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memri
February 24, 2009 No.
490

Recent Attempts to Form Strategic Regional Bloc: Syria, Turkey and Iran

By: Ofir Winter*

Introduction

In August and September 2008, a series of meetings and mutual visits took place among the Syrian, Iranian, and Turkish heads of state. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad visited Turkey and Iran in the first week of August, and a few days later, on August 14, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan then visited Damascus in early September.

In reference to these visits, it was reported in the Arab press that Syria was attempting to form a strategic bloc with Iran and Turkey, and to establish a trilateral consultation and coordination mechanism with them. The Syrian press stated that the three countries held similar positions on many regional issues, including the Iranian nuclear dossier, the geographical unity of Iraq, and the intra-Palestinian conflict, and that they would be able to shape the future of the region according to their interests.

Following are excerpts from statements and articles on this topic.

Arab Diplomatic Sources: Syria Trying to Form a Trilateral Strategic Bloc in the Middle East

The Qatari daily Al-Watan reported, citing Arab diplomatic sources, that Syria hoped to form a trilateral strategic bloc in the Middle East comprising Syria, Iran, and Turkey, and that this had been the object of Assad's August 2008 visit to Teheran and Ankara.[1] According to the sources, Damascus believes that strengthening ties and coordination among these three countries at this time would promote the achievement of equilibrium in the Middle East. The sources denied, however, that the bloc would be a political axis or an alliance, saying that it would only be a coordination and consultation mechanism for addressing various issues on the regional and international agenda. They added that Syria would be holding a trilateral summit in Damascus in order to determine the exact format of this coordination, and to confront the serious dangers and challenges facing the Middle East.[2]

Assad: "There Is Real Cooperation Among These Three Countries"

In a September 17, 2008 interview on Iranian TV, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad discussed the relations among Syria, Iran and Turkey: "At present, there is real cooperation among these three countries; however, this cooperation it must be extended to include other countries as well, especially Iraq, because we are neighbors. The main factor prompting [this cooperation] was the lessons we derived from the past. Furthermore, the mistakes made by the enemies have shown that lack of cooperation works against us.

"Currently, the [Syrian-Iranian-Turkish] cooperation is mainly on the political level, but we hope to extend it [to other spheres as well]. I discussed this [issue] with the Iranian leadership during my visit to Iran, and [with the Turkish leadership] during my visit to Turkey and during the Turkish prime minister's visit to Syria."[3]

On August 6, 2008, the day after Assad's return from Turkey, his political and media adviser Dr. Buthayna Sha'ban explained that the reciprocal visits were part of consultations on regional issues currently underway among the three countries, mainly on the issues of Iraq, Iran's nuclear dossier, and the situation in Palestine. Sha'ban said that the three countries agreed that Iran had the right to pursue its nuclear program for peaceful purposes, in accordance with international charters. She added that consultation among them had always served the security, peace, and stability of the region and had counteracted war and aggression.[4] She said that the three countries were concerned and apprehensive about the situation in Iraq, and that they saw "Iraq's unity, independence, and sovereignty over its resources and land as [a principle of great] importance."[5]

Syrian Government Daily Teshreen: Trilateral Coordination Will Shape the Future of the Region

In an editorial in the Syrian government daily Teshreen, editor-in-chief 'Issam Dari wrote that Turkey, Iran, and Syria would determine the future of the Middle East: "As prominent countries, Turkey, Syria and Iran can not only play an influential role in the region, but also shape [its] future in accordance with the will of their own peoples and that of the peoples of the entire region. This, in order to stop the brazen interference by outside [forces] – interference that must be rejected outright as incompatible with the supreme interests of the Arabs and those of their neighbors and friends.

"The Syrian president's visit to Turkey, and his previous visit to Iran, were part of the joint and persistent effort by the three friendly countries for high-level coordination, aimed at achieving the aspirations of the peoples in the Middle East. Apparently, this coordination alarms those with plans that are hostile to [these] peoples, and as a result [this coordination] has come under unceasing attacks – which are unlikely to stop anytime soon – aimed at distorting and misrepresenting it, and at sabotaging Syria's relations with Iran and Turkey. However, these depraved attempts [to stop the coordination] will not succeed, since the three countries are aware [of them] and are determined to safeguard their supreme national interests, and to safeguard the welfare and the future of the region.

"Accordingly, this [tripartite] coordination will determine the nature of the next phase – which will be shaped by parties that are from the region and are interested [in its affairs], and which throughout history have proven their ability to defend themselves and their culture."[6]

Syrian Government Daily Al-Ba'th: The Three Countries' Positions Are Similar, If Not Identical

An editorial in the Syrian government daily Al-Ba'th contended that Syria, Iran, and Turkey held similar positions on most regional issues: "Syria, Iran, and Turkey are countries of prominence and presence – politically, economically, and in terms of human [resources] – and they have important converging interests. This means that any crisis afflicting a neighboring country invariably affects them, directly or indirectly, as it affects other countries in the world, albeit to a lesser degree.

"This conclusion is not new; what is significant, however, is Syria's initiative to broaden its contacts and engage its neighboring countries in a discussion on all issues of regional importance in the spheres of politics, economy, and security. This, in accordance with the common interests and aims of the countries and people of the region, who, in the recent years, have been suffering the consequences of the U.S. occupation of Iraq – and are still suffering from it.

"Even more important are [Syria's, Iran's and Turkey's] similar, if not identical, positions on burning issues [such as] the occupied territories in Iraq and Lebanon, Iran's nuclear dossier, support for national conciliation in Palestine, the lifting of the Gaza siege, Iraq's unity and stability and the withdrawal of the occupying forces, support for the Lebanese national dialogue, and support for Iran's right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. These were the main issues in President Assad's talks with the Iranian and Turkish leaders.[7]

As'ad 'Aboud, editor of the Syrian government daily Al-Thawra, underlined Syria's, Iran's, and Turkey's opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq: "Who is paying the price of the current situation in Iraq?! Isn't it the Iraqi people, and after them the other countries in the region?! The decision to invade Iraq – wasn't it imposed on the countries of region in [complete] contradiction to their wishes and their efforts to ensure their own stability?! Did Iran support the war against Iraq – despite its [enmity] with [former] Iraqi president Saddam Hussein?! Did Turkey support the war against Iraq?! Didn't the Syrian president clearly declare that Iraq is a quagmire that is difficult to exit, [thus] openly opposing the war?!"[8]

Syrian Weekly: Turkey Has Realized Where Its Interests Lie

An editorial in the Syrian weekly Abyadh Wa-Aswad stated that Turkey had despaired of joining the Western world and had realized that its real interest lay in renewing its contacts with the Middle East countries: "In light of the economic interests and common denominators shared by Syria, Turkey, and Iran – including geographic [proximity] [and similarities in] religion, beliefs and positions – it has become more important than ever to conduct a political process that reflects this reality and protects these interests. [This move] has prepared the ground for redrawing the map of cooperation among [certain] countries in the region, [namely Syria, Turkey, and Iran], especially since their main common denominator is their categorical rejection of all Western dictates, and their rigorous adherence to the national and regional interests of every country…

"After soberly scrutinizing the [history of] the previous century, the [Turkish] government realized that dancing to Europe's tune is a waste of time… unless it is willing to completely surrender to the West's will – which it refuses to do. It has realized that the right way is to rejoin the Arabs, since its real interests lie in the [Middle East,] with which it shares a common history and family ties [as well as common] religion, ideology and interests.

"[Turkey] has rejoined the Arab [world] through the Syrian gate, with the aim of preserving its regional status… Perhaps it was the threats to which the West has exposed it – especially after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its support for the establishment of a Kurdish state which could threaten Turkey from the rear – that caused the young Turkish leadership (Erdogan and Gul) to advance in the correct and logical direction, [i.e.] towards the region to which they belong. [This move] has created a united regional strategic force to safeguard the interests of the people [in the region], which the West wants to harm…

"The factors uniting the three countries far outweigh their links with the West and the U.S. The rapprochement among Turkey, Syria, and Iran should be a model for other countries, which should [likewise] unite based on mutual interests and respect."[9]

Main Headline of Syrian Weekly: "Syria-Iran-Turkey – A New Map of Regional Cooperation"

Abyadh Wa-Aswad (Syria), August 10, 2008.

Iranian Columnist: The Trilateral Front – A Major Regional Force that Will Restrain America's Rampage in the Region

Iranian columnist Dr. Mohammad Sadeq Al-Hosseini, who is secretary-general of the Arab-Iranian Dialogue Forum, wrote in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida: "The prevailing view in knowledgeable circles is that a consensus – if not an alliance – is forming among Teheran, Ankara, and Damascus. [This alliance] will transform these three countries into a major regional force that will act to restrain America's rampage in the region. Similar cooperation emerged during the era of the late [Syrian] president Hafez Al-Assad in the wake of the Kurdish rebellion, which spawned dangerous developments that threatened the security of the three countries. [The Kurdish issue] may be an important factor in reviving this trilateral [alliance today]…

"The war in the Caucasus, and its ramifications for U.S.-Russia relations, will offer the influential countries of the region a great opportunity to put their own stamp on what Washington envisaged as 'the New Middle East.' This [stamp] will be based on [these countries' own] positions and standards, rather than on those of the U.S., [which] has lost the war in the Caucasus.

"Accordingly, it can be said with confidence that a main outcome of this war is [the emergence of] a regional front that is free from U.S. dictates."[10]


*O. Winter is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] According to the London daily Al-Hayat, Assad was visiting Turkey, which is mediating in the indirect Syria-Israel talks to apprise it of issues that had arisen during his meetings in Iran – namely, of Iran's concerns and apprehensions regarding the Syria-Israel negotiations and its request for detailed information about their progress. Al-Hayat (London), August 10, 2008.

[2] Al-Watan (Qatar), August 8, 2008.

[3] Al-Thawra (Syria), September 18, 2008.

[4] Al-Thawra (Syria), August 7, 2008.

[5] Al-Watan (Syria), August 7, 2008.

[6] Teshreen (Syria), August 6, 2008.

[7] Al-Ba'th (Syria), August 7, 2008.

[8] Al-Thawra (Syria), August 7, 2008.

[9] Abyadh Wa-Aswad (Syria), August 10, 2008.

[10] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), August 18, 2008.