by Reza Akhlaghi
With the latest advances of ISIS (Islamic State) forces against the Syrian border town of Kobane and their push in Iraq further south toward Baghdad, Turkish and Iranian interests will bear the brunt of Islamic State’s destructive practices. ISIS’s territorial advances and its violent ideology will continue to negatively impact the strategic interests of Iran and Turkey by diminishing their ability to project power and putting a break on their economic ambitions.
For Iran, the rise of ISIS comes at a critical juncture in its relations with the West as Iran tries to extricate itself from years of economic stagnation caused by harsh Western-led international sanctions and gross mismanagement, and revive the lifeblood of its economy: its energy sector. However ambitious and lofty, one of ISIS’s stated goals is to inflict pain on the Iranian economy including the country’s nuclear infrastructure.
As for Turkey, ISIS, as a quasi-state actor in Turkey’s backyard, poses the threat of internal instability through the radical group’s supporters in Turkey that have yet to be identified and contained by Turkish security and intelligence forces. Terrorist attacks by ISIS inside Turkey could drive millions of cash-generating tourists from the country and scare off foreign investors.
As the predicament of the Kurds in Syria and northern Iraq demonstrates, ISIS has fueled Kurdish aspirations for statehood in Syria and Iraq. Their aspirations have been reinforced by what is perceived to be a sense of nonchalance on the part of international community, which could have long-term implications for Turkish territorial integrity. The more Turkey pressures the Kurds for concessions against autonomy and statehood as a precondition to act against ISIS, the more Kurdish resentment and distrust of the Turkish state.
Turkey also views ISIS as a geopolitical factor that has strengthened Assad and his reign of terror against the Syrian people opposed to his rule. The Turkish leadership remains adamant that the regime of Bashar al-Assad be ousted and Ankara has demanded from the U.S.-led coalition that ISIS and Assad be dealt with militarily in a concurrent fashion so that a new political order could emerge in Syria. The latter remains a litmus test for Ankara’s trust in the Obama administration.
Determined to gain support for its drive to unseat Assad from power, the administration of President Erdogan could reach out to America’s Arab allies in the anti-ISIS coalition to apply further pressure on Washington by trying to convince the Sunni Arab states that their current air campaign against ISIS in Syria is serving Iran’s strategic interests and that the campaign should include targeting Assad and his regime.
On the other hand, the Iranian leadership increasingly views ISIS as a drain on Tehran’s resources to project power in the region and a potential inspiration for Iran’s disgruntled Sunni community that could recourse to ISIS-inspired violence and threaten domestic stability. Should ISIS’s march toward the Shia hinterland continue apace–given the ineptitude of the Iraqi armed forces–Iran would have no choice but to engage more deeply in Iraq to protect its vital interests as well as Iraq’s holy Shia sites that are highly revered by their followers.
At some point Iran and Turkey could eventually find themselves compelled to develop a comprehensive strategy against ISIS as the U.S.Arab-led air campaign–most recently joined by Australian and Jordanian air forces–has proved largely ineffective and the introduction of ground forces in the form of an international force remains a taboo. But do not expect Iran and Turkey to join forces anytime soon to degrade or defeat ISIS as Tehran’s and Ankara’s interests diverge sharply when it comes to the challenge of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the Kurdish issue in these two countries.