Turkey began a fresh offensive against Kurdish groups in Syria on Sunday amid a concurrent air campaign against Iraqi Kurdistan launched by the troubled Iranian regime – embattled Kurds on both sides of their border-spanning homeland.
Turkey launched what it called “Operation Sword-Claw” on November 20, bombing Kurdish groups in Syria. Over recent days, Ankara struck several more targets in Kurdish-controlled parts of Syria as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also threatened to launch a ground offensive in the country sometime “soon”.
Turkey says Kurdish fighters from the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and Syria-based YPG (People’s Protection Units) were responsible for a deadly attack in Istanbul on November 13 (Kurdish groups have denied the accusations). Ankara appears to have its eye on the symbolic city of Kobane in northern Syria, which Kurdish forces seized from Islamic State group jihadists in 2015.
Iran is, meanwhile, bombing Iraqi Kurdistan – accusing Kurdish movements of fomenting the wave of nationwide protests that have shaken the regime since Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman, died in the custody of the Islamic Republic’s “morality police” on September 13.
To better understand what’s at stake in the Middle East as the Kurds find themselves under attack from both Turkey and Iran, FRANCE 24 spoke to Adel Bakawan, director of the French Research Center on Iraq.
The Kurds are coming under attack from both Turkey in Syria and from Iran in northern Iraq. Have the two countries coordinated their offensives?
There’s no concrete evidence that Ankara and Tehran are working together on this – but we can’t rule it out. Logically, you could see why it would be in both countries’ interests. Turkey and Iran are both going through tricky periods. Turkey is plagued by a severe economic crisis, and Erdogan is not in a great position as the June 2023 presidential elections approach. So he’s in a very difficult position at home, and abroad there are constant diplomatic tensions with the West.
As far as Iran is concerned, the protest movement is shaking the Islamic Republic and has shown no sign of going away. Bearing in mind that both nations see their Kurdish populations as threats to their territorial integrity, the Kurds make the ideal scapegoat for both Turkey and Iran amid their respective crises.
Why is Erdogan targeting the Kurds in Syria?
The closer we get to next year’s presidential elections, the more Erdogan will need to unite his supporters by singling out an enemy that threatens Turkey’s security, stability and national cohesion. This will allow him to present himself to the electorate as Turkey’s savior, distracting attention from his shoddy economic record. Hence he has designated an enemy in the Syrian Kurds, whose territory is controlled by the local affiliate of the PKK, which is classified as a terrorist organization by the EU and the United States as well as by Turkey.
Erdogan is also keen to make use of growing discontent with the presence of 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, which people are expressing increasingly vociferously. The Turkish president is trying to turn this issue to his electoral advantage. In particular, Erdogan wants to fulfill his promise – made well before the Istanbul attack that he’s using to justify his current offensive in Syria – to create a buffer zone between Turkey and the various territories in northern Syria controlled by Kurdish groups. By launching a ground offensive on the symbolic city of Kobane, he will be able to create an unbroken strip of land out of the zones already occupied by the Turkish army and allies. And he wants to send Syrian refugees to that part of northern Syria currently occupied by Kurds.
What is Iran trying to achieve by attacking Kurdish targets in Iraq?
Despite ferocious repression, the Iranian government has not been able to subjugate the protest movement that emerged on September 16. The Islamic Republic has tried to present it as an agitation for independence in parts of the country inhabited by the Kurdish minority; it is trying to present the movement in ethnic terms. The regime has even tried to claim that the protests are a Sunni uprising championed by Saudi Arabia, Western countries and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq to destabilize Shiite Iran.
All of these attempts to present the movement as a divisive ethnic force have failed because the protests are clearly nationwide. It’s not like they are only happening in Kurdish or Baluchi cities. And the demonstrators have taken the young Kurdish victim, Mahsa Amini, as a national symbol of their struggle, a unifying reference point for the country’s youth.
So because this attempt to sow domestic division has failed, the Islamic Republic is looking to its foreign enemies: Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Of course, it’s easiest to attack Iraqi Kurdistan, where the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and the revolutionary Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan have both had camps for the past three decades. Iran accuses both of those groups of stirring up protests on its territory.
In recent days, Tehran has been lobbying the new government in Baghdad, which is dominated by pro-Iranian factions, to put pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government to expel the KDPI and the Komala Party from Iraq.
And finally – looking at it from a cynical perspective – the Iranians know perfectly well that they can attack Iraqi Kurdistan without much protest either from Baghdad or from the West.
This article was translated from the original in French.