In late May, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a fresh offensive against Kurdish militants operating across the country's common border with Iraq. In and of itself, the new campaign was not remarkable; Turkey's military has long carried out cross-border operations against elements associated with the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which represents the most significant insurgent threat to the Turkish state. Moreover, in preceding weeks, the Turkish government had stepped up its military operations in the country's east and southeast as part of a broad counterterrorism offensive.
Yet the targets of the May raid were not fighters directly associated with the PKK. They were, instead, Kurdish militants from the Kurdistan Free Life Party, or PJAK. Airstrikes carried out by the Turkish Air Force north of Suleimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan on May 26th succeeded in killing at least two members of the far-left militant group, which has waged a long-running guerrilla campaign against neighboring Iran.
That campaign is rooted in Iran's long imperial history, which over the centuries succeeded in bringing a range of cultures under Persian control. The result is a present-day Iran made up of a complex mix of nationalities and ethnic forces – forces which are kept only barely under control by repressive religious rule.
Indeed, the Iranian regime today faces serious internal political opposition that extends from the country's northwest provinces of East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan and Ardabil (home to the bulk of Iranian Azerbaijanis) to Sistan-Baluchistan in the southeast, where the preponderance of Iranian Baluch reside. Iran's majority Kurdish regions of West Azerbaijan, Kordestan and Kermanshah are similarly restive. PJAK waged a sustained military campaign there against Iranian forces between 2004 and 2011, and its militants have clashed sporadically with the Iranian military since. The most recent such attack took place in early May, when a senior commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, along with two lieutenants, was gunned down in broad daylight by PJAK fighters in western Iran.
The Iranian regime has found it difficult to quell such opposition. Despite a range of repressive policies and military offensives aimed at pacifying those restive regions, the Islamic Republic hasn't managed to suppress political activism by its assorted ethnic communities, or to thoroughly squelch anti-state activities by separatist forces like PJAK.
But now, at least, Tehran appears to have acquired a new ally against them. In recent weeks, as part of its own broad counterterrorism operations, Ankara has assisted Tehran in pushing back against Kurdish opposition elements in what observers say is a growing willingness to collaborate against common threats.
Such coordination makes sound strategic sense for Ankara, too. Turkey's Erdogan has long articulated an ambitious vision of a "neo-Ottoman" sphere of influence in the Middle East and North Africa. In recent times, however, this geopolitical agenda has rubbed up against some harsh regional realities.
In Libya, Ankara's support of the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord has increasingly put it at odds with Moscow, which heavily backs insurgent strongman Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army in their efforts to take over the country. Further friction between the two sides there, many now fear, could end up upsetting the tenuous modus vivendi that has emerged over the past half-year between Turkey and Russia in Syria – potentially setting the stage for a new escalation of that long-running conflict. (This worry has been exacerbated in recent days by reports that Russia has begun expanding its military presence in northeastern Syria, where Ankara is ensconced.)
Ankara is also facing new resistance from Egypt, where the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is moving ahead with plans for a regional anti-Turkey alliance. At a recent virtual meeting, the foreign ministers of Egypt, the UAE, Greece, Cyprus and France reportedly agreed about the need to confront what they jointly view as provocative Turkish military and commercial activity in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Against this backdrop, the Turkish government appears to be turning east – and doubling down on its longstanding relationship with the Islamic Republic. The immediate product of this pivot is deeper cooperation between the two countries against the Kurds.