue. Nevertheless, Ankara will monitor any effects on Iran’s regional influence and behaviour in Syria and Iraq in particular, where it has a competitive relationship with the government in Tehran. That consideration may dominate all other existing or potential cooperation decisions.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 8 January 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.