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The Kurdish Factor

How an ethnic minority shaped the Middle East.

2:45 PM, Sep 10, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
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However, since Barzani is the godfather of the KNC, it is in his interest to strengthen its position in Syria. Tellingly, he recently admitted to training and arming Kurdish fighters that would be sent to Syria. For now, however, the KNC is organizationally lagging behind the PYD in part thanks to the fact that Assad had facilitated the PYD's operations in Syria's Kurdish cities.

TWS: Recently the PKK has been waging operations in southeast Turkey. What’s this about and are any external actors involved?

Badran: The PKK's fight with Turkey is now 28 years old. But the recent bout of violence in Şemdinli is curious. The Turks pointed the finger at Iran, saying that the PKK had infiltrated Turkey from Iranian soil. For over a year now, the Turks have maintained that the PKK had also rekindled its relationship with the Assad regime. The U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, recently supported Turkey's contention, dubbing the PKK a "fellow traveler" of Assad's, and intimating that Assad was sharing weapons (transferred from Iran) with the PKK.

For Turkey, the clearest indicator of an Iran-PKK understanding came last summer. At the time, Turkish intelligence informed Iran that PKK leader Murat Karayilan was hiding in the Qandil Mountains. The Iranians arrested Karayilan, but instead of handing him over to Turkey, quickly released him—to Ankara's shock. Around the same time, the Iranian affiliate of the PKK, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), declared a unilateral ceasefire with Iran. Shortly thereafter, Turkish intelligence began reporting a noticeable presence of Iranian Kurdish fighters among the PKK units operating in Turkey, which it read as a movement of PJAK elements to the Turkish front.

As pressure mounts on the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, it has found common ground with Iran and Assad against Turkey. Karayilan, for instance, has issued statements warning against outside intervention in Syria, threatening that should the Turks enter Syria, the PKK would turn the Kurdish areas into a war zone.

TWS: What role is Iran playing regarding the Kurds?

BADRAN: All of Barzani’s moves—his energy designs with Turkey, his ties with Ankara over Syria, and his move to remove Maliki—run against Iranian interests. So, to contain Barzani in Iraq, Iran could reach out to some of his rivals, like Jalal Talabani. But how much Iran can achieve by venturing into domestic Kurdish affairs in Iraq is unclear.

Syria is a different matter. Iran's understanding with the PKK, which would then extend to the PYD, could allow Tehran to cultivate a new pocket of influence in Syria, as the Assad regime's grip collapses. Assad's territorial hold is shrinking, and soon he could be confined to the Alawite homeland in the northwestern coastal mountains, and perhaps to Damascus and parts of Aleppo. Iran will seek to buttress this Alawite enclave as a bridgehead to maintain its foothold in Syria. However, it will also be on the lookout for additional avenues, and PYD-controlled Kurdish areas could well present an opportunity for Tehran, providing it with a valuable corridor in northern Syria, possibly reaching the Iraqi border.

The Iranians are very aggressively pursuing all available and potential avenues to protect their vital interest in Syria. They are already putting the squeeze on Turkey, a principal adversary in Syria, and this is likely to increase, including in the form of stepped-up support for the PKK. This, in part, explains Turkey's increased impatience with the Obama administration's decision to remove itself from the game, leaving its regional allies on their own. 

Badran is discussing Kurdish issues at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies this afternoon at 4 p.m. The panel also includes, among others, Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan.

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