Turkey strives to reduce tension, restore calm in region amid Iran's retaliation against US

Published 08.01.2020 17:22
Updated 08.01.2020 19:38
Iraqi mourners welcome the body of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the slain chief of Hashd al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary force with close ties to Iran, in the southern city of Basra after it came from Iran on Jan. 7, 2020 ahead on his burial. AFP Photo
Iraqi mourners welcome the body of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the slain chief of Hashd al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary force with close ties to Iran, in the southern city of Basra after it came from Iran on Jan. 7, 2020 ahead on his burial. (AFP Photo)

Ankara is enhancing its diplomatic efforts amid tension peaked by both U.S. and Iranian attacks, aiming to reach common ground for the peace of the region

Turkey aims to reduce tension in the Middle East and bring common sense back to the region, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Wednesday following the escalation of tensions after Iran’s retaliation of targeting U.S. bases in Iraq.

Speaking during the inauguration ceremony of the TurkStream Pipeline with Russia alongside his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Erdoğan said that Turkey has garnered momentum in its diplomatic efforts. He emphasized that the tension between the U.S. and Iran has reached a point that is highly undesirable for Turkey.

“We have been trying to reduce the tension by activating all the diplomatic channels possible in this critical period where the bells signaling war are ringing,” the president said, adding that both he and the country’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu have been engaging in various phone calls since the beginning of the tension.

The escalating tension in the Middle East has gained new momentum as Iran retaliated to the U.S. killing of its top commander last week by launching missile attacks on U.S. military bases in Iraq early Wednesday morning. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said that it targeted the Ain al-Asad airbase in Iraq, a facility jointly operated by the U.S. and Iraqi forces, with "tens of missiles."

"In Operation Martyr Soleimani in the early hours of Wednesday, tens of ground-to-ground missiles were fired at the U.S. base and successfully pounded the Ain al-Asad Base," the IRGC said in an official statement. It said the shelling "is merely the beginning of a series of revenge attacks with no deadline for when it ends."

The initial attacks were followed by a second wave, as Iran's Tasnim News Agency announced later Wednesday that more missile attacks against American forces in Iraq had begun. It was the first time Iran directly targeted a U.S. installation with ballistic missiles. Iranian state television claimed that 80 U.S. soldiers were killed in the strike. "We warn all allied countries of the U.S. that if attacks are launched from bases in their countries on Iran, they will be a target of military retaliation," the statement added.

“In light of the ballistic missile attacks by Iran against coalition military bases in Iraq on Jan. 8, 2020, we believe that exchange of attacks and use of force by any party do not contribute to finding solutions to the complex problems in the Middle East, but rather would lead to a new cycle of instability and would eventually damage everyone’s interests,” said a joint statement released by Turkey and Russia following their meeting.“We have always been against foreign interventions, unilateral military actions and sectarian conflicts. In this vein, we express our commitment to de-escalate the existing tensions in the region and call on all parties to act with restraint as well as commonsense and to prioritize diplomacy,” the statement added.

Ankara works toward war-free Gulf

“As Turkey, we do not want for the Gulf region, where 30% of all of the maritime trade of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon take place, to turn into a war scene,” Erdoğan expressed on the issue.

The president highlighted that as a country that can have talks with both parties, Turkey will strategically continue its diplomacy traffic.

“By combining all the powers we have, we will not able our region to suffer from blood and tears,” he said.

Erdoğan further indicated alongside Turkey's effort, Russia is also involved as a partner who is constantly in dialogue to come up with solutions.

“With the support and contribution of our Russian friends, we hope to overcome this difficult process,” he expressed.

The attack was Iran’s response to the killing of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Friday. Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards' foreign legions, was killed in a U.S. strike on his convoy at Baghdad airport. Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed in the airstrike.

The incident took Washington and its allies, mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel, into uncharted territory in their confrontation with Iran and its proxy militias across the region.

Turkish FM heads to Baghdad

As part of diplomacy that targets easing of tensions, Çavuşoğlu is expected to travel to Baghdad Thursday on a one-day visit "within the context of our intensified diplomatic efforts to alleviate the escalated tension in the aftermath of recent developments in the region," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday.

Touching upon the importance of Iraq and especially the Iraqi Turkmens for Turkey, Erdoğan stated that the security of those people is as important as Turkish citizens themselves.

“All of the Iraqi community, with Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Shiites and Sunnis are our brothers,” he said, adding that Ankara has been working on bringing peace back to the war-torn country while protecting its territorial integrity for the past 30 years.

Remembering the last 20 years of the region as a period full of conflict, Erdoğan said that the whole Middle Eastern community has become exhausted as people are the ones who are suffering from the tutelage wars between various powers.

“The cost of the tutelage wars that have been ongoing between different powers have been paid by millions of our brothers in Iraq and Syria. The archaic cities of Islamic civilization, which have been the areas of peace and wealth for centuries, turned into ruins one by one. And this scene, where the brothers had to fight with one another, only benefited foreign powers,” the president emphasized, indicating that no one has any strength left to pay more costs.

Despite these remarks that highlight the importance of de-escalation in the region, Turkey does not look to become a mediating power in the region. “Turkey is not looking to play the role of mediator in the U.S.-Iran row. Turkey is among a handful of countries that can talk to both the U.S. and Iran – and maybe the most important one," Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın told reporters following a Cabinet meeting in the capital Ankara.

Iran: Attack was mere self-defense

A series of statements followed Iran's retaliatory strikes Wednesday, as various Iranian figures and groups explained the motives behind the attack while warning of further launches in the case of a response from the U.S. IRGC warned on their Telegram channel that if Iranian soil is bombed, they would launch a third wave of attacks to destroy Dubai and Haifa.

The country’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that the missile attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq were "legitimate self-defense," adding that the U.S. assessment of Tehran's missile attacks should not be based on "illusions."

"Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of U.N. Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched," Zarif said on Twitter. "We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression," he added.

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Wednesday that his country's attack was "a slap in the face of the U.S.," and said the military action is still "not enough."

Khamenei made these statements in a televised interview, hours after the Iranian missile attack. He further described the attack on the military bases as "successful," and that "our enemy is the U.S. and the Zionist entity [Israel], and last night we slapped the U.S."

U.S.: All is well

The U.S.’ reaction to the attack, on the other hand, was far from aggressive, unlike the statements from Iran and contrary to expectations from the country.

The first statement came from the Pentagon, confirming the attack.

"At approximately 5:30 pm (2230 GMT) on Jan. 7, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against U.S. military and coalition forces in Iraq," U.S. Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. "It is clear that these missiles were launched from Iran and targeted at least two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. military and coalition personnel at al-Asad and Irbil."

U.S. President Donald Trump said he will be making a statement early Wednesday on the attack.

"All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well-equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning," Trump said on Twitter late Tuesday.

As a response to Trump’s tweets, Iranian state television said that the unusual tone of the U.S. president’s remarks was an attempt to “downplay” the damage caused by Iran’s attacks.

Speaking on the issue once again yesterday, Trump said that no Americans got harmed in the attacks of Iran and only minimal damage took place. He also congratulated American soldiers for their courage while stating that Iran threatens the world with nuclear weapons. The U.S. president also referred to Soleimani as the “number one terrorist” in the world while accusing him with committing “the worst crimes.” He said that Soleimani was planning a new attack so he needed to be stopped while adding that killing Soleimani was a very strong message to the terrorists.

Trump also suggested that a new nuclear deal with Iran should make the world a more peaceful and safe place.

The White House also made a statement, saying that Trump is monitoring the situation closely. After the attack, both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper headed to the White House.

Reports: Jets fly over Baghdad

While statements were flooding in, French Press Agency (AFP) reported early Wednesday that military jets could be seen flying over the Iraqi capital. AFP's correspondents saw jets cutting through the clouds over Baghdad but could not immediately identify the planes.

A total of 22 missiles struck two bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq but there were no Iraqi casualties, the military in Baghdad said Wednesday, without mentioning Iran.

"Between 1:45 a.m. and 2:15 a.m. (2245 GMT and 2315 GMT) Iraq was hit by 22 missiles, 17 on the Ain al-Asad airbase and... five on the city of Irbil," the Iraqi military said.

"There were no victims among the Iraqi forces," it added without mentioning whether or not there were casualties among foreign troops.

Seventeen years after invading Iraq in March 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime, the U.S. currently has a total of nine military bases in the country. Although the U.S. withdrew many of its forces from Iraq in 2011, it strengthened its presence in the country through military bases. Roughly 5,000 U.S. troops have remained deployed in Iraq since the U.S. cobbled a coalition together in 2014 with the stated aim of fighting the terrorist group Daesh.

The U.S. has two military bases in the capital Baghdad, Camp Victory Army Base at Baghdad International Airport and al-Taji Military Base, which has been used for training Iraqi forces. Washington also has two military bases in the western Anbar province, Habbaniyah Air Base and Ain al-Asad Air Base, which were used actively during the anti-Daesh campaign in 2014. U.S. troops also use Balad Air Base in the northern Saladin province, Myyara Military Base in Mosul and the K1 Military Base in Kirkuk. Harir Air Base, which came to the forefront after Trump's decision last year to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, is among the bases where U.S. troops are deployed in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region. Harir is seen as very safe for the U.S. as it is located in an area where the threat of Daesh is less potent than other parts of Iraq. The Harir base is also strategically important given that it is the closest U.S. military base to the Syrian border. Another U.S. military base is located at Irbil Airport.

Europe condemns attack

The international community also released a series of statements, particularly the allies of the U.S., reporting that they did not have any casualties either while condemning the attack.

No Polish troops stationed in Iraq were hurt in the missile attacks, Poland's defense minister said Wednesday.

"None of the Polish soldiers in Iraq were hurt in rocket attacks on the al-Asad and Irbil bases. We are in constant contact with the commander of the Polish military contingent in Iraq," Mariusz Blaszczak wrote on Twitter.

A similar statement came from Norway, which had about 70 soldiers in the base, saying that no Norwegian soldiers were injured or killed in Iran's missile strike.

France, on the other hand, stated that it has no plans to withdraw its 160 soldiers deployed in Iraq, despite the Iranian attacks, while countries like the U.K. and Germany issued condemnations.

"We condemn this attack on Iraqi military bases hosting the coalition – including British – forces," British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said. "We urge Iran not to repeat these reckless and dangerous attacks, and instead to pursue urgent de-escalation."

"The German government strongly condemns this aggression... it is now primarily up to the Iranians to refrain from further escalation," German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer also told broadcaster ARD.

Japan, on the other hand, took a stronger measure in response to the attacks, canceling the Japanese prime minister’s trip to the Middle East. Shinzo Abe was scheduled to pay bilateral visits to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman starting on Saturday, Kyodo reported, citing the rising tensions in the region as the reason for the cancellation.

Canada also issued a travel warning asking its citizens to avoid "non-essential" travel to Iran. The statement from the Canadian government cited the ongoing volatile security situation, the regional threat of "terrorism" and the risk of arbitrary detention.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg Wednesday condemned Iranian rocket attacks on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops, carried out in revenge for the killing of one of Tehran's top commanders in an American drone strike.

"I condemn the Iranian missile attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. NATO calls on Iran to refrain from further violence," Stoltenberg tweeted.

A NATO official said that there were no casualties among the troops on its training mission in Iraq.

Airlines avoid Iraq, Iran airspace

Meanwhile, following the attacks, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, said it would ban American carriers from flying in airspace over Iraq, Iran, the Gulf of Oman and the waters between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Russia's Federal Air Transport Agency, known as Rosaviation, also on Wednesday recommended the country's airlines suspend flights over Iran, Iraq, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. It insisted that carriers avoid both direct and transit flights in the area, citing "safety risks."

"In connection with information about safety risks to international civil air traffic, Rosaviation recommends not to use the airspace over the territories of Iran, Iraq, the Persian and Gulf of Oman for flights of civil aircraft of the Russian Federation, including transit flights, until further notice," the agency said.

Airlines and transport authorities in Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and India also expressed that they are avoiding air space over Iran and Iraq.

Lufthansa, on the other hand, said that it is impossible to say anything about the operational impact of bypassing Iraq, Iran.

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