The Kurdish question which rarely obtrudes on Western consciousness has become a conspicuous feature of Iran’s latest plans for Syria.
This week saw Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) officers arriving in Kobani, Ayn al-Arab, Afrin and Qamishli, key towns of the autonomous Syrian Kurdish region of northern and northeast Syria. In the last two, they set up operations rooms.
(See attached map – http://www.debka.com/dynmedia/photos/legacy/weekly/map614.jpg)
This remote region has unique strategic value by virtue of its location. Its 3-4.5 million inhabitants belong to the community of greater Kurdistan, which stretches from parts of eastern Turkey through Syria into northern Iraq and over to northwestern Iran.
Syrian Kurdistan’s northern limit runs along 400 kilometers of the Syrian-Turkish border.
Anything happening in any of the four Kurdish national regions acts like quicksilver on the others and their environment. For instance, the development and prosperity enjoyed by the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraq (KRG) in the past decade, thanks to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, has inspired Kurdish brethren in Turkey, Iran and Syria to push harder than ever before for recognition of their rights with an unprecedented measure of success.
Iran takes a leaf out of America’s Syrian book
Violence has helped. Two armed Kurdish militias, the Turkish PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) and its Iranian counterpart PAJAK have for many years conducted terrorist operations against their central governments.
In recent years, both set up command centers in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, within easy reach of the targets they systematically harassed year after year in Turkey and Iran.
Not so long ago, any Middle East expert who suggested that one day, Tehran would take the violent PKK and PAJAK under its wing would have been certified as insane.
But the rush of groundbreaking events of recent weeks has made the wildest Middle East speculation look real. It took the brutal twists and turns of the Syrian war, the conclusion of a preliminary nuclear accord with Iran in Geneva, the race of the US, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia to resolve the Syrian conflict, each according to its respective interests and the final clincher, the Obama administration’s steps for establishing a US area of influence in southern Syria.
(See the leading article in this issue.)
Tehran takes all Kurdish armed groups under its wing
All these events came together to convince Iranian strategists not to settle for influence in Bashar Assad’s Damascus or for military intervention by their proxy, Hizballah, in the Syria war, but to take a leaf out of the American book and set aside a space for Iranian influence in the embattled country, like the wedge the Americans were carving out in southeastern Syria within the bounds of the Lebanese, Israeli, Jordanian and Iraqi borders.
Syrian Kurdistan was chosen as Iran’s slice of the Syrian pie.
Tehran’s ploy completes the country’s de facto partition into five sectors: The Kurdish region of the North, where IRGC officers have begun to set up shop; the north areas around Aleppo and in Damascus suburbs occupied by various rebel militias; the center and west which are held by Assad’s forces; the East and parts of the center overrun by Al Qaeda and its affiliates; and the South sector evolving as an area of US influence.
To consolidate their grip on their chosen turf, the Iranians have in the last few weeks taken certain actions:
1. Iran’s Al Qods Brigades and commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, have taken under their wing the entire gamut of armed and terrorist separatist Kurdish movements: the Turkish PKK, the Iranian PAJAK, the Syrian PYD (Kurdish Democratic Party) and its military arm, the PYG, promising them protection as well as filling their arsenals with all the arms and ammo they want.
This is the first time in its decades’ long history that PKK has accepted military assistance from Tehran.
Ceasefire pacts signed with Syrian and Iranian Kurdish separatists
2. Iran has negotiated a truce with its own Kurdish PAJAK separatists after many years of reciprocal violence. This deal virtually shut the door against Saudi intelligence penetration through PAJAK for covert action against the Islamic regime.
3. Gen. Soleimani has forged understandings with Syrian President Assad and his top generals for the halting of operations against the two native Kurdish militias, the PYD and PYG.
For the first time, Syrian Kurds can live in their own autonomous region without fear of military persecution.
4. Tehran has seriously upset Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s big plans for a peace pact with the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and an alliance with the Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani for curbing Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq and clipping Assad’s wings.
5. By turning the long-lasting Kurdish question on its head, Tehran has inflicted on Ankara one of its most painful setbacks in recent years as well as a strategic reverse. Long lines of armed Kurdish forces backed by Iran are now strung the full length of Turkey’s 1,200-kilometer long borders with Syria and Iraq, three times that of the Syrian Kurdish region.
6. IRGC officers have moved out of the Kurdish region and into the key towns of Aleppo, Hama and Homs, where they are taking control of the Kurdish neighborhoods. They are setting up Kurdish militias and arming them to fight rebel and jihadist forces. Assad has quietly approved this step.