Why Syria and Iran are becoming Turkey’s enemies, again
Demonstrators shout slogans and wave Turkish flags on October 23, 2011 during a protest in central Ankara against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) after the separatist group's guerrillas killed 24 soldiers and wounded 18 along the Iraqi border on October 19, 2011, the army's biggest losses since 1993. (Getty Images)
October 29th, 2011
08:28 PM ET

Why Syria and Iran are becoming Turkey’s enemies, again

Editor's Note: Soner Cagaptay is a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and is the co-author, with Scott Carpenter, of Regenerating the U.S.-Turkey Partnership.

By Soner Cagaptay – Special to CNN

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) will dominate the news in the coming days.  The PKK, a group known for its violent attacks against Turkey, is fast becoming part of the new trilateral power game between Turkey, Iran and Syria as Bashar al Assad cracks down on demonstrators in his country.

In the 1990s, Iran, whose authoritarian regime disliked secular Turkey next door, asked Syria to harbor the PKK so it could attack Ankara to hurt Turkey’s standing as the political antidote to Iran.

Then, Turkey, Iran and Syria all became friends with the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey.  The PKK issue disappeared, or so it appeared.

Turkey and Syria started a dialogue after Ankara forced the Assad regime to stop harboring the PKK. Turkey massed troops on its border with Syria in 1998.  Turkey did not fire a single bullet, but the very credible threat of use of force convinced Assad to change his behavior.

Then with the start of the Iraq War in 2003, Turkey and Iran became, in a sense, friends. Alarmed by the U.S. military presence to its east in Afghanistan and to its west in Iraq, Tehran concluded that it needed to win its neighbor Turkey to break the grip of the U.S.-led ring of isolation forming around it.  Iranian support for the PKK ended, as if cut with a knife, the day U.S. troops started landing in Iraq.

Eight years later, Tehran is re-evaluating its strategic environment.  With U.S. troops leaving Iraq and Iran gaining influence there, Tehran feels that it can act differently towards Turkey.

Meanwhile, Turkey emerged as the key opponent of the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown. It has threatened action against Assad if the killing does not stop.  In response, Damascus has decided to make things difficult for Turkey.  U.S. and Turkish officials  suggest  that the Syrian regime once again allows PKK activity on its territory.

Since Damascus knows that it would almost certainly face a Turkish invasion if it were to allow PKK attacks from its territory into Turkey, it has turned to its ally Tehran for assistance.

Tehran, already annoyed that Turkey is trying to push it out of Iraq, has been glad to help.  Iran desperately needs to end Turkey’s policy of confronting Assad.  If not countered, this policy will usher in the end of the Assad regime in Syria, costing Iran its precious Levantine client state.  Hence, Iran’s age-old strategy against Turkey has been resuscitated: using the PKK to attack Ankara from another country in order to pressure Turkey.

Accordingly, since the beginning of the summer, the PKK has attacked Turkey from Iraq, killing almost 100 Turks as well as kidnapping dozens of people.

Thus forms the Middle Eastern “PKK circle”: the more people Assad kills, the more hardline Turkey’s policies will become against Syria.  This will, in turn, drive Iranian-Syrian action against Turkey through PKK attacks from Iraq.  PKK attacks will rise.

Turkey, Iran and the Assad regime are locked in a power game over Syria’s future.  Either Ankara will win and Assad will fall, or Tehran will win and Ankara, hurt by PKK attacks, will throw in the towel and let Syria be.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Soner Cagaptay.

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Topics: Iran • Syria • Turkey

soundoff (76 Responses)
  1. Hamma Mirwaisi

    Anyone have an ounce of humanity, when they read comment from majority of Turks from Turkey, they know right away that they are racist and without humanity. Just read them out from their comment.
    The people in the world must take time to know Turks of Turkey. Majority of them proudly are calling themselves gray wolf, only bloodthirsty people are calling themselves gray wolf.
    The worlds are getting civilized but gray wolfs going backward. The only language they understand is the language of force. Read

    November 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  2. dnott

    This article inappropriately oversimplifies the dynamic relationship between the PKK and Turkey.

    November 26, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Reply
  3. Azad Dewani

    Kurdistan and the Kurdish problem with the racist Ottomans and then Turks is there since centuries and not the product of the newly established nation states Syria and Iran. The Kurdish problem should be solved peacefully by the western pressure on the Turkish racist regime. Otherwise, more catastrophes against innocents Kurds are coming. Similarly to the genocides of millions of Armenians, Bulgarian and Balkaninan Christians by Turks.

    December 6, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  4. Azad Dewani

    Turkey is a state of racist terrorism and the victims are Kurds! It is shame of the West to help such brutal regime of Killers against a people seek their right to self determination.

    December 6, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  5. Azad Dewani

    The can have some difficult times, but they always agree if it is about their fake and artificial sovereignty of racist and brutal regimes: The Turkish racist regime, the Islamic racist regime, the Syrian Ba'athist racist regime!

    December 6, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  6. Azad Dewani

    They might have some difficult times, but they always agree if it is about their fake and artificial sovereignty of racist and brutal regimes: The Turkish racist regime, the Islamic racist regime, the Syrian Ba'athist racist regime!

    December 6, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  7. Azad Dewani

    Who are Kurds? and how they have been subjugated? Kurdistan and the Kurdish problem with the racist Ottomans and then Turks is there since centuries and not the product of the newly established nation states Syria and Iran. The Kurdish problem should be solved peacefully by the western pressure on the Turkish racist regime. Otherwise, more catastrophes against innocents Kurds are coming. Similarly to the genocides of millions of Armenians, Bulgarian and Balkaninan Christians by the Turkish terrorists and racists.

    December 20, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Reply
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