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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Iranian-Turkish Tensions Escalate Over Syria, Iraq

By Dorian Jones December 09, 2016

Tensions between neighbors Turkey and Iran are on the rise, with the countries jostling for influence in war-torn Syria and Iraq. But there are concerns that the rivalry is fueling sectarian divisions in the region. The tensions could also open the door to cooperation with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.

Officially Ankara says it enjoys good neighborly relations with Tehran. But an escalating war of words in Turkey's pro-government media tells a different story, according to political columnist Semih Idiz of Al Monitor website and Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News.

"It's very telling, that we have what appears to be an intense anti-Iranian campaign in the pro-government Islamist media," Idiz said. "I have been reading commentary by key figures on that side of the fence suggesting Iran as one of Turkey's prime enemies not just rivals in the region, because it's promoting its brand of Islamic, Shia Islam. But I don't actually see a direct confrontation although I do see a confrontation through proxies and in many ways that is already going on."

Humanitarian concerns drive policy

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a devout Sunni Muslim, who derives much of his support from the country's large pious Sunni voting base.

Erdogan is increasingly condemning the actions of Tehran-backed Shite Militias in Iraq. The Turkish President accuses the militias of targeting Sunnis. He also has indirectly accused Tehran of seeking to expand its influence at the expense of Sunni Muslims in the region. But Erdogan's chief of international relations Ayse Sozen Usluer insists humanitarian concerns rather than sectarian ones are driving Turkey's policy.

"We are seeing that after all these militia operations in the region we are seeing some demographic changes," Usluer said. "We are not against Shia militia because they are Shia. But we would like to maintain the demography of the region, Tel Afar, Mosul, Jarabulus, Al Bab, wherever."

"Unholy alliance"

Erdogan has sent tanks to the Iraqi border, warning he would not stand by if Sunnis fall victim to Shite militias in the fight against Islamic State in Mosul and Tel Afar. Some analysts warn Turkey's neighbors will likely view the country as pursuing a sectarian policy that will put it on a collision course with Tehran.

But any rising tensions with Tehran could be the basis for cooperation with newly-elected President Donald Trump. United States and Turkish relations remain deeply strained but with Trump vowing to take a tough line with Iran, columnist Idiz says common ground could be found.

"They could be an unholy alliance of sorts, but Trump going after Iran is really based on Trump's anti-Islamism," Idiz said. "It's not based on any strategic ideological difference and anti-Islamism also splashes on to Turkey also, depending on what Turkey's policies are."

A delicate balance

Ankara could also find common ground with Israel which also is calling a for a tough stance against Tehran.

Israel and Turkey last month restored full diplomatic relations. Turkish Iranian relations are traditionally characterized by a delicate balance of rivalry and cooperation, but analysts warn Ankara could end up paying a heavy price for any confrontation with Tehran, with Iran an adept player in the region in using proxies to destabilize its rivals.

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