A hot war has been raging in northern Iraq since mid-July, and despite the casualties and the drama, it has gone virtually unreported by the international media.
The war was launched on July 16 by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) troops in an effort to crush Iranian rebel Kurds who have sought refuge in the 12,000 foot high Qandil mountains that form the border between Iran and Iraq.
It began with cross-border shelling by Iranian artillery, air strikes, and several attempted ground incursions into Iraq by Iranian forces. But within ten days, NATO-ally Turkey openly joined the fray.
On whose side did Turkey fight? On behalf of the secular, pro-Western Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), whose bases in northern Iraq were under assault from the Islamist regime in Tehran? Think again.
The Turkish military sent 20 tanks into Iran at the invitation of the Iranian regime to support the flailing Iranian attack against the rebel Kurds. They also dispatched 300 Turkish Special Forces troops to Iran to conduct intelligence missions into the Qandil mountains using Heron surveillance drones purchased from Israel.
PJAK leader Rahman Haj Ahmadi told me that the Turkish drones were the most effective weapon the Iranian military used against them. “This limited our ability to move, but it didn’t matter much since most of our positions were underground,” he said.
The Turkish incursion marked just the latest instance of Turkey’s ongoing military and strategic alliance with Iran, an alliance that ought to give NATO allies pause, starting with the United States.
I first learned of the Turkey-Iran military alliance while on a reporting trip to PJAK bases in the wild mountains of northern Iraq four years ago. As we gazed up at an Iranian Revolutionary Guards base set atop the 12,000 foot peaks of the Qandil mountains, a PJAK guerilla told me that Iran and Turkey had established a joint military headquarters in Urmiyeh, Iran, to coordinate their military strikes against the Kurds.
“The goal of the Iranians is to drive us from the border area,” rebel leader Biryar Gabar told me. “They want to turn this area into a no-man’s land, so they can use it to smuggle weapons and Islamist guerillas into Iraq to fight the Americans.”
Despite all the help from Turkey, the IRGC has suffered a dramatic rout at the hands of the PJAK fighters, who repeatedly attacked IRGC bases inside Iranian Kurdistan in response to the Iranian attacks on their bases inside Iraq. Except for the initial onslaught, in which eight IRGC were killed, the IRGC troops were badly mauled.
According to accounts in the local media, PJAK fighters killed more than three hundred IRGC troops during the clashes. They even managed to kill the commanding general of IRGC troops in the region. We know this because he was given a public burial in Qom along with several other officers. The Iranian state-run media acknowledged they had been killed in the fighting.
After two weeks of running battles, PJAK was claiming victory. “Now everyone can see how powerful PJAK has become,” Ahmadi told me. “For Kurds, Qandil has become like Mecca, a sacred place. This is where we have shown our strength.”
Earlier this month, PJAK announced a unilateral ceasefire and called on the Iranian regime to negotiate their demands for Kurdish rights. PJAK is seeking to establish a democratic federation in Iran, not a separate state or separate province for the Kurds, as PJAK secretary general Rahman Haj Ahmadi told me when we met in Stockholm this summer.
The response from the IRGC was almost immediate. Instead of a ceasefire, they launched repeated shelling of PJAK bases and villages inside Iraq, killing three fighters, including the deputy commander of all PJAK forces. PJAK claimed its forces killed 107 IRGC fighters and destroyed two tanks, 5 vehicles and 1 bulldozer in counter-strikes against IRGC bases inside Iran. The shelling continues even as I write these words.
During the latest round of fighting, PJAK showed off NATO-issue weapons they claimed they had taken from dead Iranian troops, including Western-made night vision goggles, GPS systems, anti-tank missiles, and BKC guns. PJAK has claimed for some time that Iran's ally Turkey has provided NATO weaponry to Iran that has been turned against the Kurds, in direct violation of the North Atlantic Treaty.
This story is important to Americans for several reasons.
First, PJAK is a secular, pro-Western Iranian opposition group that ought to be a natural ally of the United States in any effort to put pressure on the Iranian regime. Their fighters are well- organized and highly-disciplined, and despite Iranian regime efforts to paint them as terrorists, they have never attacked civilians. In fact, PJAK sees itself primarily as a political group, not a military organization.
Second, PJAK has been effectively defending Iraq’s challenging northeastern border with Iran from IRGC and al Qaeda infiltration since the U.S.-led coalition ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003. U.S. military officers I have interviewed in Iraq acknowledged to me the importance of PJAK’s presence in guarding the border.
Third, the virtual silence from Baghdad even as Iraqi territory was being attacked and Iraqi citizens were being killed, shows just how successful the Iranians have been at intimidating the government of prime minister Nouri al-Malaki.
But most important is that it reveals Turkey’s strategic and military alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran. At the joint headquarters they have established in the northwestern Iranian city of Urmiyeh, Turkish generals offer strategic advise to their Iranian counterparts and Turkish counter-insurgency specialists train IRGC troops – actions that ought to an outrage to the entire NATO alliance.
Under the direction of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP, Turkey has increasingly dropped all pretence of remaining a friend and ally of the West. Instead, Erdogan seems intent on throwing in his lot with the Islamists in a bid to restore the Muslim caliphate Ataturk abolished in 1924.
In his latest attempt to claim leadership of the Muslim world, Erdogan thumped his chest in front of Arab leaders in Cairo on Tuesday, demanding that Israel “must pay the price for the crimes it committed.” He was referring to the response of Israeli commandos, armed with paint ball guns, who intercepted the MV Mavi Marmara off the coast of Gaza last year.
After an Israeli commander was eviscerated by the “civilians” on board the “humanitarian” ship, Israeli soldiers opened fire, killing nine activists on board. What Erdogan and most of the media won’t tell you, is that the entire “peace flotilla” operation was orchestrated by Turkey’s MIT intelligence agency on Erdogan’s personal orders, sources familiar with the Israeli investigation have told me.
Turkish intelligence officers trained the people on board the Mavi Marmara in close combat techniques, and helped them to gather knives, steel bars and other weapons to inflict the great damage on the Israeli commandos. The viciousness of their attacks was documented in video footage seized by the IDF after they took control of the ship.
Erdogan is now saying he will dispatch the Turkish navy to escort future flotillas to Gaza. (Iran promised to do the same last year but backed down after Israel made clear that it would intercept blockade-runners no matter who escorted them).
Will NATO members wake up to the “new” Turkey in their midst, intent on advancing the Islamist cause, even to extent of providing military support to the Iranian regime?