Kurdish separatism: Trump card in Turkey-Iran relations
Hardly a day passes without a new development in the Middle East that further complicates the regional picture. Last week, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), an offshoot of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northwest Iran, attacked Iranian border guards near the city of Urmiya, killing two and wounding seven.
“The Iranian forces will certainly give a crushing response to these moves. We consider Turkey liable and the country should be held accountable for this act,” Fars News Agency quoted an Iranian border guards commander as saying. Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said: “The subject has been announced to the Turkish government through diplomatic channels and we are awaiting their response.”
Turkey is mired in a bloody war against the PKK domestically and its Syrian offshoots, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Forces (YPG). Ankara is angered by US arming of the PYD, which Washington considers a partner in the war against Daesh in Syria.
As such, it is impossible to understand how Iran can accuse Turkey of culpability in such attacks when it is fighting against the PKK and its affiliates. Ankara even decided to build a 144-kilometer wall with towers and iron fences along the Turkey-Iran border to halt the movement of PKK militants based in Iraq’s Qandil mountains bordering Iran and Turkey.
Arming a Syrian Kurdish militia is extremely dangerous and could one day harm everyone. It is irrational for the US to play the Kurdish card against Turkey or Iran at a time when the balance of power is shifting in the region, particularly in Syria.
Kurdish separatism should not cause tension between Ankara and Tehran. On the contrary, it should be a pretext for better cooperation against a common threat. Both Turkey and Iran are aware that separatist campaigns have been ramped up in these volatile times. They are rightly concerned that extraordinary regional turmoil may fan Kurdish fantasies of independence.
Turkey’s regional geopolitics and its relations with Iran will have a significant impact on Kurdish separatism. Both countries should be wary of falling into the trap of allowing the separatist threat to damage bilateral relations. As such, Iran should not blame its neighbor for the crimes of a common enemy.
Established in 2003, PJAK unilaterally declared a cease-fire in 2011, but after a few years it resumed its armed activities. Why? The answer can be found in an article published in The New Yorker in 2006. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote that the US had been conducting a proxy war in Iran by supporting PJAK and other Kurdish groups. He said US troops were establishing contact with these groups and training them against Tehran.
It should then be no surprise that the US under President Donald Trump did not hesitate to arm Syria’s Kurds. Taking into account the timing of the PJAK attack, America’s arming of Syria’s Kurds and its stance toward Iran, it seems obvious that the PKK and its affiliates are being used as a regional trump card.
As Ankara has warned, arming a Syrian Kurdish militia is extremely dangerous and could one day harm everyone. It is irrational for the US to play the Kurdish card against Turkey or Iran at a time when the balance of power is shifting in the region, particularly in Syria.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.