Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Türkiye, Iran, Israel and the Theory of Vital Space

Türkiye, Iran, and Israel normalized attacking neighboring territories, driven by the pursuit of regional hegemony known as the “Vital Space.”

Theory of Vital Space
A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke rising over buildings in Khan Yunis following Israeli bombardment. SAID KHATIB / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

The start of 2024 witnessed an unprecedented escalation in the scope of geopolitical conflicts and tensions within the Middle East region.

The most significant and impactful conflicts among these were the Israeli army’s assault on the Gaza Strip and its clashes with Hezbollah along Lebanon’s southern border, in addition to the Houthi naval operations in the Red Sea and American and British raids on Houthi positions in Yemen.

Preemptive Operations and Cross-Border Strikes

Tensions in the region have extended beyond these direct conflicts, encompassing not only traditional military confrontations but also an escalation of pre-emptive operations and cross-border strikes.

Türkiye, Iran and Israel, in particular, normalized the practice of conducting bombings beyond their borders, extending far from the primary battlefronts and disregarding the principle of sovereignty in other nations.

Iran’s actions in January 2024 included multiple strikes on sites in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Pakistani province of Balochistan and the Syrian city of Idlib. Concurrently, Türkiye broadened its targeting of Kurdish areas in northern Syria and Iraq during the same period, sparking a series of responses and counter-responses between the Turkish army and Kurdish militias.

Meanwhile, Israel persisted in its raids on Syria, either assassinating leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in civilian neighborhoods or destroying military sites, even as the Syrian regime isolated its southern border with Israel from the broader regional tensions.

A common thread in these events is the pursuit of security and military dominance at the regional level by these three countries, which are seeking to eliminate perceived strategic risks that may threaten their future interests.

Consequently, nations like Iraq and Syria have become battlegrounds for settling mutual scores between these countries, regardless of the will or interests of the local populations.

This external military intervention adds a layer of complexity to the already intricate problems facing Syria and Iraq, exacerbating issues related to militia control and the disintegration of state apparatuses.

Regional Hegemony and the Doctrine of Vital Space

Before delving into the objectives of Iran, Türkiye, and Israel in these actions, it is crucial to highlight that the pursuit of regional hegemony beyond internationally recognized borders, driven by strategic interests or considerations, aligns with the concept known as the doctrine of a state’s “Vital Space.”

Throughout history, this doctrine has consistently justified aggressive interventions that can only be rationalized by a country’s ability to achieve its goals at the expense of its neighbors, employing military force or economic coercion.

The term Vital Space first emerged in the 19th century in the book “Political Geography,” authored by the German geographer and geopolitician Friedrich Ratzel. At that time, Ratzel conceptualized the state as a living spatial entity whose destiny and future were intrinsically tied to control over the terrestrial sphere.

For a state to thrive and expand, it must “expand this field” to safeguard its growing interests. Without such expansion, the state’s interests and growth become jeopardized, risking its survival. Ratzel developed the idea of Vital Space based on this premise, emphasizing that the state should protect and actively seek to expand its Vital Space concurrently with the growth of its influence and interests.

As the concept of the modern state evolved, clear and recognized borders became the norm, preventing states from expanding territorially as Ratzel envisioned in “Political Geography.”

Nevertheless, the principle persists as a concept employed by ambitious regimes to impose their hegemony beyond official borders, disregarding the sovereignty of neighboring countries and the right of other peoples to self-determination. When territorial expansion is unfeasible, the concept of “Vital Space” can rationalize the expansion of military or economic dominance, or even the imposition of political systems on neighboring countries.

Over time, “Vital Space” transformed into a central doctrine adopted by Nazi Germany, motivating it to pursue the idea of moving and expanding borders. Subsequently, this concept became a determinant of Russian foreign policy under Vladimir Putin, leading to the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as earlier interventions in the Crimean Peninsula and Georgia.

Throughout the past century, the United States employed this concept to justify imposing a blockade on Cuba, attempting to overthrow its regime, or supporting the military coup in Chile against elected President Salvador Allende. The Soviet Union similarly invoked this principle to invade Hungary and overthrow its regime following the Hungarian Revolution or “Budapest Spring” in 1956.

Today, Iran, Türkiye and Israel perpetuate a legacy drawn from the darkest periods of history. However, they now have the ability to amplify this dominance, capitalizing on the upheaval in the Middle East that disrupts its delicate balances. Additionally, they exploit the weakened states of countries like Syria and Iraq, creating opportunities for military interventions of this nature.

Rationale for Cross-Border Operations

Iran’s justification for bombing Iraqi Kurdistan was based on the alleged presence of Israeli Mossad cells in the targeted house. The operation was framed as a response to Israel’s assassination of leaders from the Revolutionary Guard and the “axis of resistance.”

However, the Iraqi government, largely formed from the Shiite Coordination Framework coalition close to Tehran, rejected these claims. They considered the Iranian targeting as “an aggressive act undermining the strong relationship between Iraq and Iran.”

This move put Iran at odds with its Iraqi Shiite allies, as it was challenging to justify attacks on an Iraqi civilian home, resulting in the death of Iraqi civilians, with no Israeli casualties. Convincing the Iraqi public of the legitimacy of the operation or the truthfulness of Iran’s claims regarding Mossad cells proved to be challenging.

If the issue indeed involved Israeli intelligence activity, Iran could have collaborated with its Iraqi allies in the Popular Mobilization Forces to apprehend the alleged cell.

Many observers believed that the true objective of the Iranian operation was not to eliminate a Mossad cell but rather to salvage its reputation and exhibit strength to the Iranian public. This was seen as a response to Israel’s assassination of Brigadier General Radhi Mousavi, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, in Damascus.

Despite declaring revenge for Mousavi’s killing, the IRGC refrained from targeting actual Israeli assets or engaging in direct confrontation with Israel.

As for the Iranian attacks on the Syrian city of Idlib, the Iranian regime linked them to the bombing of the city of Kerman in Iran. This bombing impacted the ceremony commemorating the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard.

However, public opinion was skeptical of the Iranian narrative. Footage circulated showing Iranian missiles targeting Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the Kurdistan Party, not ISIS, responsible for the Kerman bombing. Some viewed the targeting of Idlib as an attempt to restore the Iranian regime’s prestige after the setback in the Kerman bombing.

On the other hand, Iran’s targeting of the Pakistani province of Balochistan appears to have distinct objectives and outcomes. The rebel factions of the Army of Justice, active in this region since 2000, have been engaged in a rebellion against the Iranian government, originating from Pakistani territory. Their mission is to restore the rights of Sunnis in southeastern Iran.

It is evident that these attacks aimed to convey a message to the Pakistani government, exerting pressure to rein in the Army of Justice’s activities on its soil.

Simultaneously, Israel is working to curtail the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s influence in Syria by eliminating its senior commanders based in Damascus, even if they are not presently mobilizing against Israel on the Golan Front. At a strategic level, Israel perceives the Iranian presence in Syria as a looming threat, akin to Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon.

Similarly, Türkiye seeks to tighten its grip on the Syrian Democratic Forces, viewing them as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The Turkish government is also making efforts to neutralize what it describes as branches of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Iraq through repeated military incursions.

From Türkiye’s perspective, the activities of these Kurdish militias could potentially fuel Kurdish separatist aspirations within its borders, as previously expressed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

In essence, Israel, Türkiye and Iran are pursuing vastly different objectives through swift and targeted attacks on neighboring territories. The pressing concern is that such strikes have become a regular occurrence in the regional landscape, as if these nations now assert an acquired right to intervene militarily in neighboring countries.

Meanwhile, the League of Arab States, the primary regional organization to which Iraq and Syria belong, remains unable to intervene effectively, limiting its role to issuing statements condemning the violation of Arab countries’ sovereignty.

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