As Turkey continues to bombard Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) related targets in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Qandil Mountains with artillery and jet fighter sorties we see the emergence of another potential conflict in Iraqi Kurdistan’s east. That involves Iran.
The mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan has not only been an effective sanctuary for PKK fighters over the years. But also for fighters of the ‘Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan’ group, which is known by its Kurdish acronym PJAK.
Believed to be an affiliate of the PKK (for all intents-and-purposes it should be viewed as the Iranian wing of that organization, same ideology and basic goals but for Iran) PJAK consists of Kurds who have been fighting Tehran and seek self-rule on behalf of the Iranian Kurds of Iran’s northwestern Kurdistan region. However a curious distinction between the two has been made. By Washington. Having branded the PKK a terrorist organization since 1997 it has not applied the same label to the PJAK. Seemingly because it doesn’t fight its NATO ally Turkey but is engaged in a guerrilla war against Tehran. Additionally the PKK often emphasis the technical difference between the two groups by pointing out to Iran that it hasn’t fought against it to date. Indeed Ankara has frequently accused Tehran in the past of supporting the PKK against them while Tehran accuses the west of supporting PJAK.
The PJAK have fought a campaign against Tehran which began back in 2004. The conflict has been mostly a low-level one characterized by clashes and PJAK bombing attacks targeting mostly Iranian military, paramilitary and security forces. Not unlike how the PKK often target and kill members of Turkey’s police, security and military forces.
Events in the Qandil Mountains back in 2011 are worth recalling as they give a useful precedent to events presently unfolding. In July when clashes between the PJAK and Tehran escalated Iran’s paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) intervened in Iraqi Kurdistan against PJAK forces in those mountains. These included border incursions and artillery strikes which lasted throughout the summer and only ended when a ceasefire was agreed to in late September.
In the midst of these clashes between the IRGC and PJAK the Turkish Air Force carried out air strikes against 132 PKK targets, and pounded another 349 targets with artillery, in the same mountainous areas following the killings by the PKK their security forces in southeastern Turkey in the preceding weeks. However those two operations emanating from the east and west are an informative precedent to the rapidly unfolding events we see in Iraqi Kurdistan today.
Since mid-2011 two ceasefires were introduced. Following the end of that IRGC operation into Iraqi Kurdistan the PJAK agreed to a ceasefire and withdrew forces it had in Iran to the Qandil mountains. Similarly in early 2013 the PKK and Ankara agreed to a truce to the conflict which begun back in 1984. The PKK withdrew many of its forces and arms from southeastern Turkey into its Qandil sanctuary. Those same PKK forces would come down from their mountain sanctuaries to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group in 2014.
Since that time however both ceasefires and truces have broken down and there has been thunder in the Qandil mountains as a result. The recent collapse of the Ankara-PKK truce has seen Turkish jets and artillery pound PKK positions in those mountains. At the same time however we are seeing the conflict between Iran and PJAK resume. Three events from the last few weeks signify that we may see Iran also begin to intervene in those mountains. Possibly at the same time as these ongoing Turkish bombardments.
On August 7 PJAK claimed that its armed wing, the ‘East Kurdistan Defense Forces Units’ (YRK), killed twenty Iranian soldiers in Iran’s northwestern Kurdish region. Iran denies that this is so stating that their forces were attacked but only minor damage was caused. However at the same time they are clearing off a part of the Iranian border with Iraqi Kurdistan to monitor movements back and forth from Iraqi Kurdistan to Iran. This September 1 has seen to an attack carried out by the IRGC on PJAK members in Iran itself. The IRGC claimed they have killed, according to Rudaw, “a number of” PJAK members, including one female fighter, while losing one of their troops.
If clashes between Iran and PJAK escalate this could well result in another Iranian operation targeting such forces in the Qandil Mountains. If they occur as this Turkish campaign continues it will be interesting to see if they coordinate such operations and/or if Tehran pressures the PKK to reign in PJAK. We could even see these two armed Kurdish groups hunkering down in the Qandil while being attacked from both their west and east.