The mind-bending array of alliances and counter-alliances that have long defined armed Kurdish groups seemed to get another twist when a long dormant Iranian Kurdish militia recently attacked Iranian border guards near the city of Urmiya, killing two and wounding seven others.
What was extraordinary about the incident was not so much that the group known as the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) has resumed its activities, but that Iran held Turkey responsible. In comments carried by the Fars News Agency on May 28, Iranian border guards commander Qassem Rezayee said the Iranians “consider Turkey responsible, and the country should account for this act.” Rezayee vowed, “Iranian forces will certainly give a crushing response to these moves.”
In remarks on Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Behram Qasimi noted that the attack took place close to the Turkish border. “We have made a demarche with Turkey with regard to the attack and await an answer,” Qasimi said. The spokesman rejected claims that Iran was offering sanctuary to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The PKK, for its part, declared in a statement that three of its "guerrilla comrades" had died in May 23 clashes with Iranian forces in the village of Hasani in Urmiye province. It did not elaborate.
Turkey and Iran are historic rivals but they have in common large and restive Kurdish populations — and fears that they will break away and form their own respective Kurdish states. The notion that Turkey would support the PJAK is baffling because the group is a direct offshoot of the PKK.
The PKK has been fighting on and off for Kurdish self-rule inside Turkey and the war has sharply escalated since a 2½-year cease-fire collapsed in 2015 together with peace talks between the Turkish government and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Ankara has long accused Iran of supporting the group not only to channel Kurdish separatist energy away from Iran into Turkey, but also as a lever against Turkey. So why would Turkey be in league with the PKK’s sister organization against Iran? And why would PJAK, which was forced to call off its fight inside Iran in 2011 after a massive Iranian offensive, resume its battle now?
The answer to the first question is that Turkey is almost certainly not acting with the PJAK. In fact, it is building a wall along its border with Iran to keep PKK fighters, illegal migrants and smugglers from moving in and out.
If anything, the US administration’s markedly hostile stance on Iran and its decision to directly arm the People’s Protection Units, another PKK-linked Kurdish group that is the United States’ top partner in the battle against the Islamic State, have thrust Turkey and Iran into renewed collaboration against the Kurds, argues Arzu Yilmaz, who runs the international relations department of the American University of Kurdistan in Dahuk.
Turkish media commentators suggest, however, that the PJAK’s actions are part of a broader PKK strategy to drum up US support by proving it can help undermine Iran. Former PJAK fighters interviewed by Al-Monitor in 2015 had claimed that the PKK had founded the group in 2003 soon after the US occupation of Iraq partly to assure itself a potential role should the United States decide to move against Iran as well. It was the same kind of forward thinking that guided the PKK to help establish the People’s Democratic Party in Syria.
“Though the PJAK has long been inactive in the region, the renewed attacks targeting Iranian security could have correlations with the new US policies in the region under the Donald Trump administration,” the pro-government Daily Sabah argued, citing Ahmet Uysal, the head of the Center for Iranian Studies, an Ankara-based think tank. This may also explain why the PJAK and its political arm KODAR called on Iran’s estimated 8 million Kurds to boycott the country’s presidential election that was held May 19.
Yilmaz disagrees. Turkish-Iranian rapprochement coupled with the Trump administration’s shift away from President Barack Obama’s efforts to engage with Iran have shrunk the PKK’s maneuvering space. The weekend attacks are not about “winking and nodding at Washington but rather about the PKK baring its teeth at Iran,” she told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview.
Deciphering the often contradictory actions of Turkey, Iran and their respective proxies and enemies who occasionally double up as both is growing more difficult by the day. What to make, for instance, of the claims that the PKK and its Yazidi affiliate are helping Iranian-backed Shiite militias move north and west along the Syrian border, and of counter claims that the Shiite militias are if anything shutting them out?
A meeting of the Syrian Kurdish security forces known as the Asayish held in the border city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria to discuss “the Iranian project” suggests the latter version of events is more realistic. Ara News reported, "The Asayish said in a statement that a broad security meeting was held in Qamishli in the presence of the general commander of the Asayish forces, Ciwan Ibrahim, to discuss the formation of a defense system in Rojava-Northern Syria ‘to confront the Iranian project’ that is supported by the Baath regime forces and affiliated Shia groups.” The statement followed reports that the Iraqi Shiite militias had reached the Syrian border after clearing IS from a string of villages south of the Yazidi-dominated region of Sinjar.
As for the Iranian accusations against Turkey, Yilmaz contended they are likely "just more theatrics" aimed at sowing further confusion.