Cooperation against a common threat
Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu has just announced that Turkish and Iranian troops have commenced a joint anti-terror operation against the PKK that was previously announced earlier this month. This is welcome news, not least because Iran has often been slow to act against a PKK whose Iranian branch PJAK represents a mutual threat to both countries, whilst Syrian and Iraqi branches of the terror group pose a wide and sustained threat to the territorial unity and security of all four states.
Because of the realities on the ground and the wider need for regional cooperation against all forms of terrorism, today’s operation is a clear win-win measure taken against a uniquely dangerous terrorist organisation that operates from the soil of several western Eurasian states.
Iranian troops slaughtered by the PKK’s Iranian branch
Just as Iran and Pakistan share a common enemy in the form of terrorists operating in the Pakistani province of Balochistan and the neighbouring Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan, so too do Iran and Turkey share a same cross-border enemy on the other side of the country in the form of the radical Kurdish terror group PKK and its Iranian branch PJAK.
Last year, Iranian authorities confirmed the brutal murder of 10 Islamic Revolutionary Guards stationed in the Iran’s Marivan district near the Iraqi border. According to an official statement,
“The attack by the evil rebels and terrorists against a revolutionary border post and the explosion of a munitions depot caused the martyrdom of 10 fighters”.
This vicious act of terrorism ought to serve as a signal that it is necessary for Iran and Turkey to intensify their security partnership against a singular threat.
Turkey and Iran face a common PKK/PJAK enemy
Turkey’s anti-PKK operations have expanded into Iraq where Turkish anti-terrorism forces have been targeting PKK headquarters and outposts in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar as well as in the Qandil Mountains near both the Turkish and Iranian border with Iraq.
In 2018, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu affirmed that both Baghdad and Tehran had effectively green-lighted the operation and offered their cooperation to Turkish forces. While Iraq is not strong enough to either make a meaningful contribution to the efforts nor to stop Turkey (assuming it wanted to), Iran’s position is very different.
Iranian military advisers have played a crucial role in fighting Takfiri terrorism in both Iraq and in Syria, thus demonstrating that Iran’s powerful armed forces are able to extend themselves into regional conflicts and attain positive results. Iranian authorities will also be aware that within Iran’s borders the PJAK terrorist group, the Iranian based branch of the PKK also poses a threat to the territorial integrity of Iran, just as the PKK poses the same threat to Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
Iran could play a renewed role in bringing peace to Syria if it worked more closely with Turkey against the PKK
Given that Iran faces the same threat to its security and unity that Turkey faces, one would assume that it would behove Iran to offer consistent, long term support for Turkey’s operations against the PKK near Iran’s border. Furthermore, as Iran is keen to retain its presence in Syria against the objections of both the United States and Russia, Iran coming out in opposition to the YPG/PKK’s presence in northern Syria could not only strengthen bonds between Tehran and Ankara but could convince many of those calling for Iran’s withdrawal from Syria to at least soften their tone. This would be the case because while Russia has clearly green-lighted Turkey’s anti-YPG/PKK Operation Olive Branch in northern Syria, now even the US has decided to work with rather than against Turkey in the form of cooperating on an anti-YPG/PKK roadmap for Manbij and other parts of Syria under YPG/PKK occupation. Thus, if Iran were to align itself with a move conducted by Turkey which is obviously endorsed by Russia, while also being a move which is no longer opposed (at least on paper) by Turkey’s fellow NATO member the United States, it would be difficult to present a logical (key word) anti-Iran argument in the Syria context if Iran offered its support to bringing stability to northern Syria.
Short term thinking always fails when fighting cross-border terrorist separatists
From an international perspective, the aforementioned scenario would appear to be the perfect win-win solution, not least from the Iranian perspective. But when one delves into the nuances of the region, one gets a better understanding of Iran’s particular rationale for remaining largely publicly silent when it comes to the PKK.
Iran’s key short term motivation to remain tight lipped regarding Turkey’s various anti-PKK operations is because Iran’s Syrian ally continues to view Turkey’s presence in Syria as illegal – this in spite of President al-Assad’s government signing off on all the Astana agreements which allowed for Turkey to maintain a role in the de-escalation of the present crisis in Syria. Because Iran continues to value its Syrian partnership, Terhan does not want to contradict the official line of Damascus even if in this case it could well be to Syria’s own long term interest for Iran to speak out against the PKK.
The second reason is due to the historically misguided but still prevalent notion that secessionist terrorism in ‘country A’ will not expand into in ‘country B’, even when the same actual or potential secessionist forces exist in both country ‘A’ and ‘B’. In other words, Iran is thinking that so long as it says little about Turkey’s anti-PKK operations in Syria and Iraq, the PKK’s Iranian branch PJAK may simply forget about its stated goals of stealing legitimate Iranian territory.
There are several clear examples of this poorly thought out short-term rationale in recent history. In the early 1980s, India’s secret intelligence service, the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) began covertly funding Tamil secessionists in Sri Lanka as part of a failed strategy to gain more influence in the island nation. Of course, the ethnic Tamil population of India is exponentially larger than the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. While India felt that it could convince its own large Tamil population that Tamil’s living in the multi-cultural Union of India had it good while those in Sri Lanka did not – this crude strategy backfired badly.
While India sent a so-called peace keeping force to Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990, its failure to achieve anything for anyone led to Tamil resentment in India and sure enough, an extremist assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, thus turning the tide of Indian opinion against Tamil Tiger terrorists in Sri Lanka.
The RAW has also been active in funding Baloch separatist terrorists in Pakistan for many decades. In spite of India having generally healthy ties with Iran, New Delhi’s meddling in the Pakistani province of Balochistan ultimately threatens not only India’s Pakistan rival but also Iran itself. It is true enough that India is keen to harm Pakistan while not wishing to directly harm India’s Chabahar asset in Iran, but this is not a good enough strategy to stop Baloch separatism from spreading from Pakistan’s province of Balochistan into Iran’s province of Sistan and Baluchestan. In fact, the thinking behind such a strategy is clearly childish and myopic.
In a piece from May of 2017, geopolitical expert Andrew Korybko described Iran’s strangely muted response to Indian meddling in Balochistan in the following way – beginning with background information about what was at the time, a recent attack:
“10 Iranian border troops were killed in a shock attack allegedly carried out by Pakistani-based terrorists, though there’s much more to this story than any misleading Mainstream Media headline or summary would lead one to believe.
While it’s indeed true that this act of terrorism did in fact happen and that the perpetrators purportedly struck from the Pakistani side of the border, Islamabad in no way condones this act of violence or had anything to do with it; to the contrary, the Pakistani officials have harshly condemned the terrorists and offered condolences to the Iranians.
Tehran’s reaction, however, wasn’t what one would initially expect. Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Bahram Qassemi said that:
‘The Pakistani government should be held accountable for the presence and operation of these vicious groups on its soil. Carrying out subversive and terrorist operations by armed bandits and grouplets operating as proxies for those known for promoting violence, extremism and Takfirism on the Iranian-Pakistani border is condemned and unacceptable. The countries that are after joining anti-terrorist coalitions must answer how they are incapable of countering armed bandits and terrorist groups on their own soil’.
This is a hyper-politicized statement which clearly indicates that all is not well in Iranian-Pakistani relations, and truth be told, the two sides do have a storied history. It’s not the point of this article to delve too deeply into that, but the most recent issue has to do with former Pakistani Chief of Army Staff and retired General Raheem Sharif taking charge of the Saudi-led international military coalition.
Nevertheless, regardless of what one’s position may be on that topic, it’s not the time or place to insert politicized rhetoric at such a sensitive moment in bilateral relations. However, it’s predictable that Iran would indeed react that way, which leads to the next point about who may have really been behind the latest terrorist attack in order to produce this desired response”.
It remains to be seen whether Iran can reset healthy relations with Pakistan after February witnessed officials in Tehran issuing absurd statements regarding Pakistan’s record on fighting terror. That being said, Turkey-Iran cooperation against the PKK and related groups, offers a strong precedent for renewed Iran-Pakistan cooperation against terrorists operating on Iran’s south-eastern border with Pakistan. This is the case because like PKK related groups, such terrorists on Iran’s border with Pakistan threaten the territorial unity and security of both neighbouring states.
Syria’s own regret
Syria is now faced with its own unspoken regret at the fact that in the 1980s, the Syrian government sheltered the PKK in order to “get back” at Turkey for what Damascus sees as unfair clauses in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which gave the Turkish Republic territory claimed by Damascus, something that itself was augmented by the Hatay crisis of 1938 while Syria was still under French mandate rule.
Today however, the Syrian branch of the PKK known as the YPG is occupying legally defined Syrian soil at the expense of Syria’s right to govern its own territory and is doing so with the direct support of Syria’s American adversary and the tacit support of Syria’s “Israeli” enemy. Here too, Syria has suffered because of the short term thinking of its 1980s PKK policy as Ankara continues to oppose Damascus mainly for this reason (in spite of the rhetoric pointing other more ideological reasons for Turkeys’ current “non-relationship” with Damascus).
A new way of thinking is required
Iran recently cooperated with Turkey’s building of a large border wall between Turkey and Iran which was designed to keep the PKK and PJAK from smuggling arms to one another. Likewise, Turkey has stated that Iran supports its anti-PKK operations in Turkey, although the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu recently implied that Iran should do more to support Turkey since the extremist threat is one that Iran faces as much as Turkey does. This was as big a hint as any that Turkey expects more from its Iranian partner, not least because Turkey has vigorously supported the preservation of the JPCOA (Iran nuclear deal) in spite of not being a party to the 2015 agreement that Donald Trump is intent on destroying.
Turkey is objectively correct as history shows that once an ethno-nationalist terror group is inspired to take up arms in one state that it seeks to weaken, it is only a matter of time before the same extremist forces begin engaging in similar actions on the sovereign territory of other nations they seek to illegally annex.
Today’s news from Turkey’s Interior Minister represents a concrete step in a positive direction for Turkey-Iran relations and for the region as a whole. However, much more can and should be done in order to secure an anti-PKK (and related groups) partnership among all the nations whose people are threatened by the PKK’s ruthless brand of terror.