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