Anti-Syrian soccer protests in Iran position Azeris as potential pawn in Syrian strife

Sta­di­ums in the north­west­ern city of Tabriz, cap­i­tal of Iran’s pre­dom­i­nant­ly Azeri minor­i­ty, have emerged as a plat­form for protest against Iran­ian gov­ern­ment poli­cies and demands for greater rights for the country’s Tur­kic minority. 

In the lat­est protest, sup­port­ers of Tabriz’s Trak­tor­sazi Tabriz Foot­ball club, a flash­point of East Azer­bai­jan Provinces’s iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics owned by state-run Iran Trac­tor Man­u­fac­tur­ing Com­pa­ny (ITMCO), unfurled Azeri nation­al­ist ban­ners and burnt images of Syr­i­an Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad in Sahand Sta­di­um dur­ing a Pro League match against Mes of Sarcheshmeh. 

The embat­tled Syr­i­an leader is Iran’s clos­est ally in the Arab world and along­side Rus­sia his most impor­tant sup­port­er despite Iran­ian and Russ­ian calls on Mr. Assad to find a nego­ti­at­ed solu­tion to his country’s eight-month old cri­sis. Pro­test­ers have dis­played remark­able per­se­ver­ance with almost dai­ly protests against Mr. Assad’s regime in the face of a bru­tal mil­i­tary crack­down that has so far killed some 5,000 peo­ple accord­ing to Unit­ed Nations esti­mates and wound­ed thou­sands more.

The anti-Syr­i­an protest fol­lowed nation­al­ist and envi­ron­men­tal demon­stra­tions in recent months in Tabriz’s Bagh Shomal and Yade­gar-e-Emam sta­di­ums that have raised the spec­tre of eth­nic strife in the Islam­ic repub­lic and make the Azeris a poten­tial pawn in any esca­la­tion of ten­sion between Turkey, Iran and Syria. 

Turkey has repeat­ed­ly hint­ed at inter­ven­ing in Syr­ia but has so far shown no real appetite to do so in part due to con­cern that a post-Assad Syr­ia would descend into even greater chaos because of the lack of uni­ty among the president’s oppo­nents and fears that esca­lat­ed con­flict could send hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugee across its bor­der in a replay of a decade ago, when some 500,000 Kur­dish refugees from Iraq’s Sad­dam Hus­sein fled to Turkey in the after­math of the Gulf War. 

Under­ly­ing Turk­ish con­cerns is the fact that the Syr­i­an oppo­si­tion has so far also not been able to bridge the country’s mul­ti­ple sec­tar­i­an fault lines and that increased sec­tar­i­an strife could spill over into Turkey, where Kurds con­sti­tute an esti­mat­ed 20 per­cent and Ale­vis, a Shi­ite Mus­lim sect, anoth­er 20 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. Insur­gents of the Kur­dish Work­ers Par­ty (PKK), which waged a 16-year long war against Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s have stepped up attacks on Turk­ish tar­gets in recent months. 

Turk­ish offi­cials believe the PKK enjoys Syr­i­an and some degree of Iran­ian sup­port. They note that stri­dent Turk­ish crit­i­cism of Mr. Assad and demands by Turk­ish lead­ers, includ­ing Pres­i­dent Abdul­lah Gul and Prime Min­is­ter Recep Tayyip Erdo­gan, that he step down as well as tac­it Turk­ish sup­port for the Free Syr­i­an Army (FSA) have prompt­ed Syr­ia and Iran to halt their coop­er­a­tion with Turkey aimed at curb­ing Kur­dish mil­i­tants. The FSA made up of pri­mar­i­ly low lev­el defec­tors from the Syr­i­an mil­i­tary have attacked Syr­i­an tar­gets in what they say is a cam­paign to pro­tect the Syr­i­an protesters. 

The Azeris would be Turkey’s card in any esca­la­tion that would spark a tit-for-tat proxy war between Turkey, Syr­ia and Iran. The soc­cer protests in Tabriz sig­nal a rise in Azeri nation­al­ist sen­ti­ment and sug­gest that Turkey could retal­i­ate against Iran­ian sup­port of the PKK by fuel­ing that sen­ti­ment in East­ern Azer­bai­jan which bor­ders on the for­mer Sovi­et Tur­kic repub­lic of Azer­bai­jan, a close Turk­ish ally. 

Sup­port­ers of Trak­tor­sazi wore shirts with the Turk­ish and Azer­bai­jan flags and raised the Azer­bai­jani flag dur­ing their club’s match in Novem­ber against Fajr‑e Sep­a­si of Shi­raz, accord­ing to Iran­ian Azeri nation­al­ists and var­i­ous Iran­ian blogs. 

“The main (Iran­ian con­cern) is that the idea of Turk­ism is strength­en­ing in South Azer­bai­jan,” News.Az, a pro-Azeri news web­site, quot­ed Saf­tar Rahim­li, a mem­ber of the board of the World Azerbaijani’s Con­gress, last month as say­ing. Mr. Rahim­li was refer­ring to East­ern Azer­bai­jan by its nation­al­ist Azeri name. A con­ser­v­a­tive, pro-Iran­ian web­site, Raja News, accused the soc­cer fans of employ­ing “sep­a­ratist sym­bols,” shout­ing sep­a­ratist slo­gans and of pro­mot­ing “pan-Turk­ish” and “deviant objec­tives dur­ing the match. 

Last month’s protests fol­lowed sim­i­lar demon­stra­tions in Sep­tem­ber and Octo­ber sparked by a refusal by the Iran­ian par­lia­ment to fund efforts to save the envi­ron­men­tal­ly endan­gered Lake Orumiyeh. 

Anti-gov­ern­ment protests also erupt­ed in Tehran’s Aza­di Sta­di­um dur­ing last month’s 2014 World Cup qual­i­fi­er against Bahrain and at a cer­e­mo­ny in May to com­mem­o­rate that late Nass­er Hejazi, an inter­na­tion­al­ly acclaimed Iran­ian defend­er and out­spo­ken crit­ic of Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ahmadinejad. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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