Turkey Special: Iran, Syria, and Ankara’s Kurdish Problem

Monday, August 13, 2012 at 8:05 | Ali Yenidunya in EA Middle East and Turkey, Middle East and Iran

A Turkish Convoy Moving Towards the Syrian BorderLast week Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi visited Ankara to meet his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu and to ask Ankara’s help over Iranians abducted by Syrian insurgets.

Salehi’s visit came in the wake of disturbing statements by Hassan Firouzabadi, the head of Iran’s armed forces, who warned that the ruling AKP could be shaken by its Syria policy. In other words, Firouzabadi was indicating that Iran could use Turkey’s Kurdish problem if the Islamic Repubic felt Turkish intervention in Syria crossed “red lines”. That prospect of support to the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) came as the separatist organisation was countering Turkish forces in the southeastern province of Hakkari by capturing and defending “safe zones” for the first time since 1984.

On the same day, Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, was quoted as telling Assad that “Iran will not allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way”. Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani reinforced the warnings: “The American regime and some countries in the region are responsible for these crimes. And they will receive their response in turn.” The Turkish Foreign Ministry called the Iranians statement as “groundless”, “unacceptable”, and “irresponsible”. Although Salehi reportedly assured Davutoglu that they were not official views, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted harshly:

    When no one else was by its side, Turkey was the country that stood by Iran, despite everything. Turkey was also the country that defended (its right to) nuclear energy.

    But on Syria, once again I ask the Iranians: Does defending a regime that kills its brothers, and I think it has reached 25,000 by now, suit our values, our beliefs?

Last Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc targeted Tehran, saying that Ankara would “do whatever is required”. Arinc dismissed Salehi’s attempt to soothe relations and implied Iranian support to the PKK:

    Salehi came to Ankara and said that only the foreign minister, president and religious leaders can speak on behalf of Iran. This is not true. They can say whatever they want. Similar remarks were made in the past by other Iranian officials against the Kurecik NATO radar base in Turkey. Sometimes deputy ministers have issued similar remarks.

    What I mean by disturbing behavior [by the Iranian regime] is not related to Syria.

Turkish daily Today’s Zaman, based on government intelligence, reported that PKK militias had been allowed to move into a reopened camp on the Turkish-Iranian border.

The Iranian-Turkish tension has to be put in the context of the PKK’s new strategy — amid the Kurdish takeover of territory in Syrian Kurdistan and the ascendancy of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s President Massoud Barzani over Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Barzani is likely to be pleased with developments, as Ankara appears to be occupied with the PKK rather than his moves on Syria. Meanwhile, Maliki is having to tack — having threatened to reconsider bilateral relations following Davutoglu’s visit to Barzani in Kirkuk two weeks ago, he said on Sunday that he would be pleased to improve ties.

And inside Turkey? Last Thursday, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), a group connected to the PKK, attacked a Turkish military bus, that killing two soldiers and injured 12 people in the western province of Izmir. On Saturday, Hakkari Province’s Governorship announced that the military operation against the PKK, started on 23 July, had been completed successfully. However, on the same day, some military posts and checkpoints were removed in Hakkari, as pro-PKK sources claimed the insurgency is holding the districts of Semdinli and Cukurca and has not retreated. On Sunday, PKK members attacked Government-armed village guards and targeted the town of Derecik, led by the AKP’s Nusret Dinc.

MPs of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) have been pressing for an “autonomous region” inside Turkey. BDP’s deputy from Mardin, Ahmet Turk, said that the borders between Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iran ,and Iraq must be removed. Then BDP’s deputy from Hakkari, Adil Kurt, said:

    Twelve prime ministers before Prime Minister Erdogan tried to destroy Kurds with violence. 22 interior ministers said the very same things before your period. 9 chiefs of staff tried to destroy Kurds, the Kurdish freedom movement. However, they couldn’t achieve their goals.

    Kurdish people’s resistance sent them to the bin of history. You Erdogan, if you do not pull yourself together, this war that has been going on for 28 years in mountains will about to be carried out to Kurdistan streets, Turkey’s cities now. This has only one meaning, a civil war! A civil war in Turkey is being heard from this geography!

On Sunday evening, an MP  of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Huseyin Aygun — who is of Kurdish origin — was kidnapped by PKK. Erdogan called for unity against a common enemy, “I hope we will get quick results. It is important to show what separatist terrorist group want to do. These are what are expecting”, while CHP’s Haluk Koc said:

    We are facing a very troubled picture. For the first time, a deputy is kidnapped by the terrorist organisation. This happened following the policies of hatred and tension-oriented speeches.  These Kurdish complications arose as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hoped to highlight Washington’s co-operation with Turkey as the new way forward in dealing with the Syrian regime. As she announced a joint working group with the Turks, Clinton to “hasten the end of the bloodshed and to help the Syrian people build the kind of democratic, pluralistic society and government”, she underlined American support against the “terrorist PKK”.Today’s Zaman quotes diplomatic officials as saying that Ankara has two plans. With the number of refugees reaching 50,000 thousand, the United Nations Security Council will be asked to establish “protective enclaves” within Syria. If this is blocked by Chinese and Russian vetoes, then Ankara will prepared for a Washington-backed interventiion that could include no-fly zones backed by further military measures.

The problem is that, despite media interpretations of Clinton broaching a no-fly zone, there is no sign of US support at this point. Ten days ago, a US spokesman said, “We don’t want and don’t think that further militarization is the way to go right now.” Clinton’s remarks, rather than being a dramatic change in position, are more likely to be statements seeking to lower the tension among the Turkish public, easing pressure on the Erdogan Government. Which brings us all the way around, not to Syria but to the Kurdish situation inside Turkey — is any sign that Ankara can defuse the issue to give itself space for action beyond its borders?