Iran and Turkey pressure Kurdish groups on different fronts

TURKEY AND Iran had rocky relations up until 2017, when they began to work more closely with Russia under the Astana peace process on Syria.

July 22, 2018 22:40
4 minute read.
kurds syria

A KURDISH People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighter walks near residents who had fled Tel Abyad, as they reenter Syria from Turkey . (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Eleven Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basij militia members were killed and eight were wounded in the Iranian border town of Marivan on Friday. Iranian and Turkish media highlighted the incident, with Iran blaming “PJAK terrorists” and Turkey’s TRT blaming “militants” for the killing. Turkish media noted that the PJAK, or Kurdistan Free Life Party, has been involved in recent deadly attacks on Iranian security forces and claimed it is aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Ankara is at war with.

As TRT notes, Both Ankara and Tehran are taking the incident seriously, but for different reasons. Turkey wants to highlight that “there is little coordination between Iranian and Iraqi forces over security of the porous border that has also been used by Daesh [ISIS] to enter Iran.” Meanwhile, Iran is talking about conflict with the US, but its admission that Kurdish fighters were able to take down 11 IRGC members shows that it is concerned about a bubbling insurgency on the border. In recent months, as protests swept Iran and Tehran prepares to weather new Washington sanctions, Kurdish groups have stepped up their campaign. These groups include the PJAK and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI).

Since August 2017, Turkey has said that Tehran and Ankara would launch a joint campaign against the PKK. A cease-fire with the PKK broke down in 2015, and Turkey has been fighting the group in eastern Turkey as well as in Iraq and in Syria. In August 2017, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Iranian Chief of General Staff Mohammad Baqeri. In June 2017, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had also advocated cooperation, but said Tehran was in “de-escalation” with the PJAK.

TURKEY AND Iran had rocky relations up until 2017, when they began to work more closely with Russia under the Astana peace process on Syria. Erdogan met Iranian President Rouhani and Putin several times. The two countries diverged greatly on Syria though, with Turkey condemning Iran’s role in supporting the Syrian regime’s eastern Ghouta campaign this year, and Iran condemning Ankara’s operation in the mostly Kurdish region of Afrin in Syria. But Turkey and Iran shared concerns over the Kurdistan Regional Government’s referendum in September 2017 in Iraq. The rise of Kurdish power between 2015 and 2017 brought together Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey on some issues.

In Turkey’s view, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria are part of the PKK, and Ankara has labeled them terrorists. Yet Ankara has watched as the YPG became a partner of the US in Syria and helped form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which liberated Raqqa from ISIS. The Turkish-backed invasion of Afrin was a way to reduce the YPG’s power. Then Ankara set its sights on Manbij in northern Syria, an area the SDF liberated from ISIS in 2016, encouraging the US to create joint patrols with Turkey. The Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency reported on July 20 that the US would provide Ankara with new information on “operatives of the terrorist PKK, their locations and what they are doing.” In addition, Turkish media have claimed that after Manbij, Turkey and the US will remove the YPG from “other Syria regions.”

A unique set of circumstances enabled different Kurdish groups – primarily the YPG in Syria and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq – to grow in power in the last few years. The KDP held the presidency of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and not only helped defeat ISIS, but filled the vacuum left by retreating Iraqi forces in Kirkuk. It felt secure enough to push a referendum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. But its gamble resulted in anger from Baghdad, and Baghdad’s coalition-trained army, along with Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, rolled into Kirkuk in October 2017. Iran and Turkey threatened to close the border and Baghdad closed the airport, clipping the KRG’s wings. It rook the KRG months to recover even part of what it had lost.

Meanwhile, the YPG had helped defeat ISIS in Syria and gained respect of the international coalition. But by 2018, with ISIS mostly defeated, the US returned to working closely with Turkey, a NATO ally. The US wants to slap sanctions on Iran and wants Turkey to take part in the sanctions. It also fears Turkey turning to Russia. Ankara has used this for leverage in Syria. Turkey has pushed the YPG out of Afrin and has increased its military involvement in northern Iraq, fighting ISIS in the mountainous border region.

Iran, flustered by US sanctions, is also eyeing a Kurdish crackdown. This points to a widespread attempt to weaken Kurds in the region. Kurdish political groups don’t get along with each other, but on each front they have lost influence and power. One issue they have faced is that they sought a close alliance with Western powers at a time when the West has tended to become fatigued with the Middle East. With the rise of more authoritarian regimes in the region, the Kurdish groups will now hedge their relations with the West and the local powers.

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