NATO Member Turkey Solidifies Its Ties with Iran and Syria

By Patrick Goodenough | February 11, 2011 | 5:03 AM EST

Turkish President Abdullah Gul holds talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Istanbul on Monday, June 7, 2010.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

( – Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s visit to Iran this weekend comes just days after reports said that Turkey has agreed to train the Syrian army.  Turkey’s recent moves raise more questions about the direction being taken by the NATO member’s Islamist-leaning government.

Gul will be accompanied by a 300-strong delegation of government ministers, officials and businessmen on a three-day visit to “further consolidate” bilateral relations, Iran’s Fars news agency reports.

He is scheduled to meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, other ministers and the powerful parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani.

Although it consistently denies any strategic foreign policy shift, Turkey’s deepening ties with countries hostile to the West have prompted anxiety in Washington, Jerusalem and some European capitals.

Overshadowed by the dramatic political turmoil in Egypt, the latest developments have attracted relatively little media attention.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held talks with Syrian President Bashir Assad in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, the latest in what have become regular meetings between Turkish and Syrian leaders.

Regional media reporting on the meeting focused largely on a groundbreaking ceremony for a “friendship dam” to be built jointly, straddling the Syria-Turkey border.

But a brief report by the Turkish Anadolu state news agency a few days earlier revealed a development likely to be more troubling for Turkey’s NATO allies.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, talks with Syria's President Bashar Assad during a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, June 7, 2010. (AP Photo)

The report said the two countries had agreed on Turkish military training for the Syrian army, following a high-level bilateral military dialogue held in Damascus last December.

Anadolu noted the warming relationship between the two militaries in recent years, nurtured by their first joint exercise in 2009 and reciprocal visits by officers.

The Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs expressed concern about the move.

“A NATO country will train the army of a country that is Israel’s enemy, Lebanon’s enemy, Hezbollah’s back door and the bane of the Iraqi government and the American troops there, and a U.S. government-designated state sponsor of terrorism – which should make it America’s adversary,” it said in a briefing Thursday.

With its mix of Islam, democracy and economic reforms, Turkey has for years been held up, both in the West and in parts of the Muslim world, as a “model” for other countries in the region.

Visiting Ankara six weeks after becoming Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton spoke warmly about Turkey being a “model” and an “example” for the region.

“The fact that it [Turkey] is a democracy and a country that is mostly Islamic makes it a critically important model for other Muslim countries of the region,” President Obama told an Italian newspaper last year. The term has also arisen in current debates around the crisis in Egypt.

“The sad reality is that while the administration talks about the Turkey model, Turkey is pursuing a Syria model,” American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Rubin told CNSNews on Thursday.

“The longer it takes us to recognize that Turkey is no longer an ally, the more damage Turkey will be able to do to our national security.”

Rubin questioned the wisdom of trusting the fellow NATO member with highly advanced military technology.

“That the Obama administration intends to sell Turkey the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, our next generation aircraft replete with stealth technology, without even conducting a review about the potential leakage of its secrets to Turkey’s partners in Iran and Syria is unprecedented incompetence,” he said.

Siding with Iran at the U.N.

In the late 1990s, Turkey and Syria were at loggerheads over Syria’s sheltering of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but relations began to improve after Syria in 1998 expelled PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. (Captured in Kenya the following year, Ocalan is serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison.)

Progress in bilateral ties accelerated after the 2002 rise to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Islamist-oriented party of Gul and Erdogan.

Two years later Assad paid the first visit to Turkey by a Syrian leader in more than half a century. Visa restrictions were dropped and trade has flourished.

After Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza in late 2008, Erdogan became Israel’s most vocal critic, and Ankara’s relations with Jerusalem soured even as those with Syria and Iran continued to improve.

The shift caused unease in some NATO capitals, especially so when Turkey – then a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council – voted against a resolution last June imposing new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities.

Then at a NATO summit in November, Turkey insisted that neither Iran nor Syria be named in a key alliance document dealing with missile defense plans for Europe – even though the Iranian threat has long been the principal cited reason for the missile defense proposals.

NATO complied with Turkey’s demands; Iran was not mentioned in the document and both NATO and Obama administration officials referred vaguely to the missile threat “from the Middle East.”

Further evidence of Turkey’s readiness to stand with Iran in the face of outside criticism was seen in its reaction to the political unrest in Iran following Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 reelection.

Turkey’s leaders congratulated Ahmadinejad for his “victory” without hesitation and remained silent during the subsequent violent clampdown on opposition supporters.

When the U.N. General Assembly in December passed a resolution expressing concern about human rights violations in Iran the Turkish envoy, although present, did not vote.

‘An independent center of power’

Rajan Menon, professor of political science at City College of New York/City University of New York, said Thursday the U.S. should neither be surprised nor alarmed by the Turkish government’s developing policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors.

The policy was “based on the assumption that Turkey belongs to many subsystems of the world: Europe, the Balkans, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the wider Muslim world,” he told CNSNews.

Menon said Turkey had a “growing desire after the Cold War to maintain strong ties with the U.S. but to pursue a much more deliberate multi-directional foreign policy.”

He said the approach stemmed from Turkey’s reduced dependence on the U.S. after the fall of the Soviet Union, “its increasing self-confidence as a consolidated democracy and an economic success story, and its consequent desire to be an independent center of power.”

“With all this has come the determination to make Turkey's ties with other major countries (Iran, Russia, Syria, etc.) not depend on Washington's relationship with them but on [an] independent consideration: Turkey's interest and identities,” Menon said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow