The Kurds are ‘the ideal scapegoat for both Turkey and Iran’

Turkey launched a new offensive against Kurdish groups in Syria on Sunday amid a simultaneous air campaign against Iraqi Kurdistan launched by the restive Iranian regime – which has been fighting Kurds on both sides of their cross-border homeland.

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Turkey launched what it called “Operation Sword-Claw” on November 20, bombing Kurdish groups in Syria. In recent days, Ankara struck several 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 Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Syria-based YPG (People’s Protection Units) were responsible for a deadly attack in Istanbul on November 13 (Kurdish groups have denied the allegations). Ankara appears to have an eye on the symbolic city of Kobane in northern Syria, which Kurdish forces seized from Islamic State jihadists in 2015.

Iran, meanwhile, is bombing Iraqi Kurdistan – accusing Kurdish movements of fueling the wave of nationwide protests that have rocked the regime since Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman, died in custody by the Islamic Republic’s “morality police” on September 13.

To better understand what is at stake in the Middle East as the Kurds find themselves under attack from both Turkey and Iran, Axadle spoke to Adel Bakawan, director of the French Research Center for Iraq.

The Kurds are under attack from both Turkey in Syria and from Iran in northern Iraq. Have the two countries coordinated their offensives?

There is no concrete evidence that Ankara and Tehran are cooperating on this – but we cannot rule it out. Logically, one could see why it would be in the interest of both countries. Turkey and Iran are both going through difficult times. Turkey is plagued by a severe economic crisis, and Erdogan is not in a good position as the June 2023 presidential election approaches. So he is in a very difficult situation at home, and abroad there are constant diplomatic tensions with the West.

As for Iran, the protest movement is rocking the Islamic Republic and has shown no signs of going away. Given that both nations see their Kurdish population as a threat to their territorial integrity, the Kurds are the ideal scapegoat for both Turkey and Iran in the midst of their respective crises.

Why is Erdogan targeting the Kurds in Syria?

The closer we get to next year’s presidential election, 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 voters as Turkey’s savior, distracting attention from his poor economic performance. Therefore, 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 US, as well as by Turkey.

Erdogan is also keen to capitalize on growing discontent with the presence of 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, which people are increasingly voicing. 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 attack in Istanbul that he is 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 against 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 the part of northern Syria currently occupied by Kurds.

What is Iran trying to achieve by attacking Kurdish targets in Iraq?

Despite violent repression, the Iranian government has not been able to subdue the protest movement that emerged on September 16. The Islamic Republic has tried to portray it as an agitation for independence in parts of the country inhabited by the Kurdish minority; it tries to present the movement in ethnic terms. The regime has even tried to claim that the protests are a Sunni insurgency championed by Saudi Arabia, Western countries and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq to destabilize Shiite Iran.

All these attempts to portray the movement as a divisive ethnic force have failed because the protests are apparently nationwide. It’s not like they only happen in Kurdish or Baloch cities. And the protesters have taken the young Kurdish victim, Mahsa Amini, as a national symbol of their struggle, a rallying point of reference for the country’s youth.

So as 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 is 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 these groups of inciting protests on its territory.

In recent days, Tehran has been lobbying the new government in Baghdad, which is dominated by pro-Iranian factions, to pressure the Kurdistan Regional Government to expel the KDPI and the Komala Party from Iraq.

And finally – from a cynical perspective – the Iranians know very well that they can attack Iraqi Kurdistan without much protest from either Baghdad or the West.

This article has been translated from the original into French.

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