Iran and Turkey share common interests in their targeting of Kurds - analysis

Iran and Turkey are both threatening invasions of areas where Kurdish people live in Iraq and Syria.

IRAQI KURDS tear the Turkish flag during a demonstration against Turkey’s incursion in Syria, outside the UN building in Erbil. (photo credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)
IRAQI KURDS tear the Turkish flag during a demonstration against Turkey’s incursion in Syria, outside the UN building in Erbil.
(photo credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)

Iran and Turkey are both threatening invasions of areas occupied by Kurds living in Iraq and Syria. Turkey has already sent forces into parts of northern Iraq over the years, and today occupies several Kurdish areas of Syria, while Iran has been carrying out drone and missile attacks on Kurdish opposition groups that have camps in Iraq.

However, both authoritarian regimes have now increased threats to launch new ground incursions that could cause thousands to be displaced.

Are Iran and Turkey coordinating their efforts to destabilize Syria and Iraq? While Iran and Turkey sometimes appear to be on different sides of conflicts in the region, they share some common interests. They both have regimes dominated by far-right religious parties: In Iran’s case, a theocratic regime that dates back to 1979, and in Turkey, the AKP Party that rose to power in the early 2000s.

These religious leaders share some policies: They both back the Hamas terrorist group; they have both opposed Israel, although Turkey and Israel recently reconciled; both Ankara and Tehran view themselves as opponents to US policy and its presence in Iraq and Syria; and both Iran and Turkey work with Russia on the “Astana process” in Syria, a process designed to end the Syrian civil war, but also to give Iran and Turkey influence over a the area.

It is the official policy of both Iran and Turkey to claim they are not against the Kurds as a group. Iran instead claims that it is fighting “opposition groups.”

KURDS IN Syria flee the Turkish and Syrian rebel offensive against their formerly peaceful towns last month (credit: REUTERS)KURDS IN Syria flee the Turkish and Syrian rebel offensive against their formerly peaceful towns last month (credit: REUTERS)

There are large Kurdish minorities numbering in the millions in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. In Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) form a key part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and Kurds in Syria played a key role in the defeat of ISIS. However, Ankara has accused the YPG of being part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), deemed by Ankara as a “terrorist” organization.

Ankara has often claimed that the PKK is behind attacks in order to justify its invasions of Syria. For Ankara then, the existence of a Kurdish group playing a key role in eastern Syria is its reason for invasion. Turkey has already implemented this policy by invading Afrin back in 2018 and using Syrian rebel groups to ethnically cleanse Kurds. It then repopulated the area with Syrians, shifting the demographic to its liking, similar to what was done in the Balkans in the 1990s.

ANKARA’S GOAL is to settle Arabs along the border instead of Kurds. This includes cities like Kobani and Qamishli. Turkey has termed this a “safe zone,” removing the ethnic minorities to create a pro-Ankara belt of colonies along the border. If this sounds reminiscent of the 19th-or 20th-century policies of colonial powers and extremists, it is because it is modeled precisely on that.

Iran’s policy is a bit different

Iran, on the other hand, has not sought to ethnically -cleanse Kurds from Iraq or Iran. Iran doesn’t have the military power or extremist groups at its hands that it can mobilize to conduct this ethnic cleansing, nor is it a member of NATO, unlike Turkey.

Turkey’s membership of NATO gives it control over other member countries for its policies in Syria. For instance, it had threatened to veto Sweden and Finland from joining NATO unless the two back its occupation.

Iran is also a poorer country than Turkey and can only resort to influence peddling and the use of rockets and drones to carry out its goals.

However, Iran’s overall policies also target Kurdish groups in northeastern Iran and Iraq. Turkey’s enemy is the PKK, but Iran’s enemies are groups such as the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK). That means that, ostensibly, Iran and Turkey do not oppose the same Kurdish groups, but that doesn’t change the policy.

Iran is looking to weaken the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), an autonomous region in Iraq. The KRG is a successful economic region that has its own security forces. But, like eastern Syria, the Kurds of Erbil in northern Iraq don’t have air defenses to stop Iran’s missiles. The Kurds in eastern Syria also lack any defenses.

The US forces in eastern Syria have did not stop Ankara’s bombing of Kurdish forces, even as Turkey carries out airstrikes on areas where US forces are close by. This happened just last week.

A France24 article, published around that time, examined the policies of Turkey and Iran as targeting Kurds as “scapegoats.” It is unclear if this is the case.

Turkey has a policy in Syria: to remove the US. Iran is also interested in the US leaving Syria and Iraq. In essence, Turkey and Iran are attacking Kurds in part because they want to attack the US but don’t want a direct conflict with Washington. Consequently, civilians pay the price.

On the other hand, Iran also has an aim to neutralize Kurdish opposition groups because Tehran is facing protests at home.

Turkey’s decision specifically may be related to elections set to take place next year, and to a long-term goal of gaining control of more of the border region of Syria to move Syrian refugees from Turkey into this area and remove Kurds from the border. This old-style ethnic cleansing, similar to the 20th-century policies of the Soviet Union, is designed to create a “loyal” buffer zone of communities along the border that Ankara can use as proxies.

THIS IS WHERE the policies of the two differ. Tehran wants to send a message to the KRG and Iraq to crack down on Kurdish opposition groups, and to neutralize PDKI, PAK and Komala using missiles to stop them from supporting the protests.

Turkey’s goal is more wide-ranging, as it wants to displace hundreds of thousands of people to recreate the entirety of the demographic of northern Syria, erasing 1,000 or more years of history in the region that stretches from Afrin to Qamishli. This erasure targets not only Kurds but also Yazidis, Christians and other minority groups. This is the same reason Turkey continues to bomb the Yazidi area of Sinjar, an area targeted for genocide by ISIS.

Ankara’s wider goal goes back to the foundation of modern Turkey. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, modern Turkey emerged amid the persecution of Armenians, Greeks, Kurds and other groups such as Assyrians and other Christians. Ankara later invaded Cyprus and displaced Greeks in the North.

The invasion of Afrin and threats to invade Kobani are thus part of a much longer cycle designed to reduce the presence of minorities. Iran’s policy is more complex. Tehran knows that the majority of Iranians are members of minority groups. It needs them as part of Iran, so its goal is to stop opposition groups from growing, not displace whole groups of people.

Iran and Turkey have common interests. They want the US role in the Middle East to be reduced. Both of them back Hamas and other extremist groups. The Kurds are scapegoated by both regimes. Whenever the regimes want to use their military to attack someone, they tend to attack Kurds because they know that the Kurdish minority doesn’t have strong backing.

Ankara and Tehran were displeased to see the strength of the autonomous regions of the KRG in Iraq and eastern Syria flourish. However, both countries have interests in these regions. Iran and the Syrian regime generally didn’t have a problem with the YPG, whereas Ankara has backed the KRG. That means it is not a simple anti-Kurdish policy that unites Iran and Turkey.

The real policy is designed to get rid of the US. The other policy is Turkey’s desire to change the demographics of the border and Iran’s goal of weakening opposition groups. Coordination in this respect is operationalized via the Astana process in Syria, and work with Russia. Both Iran and Turkey work closely with Russia.

Turkey wants to be an energy hub partnering with Moscow, and Iran is selling drones to Moscow. Economics ties Turkey and Iran to Moscow. In this respect, they have a common policy, but not necessarily a policy that is solely anti-Kurdish. The end result is that Kurds are victims and pay the price for the Ankara-Tehran partnership.