KEY POINTS

  • Turkey has called for restraint and diplomatic solutions to the crisis
  • Turkey and Iran have long had fraught relations
  • Donald Trump views Turkey as a key ally in Middle East

Turkish officials have warned the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani may trigger new conflicts in the region.

During the weekend Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with both Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and Iraqi President Barham Salih to offer his condolences and to urge peace through diplomatic means.

Erdogan reportedly told Salih Turkey would “not allow Iraq to become a field of regional and international conflicts.”

However, there was some confusion over the content of Erdogan’s chat with Rouhani. The Iranian Embassy in Turkey tweeted that Erdogan described Soleimani as a “martyr” in his phone conversation with Rouhani. But a Turkish official told TRT World, a Turkish state international news channel, that Erdogan “offered condolences to Rouhani over military commander Qassem Soleimani's assassination due to his official post and did not use ‘martyr' to describe him.”

In Islam, the term “martyr” denotes a mark of honor for a Muslim who has sacrificed his life for his faith.

Separately, Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Erdogan, tweeted: “Turkey calls on all sides to act with common sense. We will continue to utilize all opportunities of diplomacy for regional and global peace.”

The Turkish foreign ministry stated on Friday: “We are deeply concerned about the escalating U.S.-Iran tensions in the region. The U.S. air strike will obviously increase the insecurity and the instability in the region. We emphasize strongly once again that turning Iraq into conflict zone will hurt peace and stability.”

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, better known as CHP, said Soleimani’s death will trigger far bigger problems in the Middle East.

“What we expect from Erdogan is to embrace a more cautious attitude in Middle East policies, to keep Turkey away from the Middle East fire,” he said.

CHP already has condemned Erdogan for sending Turkish troops to Libya to stem their civil war in the prior week.

“We don’t know what the reaction of Iran would be, but they say they will take revenge. The Middle East needs a climate where rationality and wisdom should prevail, not weapons,” Kilicdaroglu said. “The Middle East has become a battlefield of proxy wars in the last 10 years. This does not only affect Turkey but the entire region. All the region pay big prices. I wish that common sense will prevail in both Iran and the U.S.”

“Turkey has always stood against foreign interventions, assassinations and sectarian conflicts in the region. We are calling on all sides to act with common sense and restraint, to avoid unilateral steps that would endanger peace and stability in our region, and to prioritize diplomacy,” said Fatih Yildiz, the Turkish ambassador to Iraq.

But Samil Tayyar, a former member of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, noted Turkey “has prevented many U.S. operations against Iran, which it always supported. But Iran has never been sincere toward Turkey. [Iran] left [Turkey] alone when in need, and in many cases chose the opposite side [of Turkey].”

Indeed, Turkey and Iran are hardly the best of neighbors.

Hasan Basri Yalcin, a columnist of Turkey’s Sabah daily newspaper, cautioned that Iran and Turkey have never been close and that the two countries have engaged in a covert war for the past seven years. He even defended the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani.

“This was a deterrence operation,” Yalcin said. “Throughout history, Iran has never been our friend. If there are those who do not understand, let me explain. We have been in a covert war with Iran for the past seven years.”

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump, who ordered the strike to kill Soleimani, has sought to persuade Turkey to support its offensive.

On Saturday, the Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers, Mevlut Cavusoglu and Javad Zarif, spoke over the phone about the Soleimani operation. Cavusoglu spoke to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, who also spoke to Zarif.

"Lavrov expressed his condolences over the killing," read the statement from Russia’s foreign ministry. "The ministers stressed that such actions by the United States grossly violate the norms of international law."

Ertugrul Ozkok, a columnist for Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper, noted how the U.S.-Iran imbroglio presents a complex quandary for Ankara because of all the conflicting alliances involved.

“In Syria, Assad is our enemy, but Russia is Assad’s friend and ally, and Iran is Russia’s ally,” Ozkok said. As such, he concluded, Turkey, which is developing closer ties with Moscow, should support Iran.

However, the United States is Turkey’s NATO ally and reportedly Trump and Erdogan spoke on the phone the night before the airstrike in Baghdad.

In addition, Soleimani fought and largely defeated ISIS, an organization that both Ankara and Washington have vowed to destroy.

“Wouldn’t it have been much better if [Turkey] from the very start sided with no one in [this] uncanny Arab geography,” Ozkok pondered.

Ironically, just before Soleimani’s death, Turkey and Iran, despite their icy relations, signed an unusual deal to strengthen their cultural and religious ties – despite the fact that Turkey is a Sunni Muslim state while Iran adheres to Shiite Islam.

The new deal, spearheaded by Abouzar Ebrahimi Torkaman, the head of Iran’s Islamic Culture and Communication Organization, and Ali Erbas, the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, provides for, among other things, the translation of theological books, the creation of activities “to strengthen the unity of Ummah [the global Muslim community],” publications to fight Islamophobia in the west, and the exchange of religious texts.

“We mobilize all our resources to combat the agitation that is targeting Muslims, and the measures that are taken by some Muslim countries in the region, which regrettably compromise Muslims’ esteem and pride,” Erbas said.

Seth J. Frantzman, executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, commented that the deal focuses on Turkey and Iran’s economic cooperation and their mutual interests in Syria.

“It also comes in the wake of a meeting in Malaysia where both Iran and Turkey expressed interest in a new ‘gold dinar’ currency,” he said. “There is a growing consensus that Turkey and Iran have much in common in the region and globally.”

Frantzman added the agreement underscores how the Shiite-Sunni conflict is partly a myth and often superseded by political expediencies.