Turkey Continues Courting Iran for Support in Struggle against PKK Terrorists

From Ankara’s perspective, Iranian cooperation in operations against the PKK is key and Turkey’s determination to work with Tehran to strangle the Kurdish group is on display.

On March 18, Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced that Turkey and Iran launched joint operations against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) forces along their shared border. Shortly after Soylu’s announcement, however, officials in Tehran denied that such an operation occurred. Regardless of what happened, Soylu’s statement, which he made at a campaign rally in Serik, must be understood within the context of renewed friction in Ankara-Washington relations over Syria and the issue of S-400 Russian missiles against the backdrop of Turkey’s grander agenda of weakening the PKK in Turkey and its offshoots in Syria, Iraq, and Iran in coordination with these three governments.

Turkey’s government is sending a message to the United States. Put simply, the Turkish leadership continues to find Washington’s support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—dominated by the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG)—unacceptable and Ankara will work with any willing partners in the region that share Turkey’s interest in countering the forces of Kurdish separatism, including Iran. Such a strategy on Ankara’s part undermines the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic, yet such costs in the form of greater tension in Turkey-US relations are worth accepting as officials in Ankara see it.

Viewing the YPG, which maintains administrative control of northeastern Syria, as a terrorist organization, Turkey fully rejects Washington’s alliance with the Kurdish-Marxist faction in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) and has spent years convincing both the Trump and Obama administrations to trust the Turkish military, as opposed to the YPG, to shoulder the burden of combatting the so-called Caliphate. Recent news that the US will not make good on the president’s promise late last year to pull all US military forces from northern Syria has angered the Turkish leadership based on Ankara’s concerns that a sustained deployment of US forces in northern Syria will continue providing the YPG with a buffer against any potential future Turkish military campaign.

Soylu’s announcement fits in the grander picture of Turkey’s plans for strangling the PKK and its affiliates throughout the region, underscored by recent clashes between the terrorist organization and Turkey’s military in Iraq. Ankara wants officials in the US to believe that Turkey may wage its third anti-YPG offensive in northern Syria since 2016 regardless of Washington’s objections. “The US told us not to enter Afrin, but we damn did it, didn’t we” exclaimed Soylu at the campaign rally in Serik/Antalya.

Turkey is pushing not only for coordination with Iran in the fight against the PKK, but also with Syria and Iraq too. Against the backdrop of growing speculation of a rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus, Turkish officials are seeking to pressure their counterparts in President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to expel PKK forces in adherence to the 1998 Adana agreement. This accord prevented a Turkish-Syrian war in the late 20th century over numerous issues, namely Damascus’ support for the PKK, and could perhaps play a pivotal role in fostering reconciliation between Turkey and Syria after years of being, essentially, at war with the other following the Arab Spring’s eruption in 2011. On March 17, Iraq’s army clashed with PKK-linked fighters from the Yekîneyên Berxwedana Şengalê (YBŞ) in Sinjar, marking a rare occasion whereby the Iraqi military fought an armed faction besides ISIS.

Turkey and Iran waging joint operations against the PKK and its Iranian-affiliate, the Kurdish Free Life Party (PJAK) would mark the first time in which Ankara coordinated military attacks on Kurdish separatists with another state actor. Given that, the PKK and PJAK are headquartered in the Qandil Mountains of Erbil province in northern Iraq; Turkish officials have been talking for years about their country’s military fighting Kurdish terror forces in coordination with Iran.

Last summer, Soylu announced that Ankara and Tehran had been preparing for joint operations in the Qandil mountains. The Turkish press reported that Iran was on the verge of joining a Turkish operation on the Qandil Mountains although the Iranians did not join and, like this month, officials in Tehran have rebuked such comments from Ankara about such plans for joint operations. Yet in late 2018, when the Iran-Turkey joint working group met in the Iranian capital, the two governments signed a security agreement, which Ankara stated covered anti-PKK operations to be carried out jointly. Iran’s government affirmed that “operations will be conducted when necessary and will cover everyone implicated in terror actions and breaches of security” albeit without mentioning the PKK or PJAK specifically.

It remains unclear whether Turkey and Iran have carried out any joint operations against militant Kurdish forces and, if so, whether they would continue doing so into the future. What is clear, however, is that Ankara’s keenness to involve Iran in its military operations against the PKK illustrates how Turkey’s relations with countries to its East continue to deepen and provide Ankara with greater leverage when dealing with problems in Turkey’s relations with fellow NATO members.

Moreover, at a time in which Turkey sees the PKK/YPG as the gravest terror menace to the country, officials in Ankara are willing to overcome past conflicts of interest with Iran vis-à-vis Syria to counter the PKK/YPG and PJAK threat. In the process, it is increasingly clear that Turkish officials and their American counterparts share increasingly different views of security dilemmas stemming from post-conflict Syria, particularly sensitive issues regarding the political and security landscapes of northern Syria’s Kurdish enclaves.

Turkey’s leadership is determined to continue courting Iran’s support for Ankara’s campaign against the PKK, especially given how the terrorist organization has utilized land in the Islamic Republic to enter Turkey from their bases in northern Iraq. From Ankara’s perspective, Iranian cooperation in operations against the PKK is key and Turkey’s determination to work with Tehran to strangle the Kurdish group is on display. It appears likely that Turkey will continue seeing the benefits of deepening military coordination with Tehran as outweighing the costs in the form of Ankara’s relations with Washington suffering from Turkey moving closer to the Islamic Republic on such regional security issues. In the process, officials in Iran, along with their counterparts in the Kremlin, will welcome developments that prompt Turkey to become increasingly distrustful of the leadership in the US and more determined to foster increasingly fruitful partnerships with eastern powers.

US Sanctions Bring Ankara and Tehran Closer

Giorgio Cafiero

The Trump administration’s policies towards Turkey and Iran will certainly provide Ankara and Tehran more common ground in their opposition to Washington’s policies in the region.