Autonomous Kurdistan evolving amid graft crisis

2 March 2014 /CUMALİ ÖNAL, İSTANBUL – With the public agenda dominated by discussions over corruption, bribery, censorship, judicial scandals and tape recordings, Turkey is failing to address steps the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) is taking towards autonomy. The BDP leaders make frequent references to an independent Kurdistan, saying that they will declare democratic autonomy after the March 30 mayoral elections. In their declarations, the Kurdish leaders say that they will unite the Kurdish areas in Iran, Iraq and Syria and effectively eliminate the borders.

The BDP is now strongly voicing its demand for autonomy in the aftermath of the settlement process that started with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s message on March 21, 2013, declaring that the PKK would no longer continue its armed struggle.

The recent political crisis in Turkey, Assad regime’s survival in Syria and the declaration of autonomy by Kurds in the Rojova region in Syria, as well as the Turkish government’s exploitative moves of the settlement process can be cited as the primary reasons for the escalation of the Kurdish issue. However, without including Iran’s role, an analysis on these matters would not be complete.  Having historically viewed the Kurds as tool for the expansion of its sphere of influence, Iran has become more influential over Kurds since the Iran-Iraq War and the subsequent two Gulf Wars.

After making Jalal Talabani’s Iraqi Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) an ally, Iran has extended its influence to the PKK in recent years. Quds Force Commander Kassem Sulaimani, whose name needs no introduction to Turkish people, dictates Iran’s PKK and Kurdish policies. Sulaimani has held a number of meetings with PKK leaders in the Qandil area in Iraq and is currently focusing his attention on Rojawa.

The Syrian Kurds have recently declared autonomy in Kobani, Jazeera and Afrin regions in Rojawa and have opened their first offices in Tehran and Baghdad. Subsequently, Iran announced that they will open a liaison office in Qamishli, which was declared the capital city of Rojawa, and Syrian pro-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) leader Saleh Muslum traveled to Iran. All these developments point to growing good relations between Iran and Rojawa. Iran, playing vital role in the formation of an alliance between the PKK and the PUK, is also trying to undermine Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) because of its good relations with Turkey.

The KDP, after a power struggle with the PKK, shut down the Semelka gate along the border between Rojawa and northern Iraq under Turkish pressure. However, Iran opened the Til-Koçer border gate, enabling Rojawa to have access to Tehran and Baghdad through Kirkuk. Experts note that Rojawa does not experience any problems due to the closure of the Semelka border gate.

While holding meetings to pick the next leader of the PUK because Jalal Talabani’s health is not improving, Tehran is also trying to exert greater pressure upon Turkey through an alliance with the PUK, the PKK and the PYD.

Mahmut Akpınar, an Iran expert from Turgut Özal University in Ankara, notes that the armed wing of the KCK (Group of Communities in Kurdistan)in Turkey will become more active, given Cemil Bayık’s replacement of Murat Karayılan as the new head of the KCK Executive Council, and that the Iran-PKK alliance will become stronger. Akpınar believes that the recent PYD developments are related to Iranian ambitions to create a new threat to Turkey, as well as Western countries’ eagerness to include a new player in Middle Eastern affairs. Noting that the settlement process caused dramatic changes in PKK strategies, Akpınar says that the PKK is now more of an organization seeking to create an independent state rather than favoring a peace deal with Turkey. The KCK, which represents a global confederation of Kurdish organizations including the PKK, the BDP and the PYD, is also referred to as a parallel state organization, possessing all the organs of a potential unified Kurdistan.

One of the proofs of the close relationship between Iran and the PKK is a confession in October 2013 by Muhammad Pakpour — commander of Pasdaran forces, an important military unit of the Iranian regime — that his unit had taken control in critical areas in the Qandil area of Iraq. A news report by the Iran-based news portal Tesnim stressed that Pakpour admitted that his forces have controlled the most critical areas in Qandil region for the previous three years. Pakpour also said they built roads and been the dominant security presence in Qandil.

At a seminar titled “Kurds and the political process” organized by the Kurdistan Youth Movement in Diyarbakır in October 2013, Dara Bilek, a leading Kurdish politician, noted that Iranian influence can be detected in statements from the PKK. Bilek also said: “Iranian policy in the region is an important factor in Qandil leaders’ views. In the end, I believe that Öcalan and Qandil are under Iranian influence.”

Jane’s Defence Weekly, a leading defense journal, stressed in a recent issue that the PKK has improved its relations with Iran. Noting that the PKK cooperates with the Syrian regime, which it claims to be controlled by Iran, the journal asserts that the PKK restructured itself in a meeting on July 9, 2013 in Qandil and began to adopt a more hardline stance towards Turkey.

Undoubtedly, Iran’s Turkey strategy is not limited to the PKK and the BDP, with which it maintains relations via the PKK. Hezbollah, which has been active in eastern Turkey for many years, is also acting in line with Iranian interests through Hüda-Par (Free Cause Party), a political movement it has promoted in the recent years.