Turkey’s row with Germany amid cooperation with Iran

Turkey’s row with Germany amid cooperation with Iran

Before departing for his visit to Jordan on Aug. 21, President Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkey and Iran could soon carry out joint military operations against “terrorist organizations” in Iraq.

He was referring to the two outlawed groups that the two countries are aiming to hit: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdoğan’s remarks coincided with another statement on the same day by Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, who praised Turkey for giving the “greatest damage” to ISIL so far by killing a total of 4,600 militants up to now in Syria and Iraq.

Erdoğan was asked specifically about cooperation with Iran on targets in Sinjar and Kandil, where PKK activities are particularly high. The question came in reference to an Aug. 15-17 visit to Ankara by Iranian Chief of General Staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri, after which he said there could be “operative cooperation” between the two countries “against terrorist organizations.” 

The Kandil Mountains, in Masoud Barzani-led Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territory near the Turkish and Iranian borders, has been used by the PKK as its headquarters for over two decades. The Sinjar Mountains near Iraq’s borders with Turkey and Syria, were saved from ISIL occupation by KRG forces but later came under the domination of the PKK. Turkey and Iran are worried that a Kandil-Sinjar corridor would mean the emergence of a territorial continuum controlled by the PKK and - under current circumstances - under U.S. protection.

Tehran has been fighting against the Iranian branch of the PKK for a long time, and it is particularly upset by the fact that the PKK’s Syrian branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is serving as the ground force of the U.S. Central Command in the fight against ISIL. 

The whole picture presents a deep contradiction indeed. Turkey and the U.S. are NATO allies and both designate the PKK as a terrorist organization, (it was the CIA that helped Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency arrest PKK head Abdullah Öcalan as he left the Greek Embassy in Kenya in 1999). But Washington has opted to work with the PKK against ISIL, so Turkey is seeking cooperation with Iran, which is facing a new round of sanctions by U.S. President Donald Trump.

A similar contradiction in the form of serious tension is escalating between Turkey and Germany, another NATO ally. As in the case with the U.S., Ankara is at odds with the German government over alleged lack of cooperation on two main issues: The PKK and steps to be taken against suspected members of the illegal network of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher accused of masterminding the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is upset with the situation of a number of German citizens in Turkish prisons, as a part of drastic measures under the state of emergency declared by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) after the coup attempt. Criticizing the regression of rights and freedoms in Turkey, Merkel has taken the lead in the European Union on taking economic measures against Turkey. As part of this, she is in favor of putting on hold the upgrading of the existing Customs Union deal between Ankara and Brussels, in order to avoid encouraging President Erdoğan. She knows that no leader in Europe will object to such a halt under the current circumstances.

Erdoğan believes that this is all just part of Merkel’s election campaign, but her determination could well continue after the Sept. 24 elections. One result of this would likely be for Erdoğan to continue looking for military and intelligence cooperation with other partners, including non-NATO ones like Iran and Russia.

Under normal circumstances, Ankara would not be expected to make a strategic alliance with either Russia or Iran. But as Turkey sees both the PKK and the Gülen network as existential threats, Erdoğan may opt to cooperate more closely with them. In the fundamentals, such a move would not be so different from the U.S. partnering with the PKK in Syria. 

Such steps carry the risk of undoing the 1947 Truman Plan, which tied Turkey to the Western alliance (together with Greece) against Soviet expansion. The West would learn in a bitter way what it means to lose an ally like Turkey, while Turkey would learn in a bitter way what it means to be left out of the Western alliance.

History is full of wrong turns, taken seemingly out of necessity due to actors being cornered or being pushed out. The government of Turkey, as well as the U.S. and Germany, should calmly and carefully assess the current risks.