Turkey pressures Iran to end ceasefire with PKK

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced last month that his country and Iran had undertaken a joint operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led an armed insurgency in Turkey since 1984, and is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Iran promptly denied his assertion.

“The Turkish army carried out the operation against the PKK, but Iran’s armed forces were not part of the operation,” an Iranian military source told the country’s semi-official Fars news agency.

This was not the first time Ankara has made such a claim, only to have Tehran deny it. In August 2017, Iran issued an almost identical statement after Turkey said it was planning to conduct joint operations against the PKK.

Yet Turkish media outlets continue to present last month's supposedly coordinated operation as fact. Hürriyet Daily News reported that Turkey and Iran conducted the operation with a combined force of 600 troops from March 18 to 23 on Turkey’s eastern border.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported that a Turkish airstrike wounded Riza Altun, a senior PKK member, in an airstrike on the group’s headquarters in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains on March 21. The strike, which would have occurred while the joint Iran operation was taking place, also reportedly wounded three other PKK members.

The extent of any coordination or joint operation remains unclear.

“I think based on other semi-official statements it’s not a joint operation, but coordinated separate ones,” said David Pollock, Bernstein Fellow at the Washington Institute, who focuses on the political dynamics of the Middle East.

“But it seems half-hearted so far, maybe more electoral posturing than real,” he said, referring to Turkey’s local elections, which took place on Sunday.

Abdulla Hawez, an independent Middle East analyst, also believes the two have coordinated their actions, but remained unsure about any joint operation. He said Iran wanted to cooperate with Turkey against the PKK and its Iranian affiliate, Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), but that Tehran was concerned about a domestic conflict with PJAK, which has expanded its reach of late.  

Iran is also wary of PKK expansion in light of the group’s ties with the United States, which is allied with the PKK’s Syrian-Kurdish affiliate the People’s Protection Units (YPG), according to Hawez. He said Iran remained concerned about the PKK-YPG’s opening of channels with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, “which have adopted a much more aggressive policy towards Iran since Trump won elections in 2016”.

“For the Gulf countries and Americans, if they want to undermine and weaken the regime in Tehran, the best possible ready actor is the PKK, which has enough fighters, experience, and popularity in the Kurdish areas in Iran,” said Hawez.

Lawk Ghafuri, an independent Kurdish affairs analyst, noted that Turkey has said it was working with Iran to hunt down the PKK on the Turkey-Iran border and inside Iraq.

“Iran can easily use Iraq to work closely with Turkey to tackle the PKK inside Iraq and especially Sinjar,” he said.

Ghafuri believes the recent clashes between the Iraqi Army and the PKK-affiliated Yazidi Protection Units (YBS) are a clear sign that Iran is forcing Iraq to fight the PKK within Iraq.

He pointed out that the clashes, which took place on March 17 and 20, occurred shortly after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Baghdad.

Commenting on those battles, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi insisted his country would not become an axis in the Turkey-PKK conflict. “We do not want to be part of the conflict,” he said.

Turkey has long threatened to attack the PKK and YBS in Sinjar. In March 2018, Iraq sent military forces into the region when Turkey threatened to launch a cross-border attack. Baghdad then promptly facilitated a PKK withdrawal. How complete and substantive that withdrawal really was, however, remains unclear. The YBS has remained in Sinjar ever since.

Pollock believes Turkey would benefit if it could convince Iran and Iraq to join its campaign against the PKK, as those two countries could intercept PKK supply convoys in the rugged and remote Qandil Mountains.

Ghafuri wonders if Ankara made some compromises with Iran inside Syria in return for Tehran compelling Iraqi forces and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), an Iraqi Kurdish party, to fight the PKK presence in northern Iraq.

In December, Turkey successfully exerted pressure on the PUK, which compelled it to take action against the PKK. Ankara placed a ban on all flights to Iraqi Kurdistan’s two international airports at the behest of Baghdad following the region’s September 2017 independence referendum.

Yet even after Baghdad lifted the flight ban in March 2018, Ankara only reopened its airspace for flights to Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Erbil while retaining its ban over Sulaimani, arguing that the PUK, which controls the city, was aiding and abetting the PKK. In January, the PUK’s actions convinced Ankara to lift its ban on flights to Sulaimani.

“I believe Turkey’s benefit in fighting the PKK and its affiliates inside Iraq or Syria is to make them busy defending themselves in those countries and not inside Turkey itself,” Ghafuri said.

Hawez says coordination with Tehran could hugely benefit Ankara, as it would mean the end of a tacit ceasefire between the PKK and Iran, which has significant guerrilla war experience, as well as the elimination of a secondary PKK operations base.

“The PKK is most active in the triangle border between Turkey-Iraq-Iran and has used Iranian soil to attack Turkey or escape Turkish attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan,” said Hawez.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.