Region Watch: Mutual adversity, common interests

While Turkey and Iran have found themselves diverging over Syria and elsewhere, they have united against the Kurds in northern Iraq.

September 9, 2011 15:19
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Erdogan 58 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)


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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 carefully.

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.

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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.

The 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 forbidden.

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.

In 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 sources.

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 returned.

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.

Despite 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 gas.

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.

A 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 Hurriyet 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.

Broader 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 common interests.

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