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Turkey and Iran Go East. Will They Meet There?

It may not be a wise idea to dismiss the possibility of major regional realignment in the Middle East.

Just few days ago, on November 20, Turkey’s President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan hinted that Ankara may indeed go few additional steps east. We know that the idea of opening new grounds in cooperation between some Arab countries and both Russia and China is being seriously debated.  

“Turkey should first of all feel relaxed about the EU and not be fixated. Some may criticize me but I express my opinion. For example, I have said ‘why shouldn’t Turkey be in the Shanghai 5?” about joining it, Erdoğan told reporters on the presidential plane returning from Uzbekistan.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), also known as the “Shanghai 5,” is a loose security and economic bloc led by Russia and China. The other formal members are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Erdoğan said he had already discussed the idea with President Vladimir Putin and with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. “The SCO was established by five members, but then countries such as Uzbekistan, Pakistan and India also got involved. Iran wants to be involved and Mr. Putin said ‘we are evaluating the situation.’ Turkey being a part of the Shanghai 5 will allow it to act more freely in its EU bid”, Erdoğan added.

However, the fact that Erdogan seems to be toying with the idea of joining the SCO finds some opposition in Turkey. Aiming to become a member of the Shanghai Pact, whose members are countries where “one-man rule” is predominant, will only cause more problems for Turkey’s foreign policy, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) lawmaker Ozturk Yılmaz has said. “First of all, in the Shanghai Pact there is no common operative hierarchy similar to NATO. There is no structured strong army establishment. There is a group that is formed on the axis of fighting terror. Secondly, it is not a group similar to the EU at all,” said Yılmaz, stressing that it was formed to fight against ethnic-religious radicalism and extremism.

Turkey’s bitterness towards the EU is reaching unprecedented levels. Yet, it is not the only force pushing it east. The Turkish complaints of the US policy in Syria and Iraq plays an important role in Ankara’s quest to open new horizon in the east.

At the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s annual session in Istanbul November 22, Erdogan asked the audience if they are willing to support what he called “our common fight against terrorism”. “Likewise, we expect your support for the struggle we are giving against all terrorist organizations, first and foremost Daesh and the PKK, that act jointly against humanity’s common values,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while also referring to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).

Erdogan accused the US of supporting the YPG, a group affiliated with the PKK, in Syria. The YPG represents the backbone of Syria’s Democratic Forces (SDF) which fought relentlessly against ISIL in the last few months. The SDF defeated ISIL and captured Minbij , a town considered strategically important by Turkish security officials. Ankara supports a different group-the Euphrates Shield (ES)- which is now besieging ISIL’s strong hold in Al Bab.

The SDF is backed by the US. Ankara says it obtained a promise from the US officials that the SDF will withdraw from Manbij “soon”.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has stressed that Ankara expects the fulfillment of the withdrawal of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) from Manbij, as recently reiterated by the United States.
“In every meeting, they say they are behind this agreement and will do what is necessary. We are still waiting for this. The YPG will withdraw, one way or another,” Yildirim said.

On Nov. 16, both the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, Brett McGurk, and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the PYD, said they will withdraw from northern Syrian town of Manbij toward the east of the Euphrates River, as Turkey has long demanded, after their duty in the area is finalized. 

However, Erdogan seems to be running out of patience. “We have now reached al-Bab; we have also encircled and besieged al-Bab from the west. This is not enough. From there we will also head to Manbij”, he said. “Why are we going to go to Manbij? Not because we are keen on it. There are YPG in Manbij. They should also leave Manbij and go further to the east”, Erdoğan added.

In other words, Turkish supported forces (the ES) will openly fight US supported forces (the SDF). It is abundantly clear that the general Middle East crisis has caused a major deterioration in Turkey’s relations with the West, hence raised the option of an Eastern alternative in Ankara.

Another regional power-Iran- is going east as well just in the moment when the Obama administration expected it to end hostility with the West after signing the nuclear deal.

Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehgan and his Chinese counterpart, Chang Wanquan, signed an agreement on November 14 pledging closer military cooperation in a number of areas including military training and counterterrorism operations. Both sides also pledged to hold joint military exercises in the near future. The Chinese defense minister expressed confidence that Iran-China defense ties will be strengthened in the years ahead.

Tehran expressed its willingness to further strengthen its ties with Chiba. “The upgrading of relations and long-term defense-military cooperation with China is one of the main priorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s defense diplomacy. We assess the visit of the Chinese defense minister in line with Iran’s defense diplomacy”, Iran’s defense minister said.

Turkey and Iran, in their parallel moves east, may very well meet somewhere there. Moscow might be able to set the appointment place and date.

The world is indeed changing.

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