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Why Iran and Turkey Are Attacking the Kurds - by Caroline Rose for Geopolitical Futures - 14.12.22

Both see the group as a long-term problem, but they have ulterior motives for acting now.

In mid-November, violence erupted in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdistan, two of the comparatively quieter, safer quarters of the Levant. Separately but within just a few days of each other, Iran and Turkey executed rocket and drone strikes against Kurdish militant and political organizations that they consider national security threats. The Turkish and Iranian militaries have hinted at potential ground offensives against Kurdish targets too, reinforcing troops at their borders with personnel and heavy armored equipment.

But the sudden escalation against Kurdish militant and political groups says more about Turkish and Iranian domestic politics than it does about their respective national security agendas. Mounting economic concerns, protests and electoral uncertainty have compelled Ankara and Tehran to pursue military campaigns in neighboring Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan to distract their publics, shift blame and wield leverage against adversaries.

Turkish Pretext

For Turkey, the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq have long presented a geopolitical challenge. Since the 1970s, the Turkish government has been at odds with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant organization that Ankara considers a terrorist organization and a considerable political threat to its neo-Ottoman agenda.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) sees Kurdish enclaves in northeast Syria and northern Iraq as little more than hubs for terrorist activity that could embolden Kurdish political parties and militants in Turkey. The government has therefore characterized the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and People’s Defense Units (YPG) as PKK offshoots and, thus, legitimate terrorist targets, and has hunted PKK militants along the Qandil Mountain range in northern Iraq since 1983.

Turkey also sees an opportunity in this Kurdish threat. Turkey is the world’s largest host of refugees, with more than 3.6 million Syrian migrants granted temporary protection. Inflation rates have risen and the job market has tightened, which, along with the 2016 migrant deal with the EU that prevents Turkey from directing migration flows into Europe, has led to increased hostility against refugees.

Erdogan’s government has sought to offload Syrian migrants to ease economic and socio-political pressure. Since 2019, Turkey has wanted what it calls a “peace corridor,” a 30-kilometer (19-mile) zone in northeast Syria, far away from the Syrian government and the large swaths of Islamic State-controlled territory but with enough infrastructure to be relatively viable thanks to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Here, Ankara can repatriate Syrian refugees and insulate itself from more spillover from the Syrian civil war.

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Caroline Rose is a Senior Analyst and Head of the Power Vacuums program in the Human Security Unit at the New Lines Institute, where she focuses on contested territories, displacement, ungoverned spaces, and risks to human security. Prior to joining the New Lines Institute, Caroline served as an analyst at the forecasting firm and publication, Geopolitical Futures, where she worked on political, economic, and defense developments in the Middle East and Europe. She is also the author of a special policy report on the Captagon drug trade–a culmination of her studies and field work as Research Associate for the LSE International Drug Policy Unit’s Middle East Initiative.

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