Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has responded to Turkey’s recent attack on the Kurds, hinting that the president should consider ending the country’s invasion of Syria — without mentioning him or even the country by name.
On October 15, Zarif went on to Twitter to gently urge Turkey to end its operation in Syria and address its concerns through the 1998 Adana agreement. Under the agreement, Syria conceded not to help the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), viewed as a terrorist group by Turkey, in any way, whether it be financial or militarily, and to prevent the PKK from mounting operations against Turkey from Syrian soil.
Without naming Turkey directly, Zarif wrote: “it is essential that the core principles of JUS IN BELLO [the laws governing the conduct of parties to a war] are fully observed: distinction between civilians and combatant, & prohibition on inflicting unnecessary suffering.”
Turkey says that its massive military operations in northeastern Syria are meant to “cleanse” the area of PKK supporters. But these operations have already inflicted death and damage on civilians. In one instance, Turkish attacks enabled some imprisoned members of the Islamic State (ISIS) to escape from the camp where they had been held by Kurdish forces.
Three points about Zarif’s tweet merit attention.
The first is his conciliatory tone in addressing Turkey — so much so that even the name of the country does not appear in the tweet. With the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011, relations between Iran and Turkey deteriorated sharply because of Iran’s support for President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey’s opposition to his continued rule. But relations have improved in the last few years and both countries are now saying that they are working to find a way to bring back tranquility and order to Syria after its devastating civil war.
In mid-September, President Rouhani, as a guest of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met with him and the Russian president Vladimir Putin in Ankara to discuss Syria. Erdogan described the meeting as “productive.” So now the Islamic Republic is being very careful to prevent relations with Turkey from becoming tense again. But, at the same time, it is implicitly announcing its disapproval of Turkey’s invasion of Syria as an act of aggression.
Secondly, it is significant that Zarif suggested that Turkey should rely on the Adana agreement to address its problems with Syria. But, as it happens, Turkey is doing exactly what is allowed under the Adana agreement. In return for recognizing the government of President Assad, the agreement allowed Turkey to conduct military operations against the PKK up to five kilometers inside Syrian soil. In fact, on October 10, President Erdogan claimed the agreement gives Turkey the right to attack Kurdish forces in Syria if they pose a threat.
The third key point is that the tweet is Zarif’s indirect appeal to Turkey to observe human rights while carrying out its military invasion of Syria, and to avoid targeting civilians. But the fact is that Turkey has used military force to attack Syria, has targeted civilians and has signaled its intentions by using the term “cleansing,” which can be interpreted as a culmination of the “genocide” of Kurds. And the escape of ISIS prisoners can pose new threats to Syria, Iraq, Iran and, of course, Turkey itself, undoing some of Iran’s achievements in the fight against ISIS.
Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic of Iran, President Assad’s biggest supporter, prefers to treat Turkey with kid gloves in order to prevent a downturn in relations, and despite its devastating invasion of Syria.