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How is the Iranian Media Covering Turkey’s Intervention in Syria’s Afrin?

10 February 2018

Turkey’s military intervention in Afrin, Syria, has triggered debate among experts and columnists in Iran. Some view the intervention as a favorable opportunity for Turkey, Russia and Iran to establish a trilateral axis to counter the United States and its allies, while others warn of the threats posed by the military operation to Iranian interests in Syria. 

Despite a disparity of views and assessments by experts and opinion writers about the operation in Afrin, a majority of opinion articles published in Iran view that severe disagreement between Washington and Ankara over the future of post-ISIS Syria, and Turkey’s recent measures have warned that the “contagion of rivalry” would spread to Turkey’s relations with other international powers involved in Syria, particularly Iran and Russia

This article observes and compares positions and approaches of opinion pieces and analyses published by Iranian newspapers, news agencies and news websites covering the Turkish military operation, Olive Branch in the Syrian city of Afrin.

US and Russian Involvement

Most Iranian opinion pieces blame the United States for being responsible for the offensive in Afrin, after it escalated its support for the Syrian Democratic Forces and failed to reach agreement with forces operating on the ground in Syria about a certain vision for Syria’s future.  Some Kurdish writers have the view that passive positions of international powers on Syria’s Kurds was what encouraged Turkey to launch an attack on Afrin to undermine any plans to establish a Kurdish state. 

Newspapers close to decision-making circles such as Keyhan has put a special emphasis on the need to make efforts to strengthen the alliance of Turkey, Russia and Iran to face United States’ expansion. 

1- US Support to Kurds.  In an article entitled “Turkey’s Concerns over Offensive against Afrin”, published on January 20, 2018 by Iranian newspaper Etemad, Former Iranian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Afshar Soleimani noted that among the reasons behind Turkey’s attack is the rising role of the People's Protection Units (YPG), considered by Turkey as extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). 

In addition, the US escalated its support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). On January 14, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS said that it will build and train a new Syrian 30,000-strong border force. Reasons of this escalation, which came after ISIS was defeated, include a desire to put pressure on Ankara after its rapprochement with Russia and Iran. The US will not be able to defeat Iran before dismantling this alliance. Soleimani believes that the US may have plans for Kurds’ secession from Syria although it recently opposed independence of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

2- US-Turkish Disagreement. In an article entitled “Turkey and Greed for Influence, published in Etemad on January 22, 2018, Mohammad Ali Dastmali, a political expert believes that Ankara launched this offensive because of widening disagreement between the US and Turkey over several issues the most important of which is the future of Syria, and which date back to the Administration of former President Barack Obama. Added to this is that Syria is economically important for Turkey and has become its backyard and area of influence. 

3- Weakening the Syrian State. Iranian writer Mohammad Hussein Mohtaram, in an article entitled “Goals of the US in Northern Syria”, published by Kayhan on January 25, 2018, said that what drove Turkey to carry out the operation in Afrin is the US increasing effort to build a Kurdish state in northern Syria after its attempts failed in Iraqi Kurdistan Region, as well as its continued support to terrorists in this region. 

On the other hand, the US seeks to distract the Syrian regime’s attention to securing its border with Turkey rather than its border with Israel, as part of the policy of continued US support to Israel. In addition, the US wants to control oil and gas resources in this area to prevent the Syrian regime from using revenue in reconstruction. The writer called upon Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran to counter, with support from Russia, the US plans to divide the region using Kurdish groups. 

4- US Support to Israel. In his article entitled “Turkish Operation in Afrin: An Elephant Fight and the Breaking of Grass”, published in Kayhan on January 25, 2018, Iranian writer Mohammad Amin Abadi, said that the US wants to maintain its military presence in Syria to protect Israel. This US role, he noted, may ultimately threaten Turkey’s stability and security. Abadi further stressed the need for Russia to ally itself with Turkey, especially because the interests of both states are almost compatible, and the US’ endeavor to build a federal state in Syria would pose threats to the interests of all states in this region as well as all effective actors in the crisis in Syria. 

Asserting that Turkey alone cannot manage the crisis in northern Syria, the writer called upon Ankara to form an alliance with Iran, Syria and Iraq to solve this crisis. 

5- Russia’s Negative Role. Jalal Jalalizadeh, Iranian-Kurdish politician and a former MP, said that the situation in Afrin was complicated because some domestic and foreign forces, and primarily Russia, abandoned the Kurds. Russia did the same 72 years ago with the emerging Kurdish state of Mahanad, in northeast Iran. In his article entitled “From Mahabad to Afrin”, published in “Mustaqil” on January 25, 2018, Jalalizadeh held Russia responsible for the continued suffering of the Kurds and noted that it abandoned them during Kurdistan’s referendum on independence and the Turkish attack on Afrin. 

Negative Assessment of Repercussions

The Iranian media published negative views on Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch. Some opinion articles warned that the offensive in Afrin may inflict huge losses on the Turkish army due to the mountainous terrain in the area as well as possible retaliatory attacks by the Kurds inside Turkey, leading to a decline in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s popularity ahead of the 2019 presidential elections.

The following are the most important consequences that the Iranian media warned against:

1- Increasing Violations of International Law. Some Kurdish jurists are focused on evaluating the Turkish military operation from a legal perspective. Kurdish journalist, human rights activist and former editor-in-chief of the Kurdish newspaper Asu, Hussein Ahmadi Niyaz, in an article entitled “Afrin and International Law”, said that Turkey’s offensive in Afrin violates the second article of the Charter of the United Nations, because it violates the sovereignty of another state as well as Turkish racism against the Kurds. In the article published in Shargh on January 25, 2018, Niyaz criticized several international organizations for their silence towards what he described as Turkey’s crimes against women and children in Afrin. He concluded the article by expecting that Afrin would become another Kobani against the Turks. 

2- Attrition of Turkish Forces. Iranian Diplomacy website, run by Seyed Mohammad Sadegh, former Iranian ambassador to France and Secretary-General of EDA Party , Kharazi, interviewed former editor-in-chief of Mehr News Agency, Hassan Hanizadeh, on January 23, 2018. 

Hanizadeh noted that Afrin is a trap for the Turkish army which will suffer losses at the hands of the Kurds. He further noted that this long-running conflict between Turkey and Kurds may force the US to take unilateral action on the crisis in Syria, especially because its position on Syria has become more ambiguous since early 2018, which means that Washington’s silence towards Turkey’s actions is only a “strategic trap” aimed at weakening the Turkish forces and drainnig their power. 

Hanizadeh explained the Russian-Turkish deal by saying that Russia has concerns about US cooperation with the Kurds, which forces Moscow to allow Turkish forces to enter Afrin. He also expected that the outcome of the battle for Afrin would impact the 2019 presidential elections in Turkey. 

3- Turkey’s and Syria’s Kurds United. In another article published in Arman Newspaper on January 25, stressed that the Turkish army would face security threats following Operation Olive Branch, which may expand into Turkish own territory, especially because the operation can help achieve rapprochement between Turkey’s and Syria’s Kurds. Joint attacks on the Turkish army may be launched under the command of the PKK. Such attacks may reach Turkish cities in the south. But this cooperation does not mean it would be possible to establish a Kurdish state in northern Syria because of opposition from some regional states, such as Iran, which will not allow the Kurds to gain independence but, according to the writer, respects their rights. 

4- Establishing a Kurdish State. Journalist and activist Salahuddin Khadyo, in an article entitled “Time is in Favor of the Kurds”, published on Iranian Diplomacy website, said that Syria’s Kurds, compared with Iraq’s and Iran’s Kurds, have a favorable opportunity to establish their own state. 

The writer said that Russia’s military intervention in September 2015 and convergence between Russia and Iran has pushed the United States to increasingly rely on the Kurds to achieve its goals in Syria, especially because it is not prepared for the possibility of post-ISIS Syria becoming under Russian and Iranian control.  

In addition, other Kurdish-held areas, as well well as Syrian cities such as Raqqa and Manbij, liberated from ISIS, will be administered by international troops that are not enemy to Syria’s Kurds. Therefore, recent developments, including the Afrin attack, may come in favor of the Kurds seeking to have autonomy in their areas. 

Overall, Iranian media, political experts and columnists believe that Operation Olive Branch is likely to represent a turning point in the ongoing war in Syria because it exposes relations between international and regional powers involved in the conflict, as well as the balance of power between factions operating in Syria. It would also have political and security repercussions on security and stability on the Turkey-Syria border and the future of  Kurds in the Middle East.