Intel: Why Turkey might want the US to think it’s working with Iran

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Turkey’s interior minister announced today that Ankara and Tehran have launched joint operations against Kurdish rebels along Turkey’s eastern border. But Iran almost immediately denied the report, raising suspicion about Ankara’s motives in making the assertion.

Why it matters: Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the joint operation against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) began at 8 a.m. local time on March 18 and marked “a first in history.” Speaking at a campaign rally in the southern coastal town of Serik ahead of local elections on March 31, Soylu vowed to “announce the outcome” once the operation was over. So far the Turkish Defense Ministry has not confirmed any such operation. 

Soylu’s announcement comes as US-Turkey relations continue to deteriorate. A key point of contention is Washington’s continued support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), its on-the-ground partner in the battle against what remains of Islamic State terrorists. The SDF, which includes both Arab and Kurdish fighters, is composed primarily of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which administers northeastern Syria.

Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist offshoot of the PKK. As such, Ankara has an interest in telegraphing to Washington that it will work with any willing partner in its fight against the PKK — even at the expense of undermining the Donald Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign to isolate Iran. “The US told us not to enter Afrin” in northwestern Syria, Soylu exclaimed defiantly. “But we damn did it, didn’t we!”

What’s next: Iran has denied the claim. “Iran has no involvement in Turkey’s military operation,” the Tasnim News Agency reported, citing official sources. Most experts also rule out Iranian involvement across the border. And if Iran was involved, it would want to keep its participation as discreet as possible. Kamal Chomani, a Middle East policy expert at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told Al-Monitor last week that Iran has no interest in provoking retaliation from the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), the Iranian extension of the PKK. “Why should Iran provoke clashes on its border and in its cities?” Chomani said.

Know more: Read Mahmut Bozarslan’s latest on the history of questionable Turkish claims of cooperation with Iran against the Kurds here. For more on the standoff between Turkey and the United States, check Al-Monitor diplomatic correspondent Semih Idiz’s latest here.

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