In First Since 1979, NATO Member Turkey Hosts Iran Army Chief

Iran, Turkey, Kurdistan independence, Russia, iranian army chief
Turkish Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar welcomes Iranian Army Chief General Mohammad Baqeri (R) in Ankara during the latter's visit. (Photo: Reuters)

In a sign that NATO’s only Muslim member Turkey is looking to other powers to handle regional matters, Ankara hosted on Tuesday Iranian army chief to discuss Syria and upcoming Kurdish independence referendum.

The visit of Gen. Mohammad Baqeri is the first such a visit since the 1979 Iranian revolution, an event that speaks for itself regarding its meaning for both sides.

“There have been no such visits between the two countries for a long time, but considering regional developments and security issues – border security and the fight against terrorism – there was a need for such a visit,” Gen. Baqeri said in an interview with Iranian state television on Tuesday, as quoted by Reuters.

Mr. Baqeri met with Turkish Army Chief Gen. Hulusi Akar who survived a media blitz and an avalanche of rumors over possible replacement at a critical Supreme Military Council meeting earlier this month.

Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency and other media outlets reported that both generals extensively discussed the Syrian conflict, the Iraqi Kurds’ long-standing drive for independence, as well as the reshaping of political geography in northern Syria with the ascendancy of Kurdish political and military force there. In addition, the top military leaders discussed ways to reconcile or moderate, if not totally resolve, their differences on how to end the Syrian war.

Mr. Baqeri also held a meeting with new Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli.

The visit of Iranian army chief to Ankara was a rare display of consensus between the two nations. Both Iran and Turkey agree on the matter that concerns them the most — the future status of the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq, which is moving closer to a momentous referendum on full-fledged independence.

During his meetings with top civilian and military leaders of Turkey, the Iranian army chief stated unequivocally that Tehran shares Turkey’s point of view on the subject: both nations strongly oppose a new state within Iraq.

Turkey and Iran both have concerns about what may transpire once they have independent Kurdistan at their doorsteps.

Both nations have significant Kurdish populations, with at least 15 million Kurds living in Turkey alone. In addition, both of them have been fighting for decades to quell a resilient insurgency within their respective territories.

Turkey is preoccupied with a perpetual insurgency by Kurdish militants, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in its southeast, while Iran is gripped by an emboldened and resurgent Kurdish militancy in areas adjacent to the Turkish border. PJAK, PKK’s Iranian offshoot, has recently killed dozens of Iranian officers and troops. That item was also on the agenda of the Iranian general during his visit to Turkey.

As Iran wrestles with how to completely snuff out increasing militant activity, it expressed the need for deeper coordination of efforts to curb cross-border pan-Kurdish guerilla cooperation.

If divergent policies and competing agendas, including in Syria, make Turkey and Iran rivals, the Kurdish issue in Iraq unites them more than anything else.

This political context shaped Mr. Baqeri’s three-day visit to Turkey, a unique event, given the turbulent relationship between the two nations animated by the need for cooperation and endless regional rivalry.

There was a slight downside to the Iranian general’s visit as well: Turkey is building a 144-kilometer-long wall to quash any cross-border militant activity. Though the construction plan was initially welcomed by Tehran, the Iranian government still wants Turkey to notify it before any unilateral decisions.

After Gen. Baqeri’s official trip, Russian military chief Valery Gerasimov will also visit Turkey to meet with the country’s military leadership to discuss cooperation in Syria. The exact date of his trip remains unclear.

Turkey, Iran, and Russia have recently agreed to build “de-escalation zones” in Syria.

The series of visits by military leaders point to a growing momentum for taking joint action and putting the plan into practice by policing some areas in Syria, including Idlib, a province that emerged as a new flash point after rebel infighting. It has fallen into hands of a former al-Qaeda affiliate.