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To Counter Iran, Ankara Must Accommodate the Kurds

The agreement between the P5+1 and Iran is a game changer that weakens Turkey’s strategic position in Syria and Iraq. In response to Iran’s strengthened hand, Turkey has two options with the forces that exist on the ground in this region: a grand bargain with the Kurds or managing a coalition of rival Islamic and non-Islamic militias that have no intrinsic loyalty to Turkey. The AKP government responded to the Iran deal by opting for the second choice. This is a strategic mistake.

Ankara’s choice has in turn affected the Kurdistan Worker’s Party’s (PKK) calculus. In his time, Sultan Selim I of the Ottoman Empire opted for the first choice with Idris Bitlisi, a Kurdish religious scholar and administrator from the Bitlis province. The 16th-century deal granted the Kurds local autonomy in exchange for securing the border against Iran. This is an Ottoman precedent that has much to teach us for the present situation. Turkey cannot effectively cope with Iran’s rising power without coming to an accommodation with its Kurdish population.

The battle of Kobani was an emotional turning point for Kurds throughout the region.

Rojava, as the self-governing zones in northern Syria are known to the Kurds, is the singular achievement of the PKK’s “Democratic Confederalism” agenda that seeks to create a confederation of four locally autonomous Kurdish regions each bound to its country of origin – Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Turkey – through federal relationships. Rojava has captured the hearts of the Kurds in Turkey and is also highly important to PKK supporters in Iran. The battle of Kobani was an emotional turning point for Kurds throughout the region. The Democratic Union Party (PYD)-controlled autonomous cantons also put the PKK on a par with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), particularly President Masoud Barzani’s the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). It is not surprising therefore that fighters from the PKK’s Iranian affiliate are fighting in northern Syria. Iran and the PKK have a common enemy in ISIL that provides opportunities for temporary, tactical cooperation. Through a military campaign to eradicate the organization, Turkey can drive the PKK into a full-fledged alliance with Tehran.

Iran has a long-standing relationship with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a social-democratic political party in Iraqi Kurdistan. When ISIL advanced into Iraq, Iran was the first country to provide weapons to Iraqi Kurds – specifically the PUK. Iran has an opportunity to bolster the position of the PUK which, while politically weaker than the KDP within the formal boundaries of the KRG, is stronger in several Kurdish areas in the disputed territories. Iran wants to prevent KRG independence and it will seek to pressure the KDP to be more conciliatory toward Tehran’s interests through supporting the KDP’s rivals within the Kurdistan Regional Government.

When ISIL advanced into Iraq, Iran was the first country to provide weapons to Iraqi Kurds – specifically the PUK.

Let’s remember that, according to the PYD’s Co-Chairman Salih Muslim, the arms that were airdropped from anti-ISIL coalition planes for the Kurdish defenders of Kobani were weapons gifted by the PUK.[1] The cordial relationship between the PUK and the PYD/PKK has already produced a certain level of political and logistical cooperation. Turkey will pay a much steeper price than it bargained for if it pushes the PYD and/or the PKK to Iran.

This is what I call in my Foreign Affairs article Ankara’s real strategic nightmare.[2] An alternative PKK-PUK led Kurdish corridor could emerge stretching from the Iraq-Iran border at Khanaqin through Makhmur and Sinjar in Iraq’s disputed territories and from there to the Kurdish areas of northern Syria along Turkey’s southern border. The situation would be worse in Turkey’s southeast. With Iran enhancing the PKK’s capabilities, Turkish security forces would have greater difficulty enforcing the will of the Turkish state in the region. In this case, the PKK could truly establish an alternative state structure. Moreover, it would be beholden to do Tehran’s bidding.

If Ankara were able to reach an understanding with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, and provide Turkish Kurdistan some semblance of autonomy, an Ankara-oriented PKK/PYD confederation would dominate approximately two-thirds of the greater Kurdistan population. Given Öcalan’s democratic confederalist agenda, an accord between the Ankara and the PKK could result in a Turkish grand strategy for Kurdistan whereby the KRG remained sufficiently autonomous to continue energy exports to Turkey but constrained from outright independence by being subsumed into a pan-Kurdish confederation. The KRG and Rojava would become part of a de facto greater Kurdistan client state serving as a “buffer zone” insulating Turkey’s southern borders. 

If Ankara and the PKK can return to the “Dolmabahçe roadmap” wherein meaningful accommodation of Kurdish demands is implemented concurrent with the decommissioning of militants within Turkey's borders, as in the days of Selim I and Idris Bitlisi, Turkey would create a constellation of amenable Kurdish allies.


[1] “PYD’li Salih Müslim: Kobani’ye havadan atılan silahların parasını KYB ödedi,” [Salih Muslim of PYD: PUK paid for the arms dropped by air to Kobani] Radikal, 19 July 2015,

[2] Micha’el Tanchum, “Rojava’s Witness: The Kurds and Ankara’s Real Strategic Nightmare,” Foreign Affairs, 5 August 2015,

Michaël Tanchum
Michaël Tanchum

Dr. Michaël Tanchum teaches international relations of the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Navarra, Spain and is a Senior Fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies (AIES). He also holds fellow positions at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Hebrew University, Israel, and at the Centre for Strategic Policy Implementation at Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM). Follow Michaël Tanchum: @michaeltanchum 


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