"There is today a strategic alliance between Iran and Turkey’s [ruling AKP party],” says Murat Karayilan, the de facto leader of the PKK. The Kurdistan Workers’ party’s actual number one, Abdullah Ocalan, has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999 for his war against Ankara dating back to 1984, a conflict that has cost around 40,000 lives. Here in the heart of the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq where I’ve come to meet Karayilan, this war shows no sign of ending.
The PKK, said George W. Bush in 2007, “is a terrorist organization. They’re an enemy of Turkey, they’re an enemy of Iraq, and they’re an enemy of the United States.” The previous administration had hoped to secure Washington’s alliance with Ankara by supplying “actionable intelligence” that the Turks used in cross-border raids against the PKK. Nonetheless, the AKP moved closer to the Islamic Republic of Iran, an alliance cemented by mutual interest —the strategic threat that Kurdish rebels pose to both Muslim states.
The PKK then are in search of new alliances of their own, which is why they arranged for an Israeli journalist to meet the leadership of an outfit that was once closely aligned with Israel’s Syrian enemy. Of course, Jerusalem once counted Turkey as a key strategic ally.
“Erdogan is a double-dealer,” Karayilan told me. “He shows sympathy for the children of Palestine, but under his command Kurdish children are killed and imprisoned.”
The Turkish prime minister, according to Karayilan, is no less hypocritical in his dealings with regional and international actors, sidling up to both Washington and Tehran. “Turkey has relations with the USA, and also with Iran,” said Karayilan, “and both are used against the Kurds. In Qandil, U.S.-made drones fly over the zone. They collect intelligence and bring it back to Turkey. Turkey then comes and bombs the area. But Turkey also passes the information on to Iran, which also bombards us.”
Karayilan called on the United States, Israel, and the EU to change their policy toward Turkey. He contended that Ankara is seeking to lay the diplomatic groundwork for a major operation to crush the PKK in Qandil. “They are trying to get international support—and regional support from Iran and Syria—to mount a big military operation, in the ‘Sri Lankan’ style.”
The PKK has just extended for the second time a monthlong ceasefire. The movement is clearly trying to walk a narrow line between avoiding the major Turkish operation into Qandil they fear, and allowing the Kurdish issue to drift even further from international attention.
Around 6,500 people have fled their homes in the mountains since May. Even as the international media and Western governments have been nearly silent, the Turkish air force and Iranian artillery are engaged in the regular bombing of civilian areas. The Kurds—Turkish and Iranian—find themselves in the way of what Karayilan called the common Iranian/AKP project to use the “ideology of Islam to control and dominate the Islamic world.”
So far, the PKK has had little success finding new allies in the rapidly shifting strategic topography of the Middle East. Neither Washington nor Europe is inclined right now to remove the group from its list of terrorist organizations. Moreover, the PKK’s old-fashioned, leftist ideology makes it an odd man out in the clash that defines today’s Middle East, where pro-Western forces are squared off against Iranian-backed, usually Islamist, assets. The Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil tolerates the presence of the PKK in the mountains, out of a core Kurdish solidarity. But there is little natural common ground between the KRG and the guerrillas in Qandil. Still, there are rumors that the PKK’s Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) ally has enjoyed behind the scenes Western and Israeli support for its fight against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. But even if there’s anything to the stories, it’s hard to imagine Turkey drifting so far from the U.S. orbit that the PKK would enjoy similar Western and Israeli backing.
The alliance between the AKP and Tehran is only strengthening. The Daily Telegraph recently reported that Iran is in the process of donating $25 million to the AKP’s coffers. The money is intended to help produce an AKP victory in crucial general elections next year.
The volume of trade between Turkey and Iran has increased from $1.2 billion in 2002, when the AKP took power, to $10 billion in 2010, a figure Turkey aims to triple over the next five years. Ankara opposed the latest round of sanctions against Iran at the U.N. Security Council, and appears poised to play an active role in subverting additional EU and U.S. measures.
Whether or not Turkey and Iran’s budding relationship represents a new strategic alliance with ambitions stretching beyond the scope of rocky, blighted Qandil, its most vivid expression currently is the coordinated threat of Iranian cannons and Turkish bombers, laying waste to a bleak mountain region of northern Iraq. Here the Kurds are looking down from their strong places in the mountains at two powerful regimes with a common desire to see them subjugated.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel. His book The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict will be published in November