Kurds Menaced by Turkey, Wooed by Iran

President Donald Trump is not the only world leader directly engaging the key players in the Syrian scenario. (See article on Trump-Erdogan parley.) Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is matching him step for step – except that he, unlike the president, is using an emissary.
Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, supreme commander of Iranian forces in the Middle East, is reported by DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources to have paid two secret visits last week to the twin capitals of the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.
The KRG is ruled by two rival clans: Irbil is the seat of KRG President Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), while Sulaymaniyah is the headquarters of Jalal Talabani, former president of Iraq, and his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Party.
The Iranian general was on a mission to prevent a Kurdish referendum on independence and its corollary, the rise of a Kurdish state in oil-rich northern Iraq.
To this end, he tried to persuade the Talabani faction – by threats and warnings – to back out of its agreement with the Barzanis on a date this year for a referendum. The two rivals are joining forces for this poll as a lever for winning the best deal possible on self-determination, after the Islamic State is defeated in Mosul.
Soleimani argued that a date was premature; the Kurds would do better to wait for the Mosul battle to end and then adjust their steps to its results. He warned the Kurdish leaders that, even if ISIS is finished in Mosul, it still holds strong positions in the western Iraqi province of Anbar and around the oil city of Kirkuk.
“I’m advising you to take down the Kurdish flags from the rooftops of Kirkuk,” said the Iranian general. “You may still need the Iraqi army’s help for defending the city against an impending ISIS attack.”
The Kurds are also hearing threats and menaces from another quarter, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On April 6, while campaigning for a popular “yes’ in the April 15 referendum for his sweeping constitutional changes, Erdogan announced in a television interview that preparations were afoot for new “cross-border operations against the PKK.”
The ending of Operation Euphrates Shield [in Syria] was not the end of such incursions into its southern neighbor, he said. “…future operations would have an Iraqi dimension along with a Syrian dimension.”
DEBKA Weekly’s sources identity the “Iraqi dimension” as Sinjar, a town in the Nineveh province of Iraq near Mount Shingal. Its population of 75,000 is mostly Yazidi with a Muslim Kurdish minority. It is situated some 120km from the Iraqi-Turkish border and 100km from the Syrian Kurdish towns of Hasakeh and Qamishli.
In the past year, the militant Turkish PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) smuggled around 3,000 fighters into Sinjar. A string of military facilities has transformed the Iraqi town into a PKK command center, more strategically placed than its former headquarters in the Iraqi Qandil Mountains near the Iranian border.
The Turkish president justifies his decision to preemptively smash the Kurdish Sinjar stronghold by the PKK chief’s vow to embark on military operations from southern Turkey against the regime, as soon as the vote tally was over
The Turkish-Kurdish issue is meanwhile growing multiple dimensions.
Ankara tried unsuccessfully to sell Washington a new blueprint for an anti-ISIS Raqqa offensive that cuts out the participation of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (the Syrian YPG militia). It was rejected by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he visited Ankara earlier this month, as well as Defense Secretary James Mattis in Washington. Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik made another attempt to push the plan during a brief visit to Washington on April 14. He explained that it had not been properly understood before.
Erdogan is meanwhile running hard to gain lost ground with KRG President Barzani.
Hitherto a stalwart supporter of the Turkish drive against the PKK – because he suspected that some of its commanders were under Iranian influence – Barzani is no longer as keen on persecuting the group as he was when he visited Ankara three months ago.
Turkey has been inviting The KRG’s intelligence chief, another Masoud Barzani, for frequent visits to Ankara every few days to solicit his backing for the Turkish case against the PKK.
Exacerbating the volatility of this issue, Tehran and Syria’s Bashar Assad have just put in their oar.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that in the past few days, Iranian agents have approached Syrian Kurdish leaders, including YPG commanders, with a new proposition: Break off ties with the Americans and the Trump administration and throw in your lot with Iran and Damascus, they said, and you will receive all the weapons and funds you want.
Furthermore, they promised that, after the Syrian war is over, the three Syrian Kurdish enclaves of Qamishli, Kobani and Afrin would be awarded the same semiautonomous status as the KRG in Iraq.
The Iranian agents moreover advised the Kurds not to trust the Americans in view of their past perfidy. They recalled former US pledges of backing for the Kurds, which were rescinded when Washington found it more advantageous to line up with Turkey. (See separate article in this issue with revelations about the Trump-Erdogan conversation)

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