Concerned over Kurds, Turkey moves closer to Iran and possibly to Assad

'Turkey would be happy to shake hands with Assad and crush the PKK together with Syria,' Behlul Ozkan, political scientist at Istanbul’s Marmara University

Shifting alliances. General Staff of the Armed Forces of Iran Mohammad Bagheri (R) salutes the honour guard as he is welcomed by Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces Hulusi Akar during his official visit at the Turkish General Staff headquarters in Ankara, on August 15. (AFP)

2017/08/27 Issue: 121 Page: 2

The Arab Weekly
Thomas Seibert

Washington- Increasingly concerned about armed Kurdish groups along its southern borders with Syr­ia and Iraq, Turkey is stepping up cooperation with regional rival Iran and could even make peace with Bashar Assad, its arch-enemy in Damascus, analysts said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country, a NATO member, could carry out military operations with Iran against mili­tant Kurds. A Turkish-Iranian mili­tary action would be unprecedent­ed by a member of the Western defence alliance, which regards Iran as a threat.

“Joint action like that with Iran is always on the table,” Erdogan said.

He added the issue had come up during the recent visit by Iran’s military chief, General Mohammad Bagheri, in Ankara. It was the first visit of its kind in 50 years. Turkish Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar is expected to visit Tehran, Turkish news reports said.

The increasing Turkish-Iranian contacts are a sign of Ankara’s de­termination to block what Turkey sees as a Kurdish threat in the re­gion but does not necessarily mean that concrete battle plans are being drawn up. Iran’s Islamic Revolu­tionary Guards Corps said no such plans existed, news reports said. A few days after mentioning the pos­sibility of joint action with Iran, Er­dogan floated the idea of US-Turk­ish military operations against Kurdish rebels.

Turkey is alarmed by the increas­ing regional clout of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel group that has been fighting Ankara since 1984 and has its headquarters in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), a PKK offshoot in Syria, has secured control of parts of north­ern Syria with the help of its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Tehran has been fighting the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), a PKK-affiliated group in north-western Iran.

“We work together,” Erdogan said about Turkey and Iran.

Erdogan’s praise for his country’s cooperation with Tehran follows strains in relations between pre­dominantly Sunni Turkey and Shia power Iran. Earlier this year, Er­dogan accused Tehran of “Persian nationalism” and of destabilising the Middle East but it appears the Turkish leader has decided to con­centrate on the Kurdish issue.

Ankara is very critical of the de­cision by the United States to pick the PYD and the YPG as local allies in Syria to fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Turkish media reports said Iran indicated that it shared Turkey’s concerns about the US partnership with the Syrian Kurds and about American arms supplies to Kurdish fighters.

In a meeting August 23 with vis­iting US Defence Secretary James Mattis, Erdogan reiterated his country’s concerns with regards to the US cooperation with the Syrian Kurds. “He said it to his face,” the pro-government Yeni Safak news­paper reported. Erdogan also men­tioned possible joint action with the United States against the PKK in northern Iraq, Turkish media re­ports said. The reports said Mattis had assured the Turkish president that the US alliance with the YPG would end with the defeat of ISIS.

Speaking a day before meeting with Mattis, Erdogan reminded his audience that Turkey had sent troops into Syria last year to stop an extension of Kurdish autonomy there. “We will not let the PYD/ YPG create a so-called state,” the Turkish leader said. “We will abso­lutely not allow any other state [to be created] in Syria.”

Analysts said efforts to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing their own entity along the border with Turkey has become the top priority for the Ankara govern­ment. Even Turkey’s long-term goal in Syria to see Assad toppled and replaced by a pro-Turkish gov­ernment could be thrown over­board if such a step would stop the Kurds, they said.

“From a purely foreign policy standpoint, Turkey would be hap­py to shake hands with Assad and crush the PKK together with Syria,” said Behlul Ozkan, a political sci­entist at Istanbul’s Marmara Uni­versity. Ozkan added that things were more complicated domesti­cally because Ankara had worked to end the Assad regime for many years and had supported radical groups to reach that goal.

Erdogan’s row with the United States and his rapprochement with Iran, a country seen as a sponsor of terrorism by the United States and by Sunni Gulf countries, come as Turkey strengthens cooperation with Russia. Ankara’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported that an agreement for the sale of the Russian missile defence sys­tem to Turkey had been signed. NATO officials warned against the deal.

On one level, Turkey is reacting to a reality of the Syrian war, Oz­kan said: “You have to pick a side,” referring to a group made up of the Assad government, Russia, Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah on one side and anti-Assad Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia on the other. “Turkey is somewhere in the middle,” Ozkan said.

On another level, the Erdogan government is sending strong sig­nals of a growing alienation to its traditional partners in the West. Ties with the United States have been frayed not only over Syria but also because of Washington’s reluctance to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a US-based based Islamic cleric accused by Ankara of being the mastermind behind last year's coup attempt against Erdogan.

Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

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