Erdogan 58 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is currently bidding to emerge as the
dominant power in the Middle East, and Erdogan is playing his hand
The rise of Sunni Turkey has brought inevitable friction with
that other non-Arab contender for regional supremacy, the Islamic Republic of
Iran. Syria today forms the central arena for this rivalry. The AKPled Turkish
government’s long cultivation of both the regime and the Sunni Arab opposition
in Syria is currently paying dividends: Turkey appears to have been entrusted by
the West with the key role in organizing the opposition and applying pressure on
the Syrian regime. Iran, meanwhile, is seeking to keep its client in power in
Syria through sheer force.
Southeast of Syria, however, Iran and Turkey
are finding that their interests do not always diverge. Far from the focus of
the news media, both countries have been enthusiastically participating over the
last eight weeks in a bombing campaign against Kurdish organizations based in
northern Iraq. There is currently concern that ground incursions by both
countries into the mountainous border region could be imminent.
Turkish bombings are part of a response to an upsurge in attacks by the PKK
organization on the security forces since the country’s July elections. The
PKK’s activities in turn reflect a widespread feeling of disillusionment on the
part of many Turkish Kurds at what they see as the Erdogan government’s failure
to follow through on promised reforms. Erdogan’s ruling AKP launched its
“Kurdish opening” policy two years ago, which promised greater autonomy and
tolerance for the country’s Kurdish minority.
But Turkish Kurds argue
that little has really changed.
An increased leniency toward
manifestations of Kurdish cultural identity has taken place under the Islamist
AKP. Kurdish language TV broadcasts, for example, are now permitted. But when it
comes to the political expression of a separate Kurdish identity, the law
remains harsh. Any show of support for the PKK can result in a jail sentence of
many years. “Support” can extend even to using a respectful honorific when
referring to the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
Anyone over the
age of 12 caught attending a PKK-sponsored event risks being jailed as a
terrorist. Formal education in the Kurdish language remains
With hopes fading for the possibility of gains through
negotiation, the PKK has in recent weeks gone back on the attack. In the last
month, around 40 members of the Turkish security forces have been killed in
clashes with PKK fighters. An unknown number of PKK members were also killed in
the fighting. This summer has seen the sharpest increase in clashes since the
organization chose to end its unilateral cease-fire in late February.
mid-August, Erdogan said the government’s “patience” had run out, and that all
involved with the PKK would pay the price.
On August 19, the Turkish Air
Force struck at PKK targets in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, killing a
family of seven civilians, including a month-old baby, according to Kurdish
A short cease-fire intervened over the period of Id al-Fitr.
This is now over. The possibility of a large-scale Turkish incursion into the
PKK-controlled mountains across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan has therefore
Since July, meanwhile, the same mountainous area of northern
Iraq has played host to a parallel battle between the forces of the Iranian
Revolutionary Guard and the guerrillas of the PJAK organization (Party for a
Free Life in Kurdistan). PJAK is widely seen as the sister movement of the PKK
among the Kurds of Iran.
In mid-July, the Iranians launched a crossborder
operation against PJAK, which was preceded by prolonged shelling. The
Revolutionary Guard forces had withdrawn by July 31. PKK guerrillas subsequently
reinforced their Iranian Kurdish compatriots along the border.
subsequent Iranian claims that PJAK was on the verge of collapse following the
attacks, the organization carried out a number of operations in August. The most
notable of these was a strike on August 11 at the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline, a
2,576-kilometer conduit that brings natural gas from northwest Iran to the
Turkish capital. Iran is Turkey’s second-largest supplier of natural
BEYOND SHARED aims, shared enemies and similar methods, are Turkey
and Iran actively cooperating in their repression of the Kurds? Clear evidence
exists of Turkish- Iranian intelligence-sharing in this regard.
memorandum between the two countries for security cooperation was signed in
mid-2008. At the time, an Iranian minister was quoted in the Turkish daily
as saying, “The two countries fight against terror and cooperate with
each other, and Iran looks at the PKK and the PJAK as a single terrorist
organization under two different names.” Kurdish sources contend that Turkish
aircraft have used Iranian airspace in the raids of recent weeks.
relations between the two states have also grown closer in recent years. Trade
is booming. Turkey opposed the fourth UN Security Council sanctions resolution
against Iran over its nuclear program. A recent WikiLeaks cable revealed the
extent of US concern regarding the activities of Turkish defense sector
companies in trading with Iran.
The question now is whether in the event
of Turkish and Iranian ground operations into northern Iraq, joint activities
would grow more overt and wider in their dimensions.
If this takes place,
it offers a potential lesson that both Western and Israeli policymakers should
note carefully: The natural competition between anti-Western Shi’ite and
emergent anti-Western Sunni Islamist powers for Middle East domination may not
set them inevitably on a collision course.
The available evidence
suggests that they possess a sufficient degree of sophistication to oppose one
another when necessary, and yet to unite against common enemies when this serves