Turkish Generals Admit Military and Intelligence Coordination with Iran

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 22

Turkish General Ilker Basbug

On June 6, General Ilker Basbug, the commander of the Turkish Land Forces, confirmed that Turkey and Iran were sharing intelligence and coordinating military operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—which is primarily composed of Turkish Kurds—and its Iranian affiliate, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK). Both rebel groups have their headquarters and main training camps in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq.

Although it has long been assumed that security cooperation between Turkey and Iran has included both intelligence-sharing and the coordination of military operations against the PKK and PJAK, Basbug’s statement is the first public confirmation by a high-ranking Turkish military official. Turkey and Iran first signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on security cooperation on July 29, 2004, three months after PJAK’s inaugural congress in April 2004 and two months after the May 2004 decision by the PKK to return to violence following a five-year unilateral ceasefire. This agreement was reinforced on April 17, 2008, by a new MOU which foresaw a broadening and deepening of security cooperation between the two countries (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, April 18).

Speaking with journalists on the sidelines of an international conference in Istanbul organized by the Strategic Research and Study Center (SAREM), a think-tank established by the Turkish General Staff (TGS), Basbug dismissed suggestions that the two countries’ militaries had conducted any joint operations: “Iran and Turkey have been conducting coordinated, simultaneous operations on their respective borders,” said Basbug. “We are sharing intelligence with Iran. We are talking and making plans” (Milliyet, Hurriyet, June 6).

Most of the coordination appears to have involved “hammer and anvil” operations, in which military units from one country have been deployed to intercept any militants attempting to flee across the border in advance of an offensive launched by military units in the other country. Although it was not explicitly confirmed by Basbug, Turkey and Iran are also believed to have coordinated some military strikes against PKK and PJAK camps in the Qandil Mountains—these consisting mainly of shelling by the Iranians and shelling and air raids by the Turks.

The extent of intelligence-sharing remains unclear. It is believed, however, to consist primarily of one country notifying the other when it has received intelligence about the location and movements of Kurdish militants on the other’s territory. It is not known whether the sharing of intelligence has also extended to PKK/PJAK fundraising, organizational and propaganda activities outside the region, such as in Europe.

The close cooperation represents a remarkable turnaround from the 1990s, when Iran was often prepared to tolerate the presence of PKK units in the mountains along its border with Turkey. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, elements in the Iranian security forces also provided arms, funding and training for militant Islamist organizations active in Turkey, including some which were responsible for the assassination of a string of prominent Turkish secularists (see Terrorism Monitor, January 24). However, Iran had already considerably reduced its involvement with violent Turkish Islamists and adopted a more conciliatory policy toward Ankara by the time the foundation of PJAK in 2004 gave it a common cause with Turkey. Ironically, the Islamic regime in Tehran has always been anathema to the staunchly secularist Turkish military and the possibility of Turkey becoming “another Iran” has frequently been the specter the TGS has used to justify its support for the often draconian suppression of any expression of an Islamic identity in Turkey (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, June 6).

Many in the Turkish military are frustrated by what they regard as the contrast between Iran’s willingness to cooperate against the PKK and the more ambivalent attitude of many European countries. They complain that, although the PKK is included on the EU’s list of proscribed terrorist organizations, member states are often prepared to tolerate PKK propaganda and fundraising activities provided that the organization does not engage in violence within their borders.

In a speech to the SAREM conference, General Ergin Saygun, the deputy chief of the TGS, lambasted some of Turkey’s European NATO allies: “I want to take this opportunity to call once again on some European countries, most of them our allies, to act in accordance with international rules, particularly the decisions of the UN Security Council, and the decisions that they have taken as members of NATO and the EU and cease on an individual, national and institutional level the protection and support they provide for terrorism and terrorists who are committing crimes against humanity” (Anadolu Agency, June 7).

For example, the Kurdish-language satellite television channel Roj TV, which is believed to be sympathetic to the PKK, is based in Denmark, from where it broadcasts to Europe and the Middle East, including the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.

General Basbug welcomed the May 29 approval by Turkish parliament of a law which would allow state-owned Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) to dedicate one of its channels to Kurdish-language broadcasting: “There are some broadcasts—I am not going to say which ones but you know who they are—which have a considerable impact,” Basbug told reporters at the SAREM conference. “If [Kurdish language broadcasting on TRT] reduces this impact, then it will obviously be beneficial.”

Neither Basbug nor Saygun commented on Washington’s possible reaction to the public admission of cooperation between the Turkish and Iranian militaries. On November 5, 2007, the United States promised to supply Turkey with actionable intelligence for military strikes against the PKK camps in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq in return for an understanding that any incursions would be limited in scope and duration. The intelligence provided to Turkey by the United States is believed to include imaging showing PKK assets and movements.

The first Turkish air raids against PKK camps in northern Iraq occurred on December 16, 2007, and have continued through 2008. In February 2008, Turkish commandos staged a nine-day ground incursion against the PKK’s forward bases in the Zap region close to the Turkish-Iraqi border (see Terrorism Monitor, March 7). Some of the imaging used for Turkish military strikes close to the country’s border with Iraq is believed to come from Turkey’s Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). However, most of the imaging for air raids on the PKK’s headquarters and main training camps in the Qandil Mountains, some 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the Turkish-Iraqi border, is thought to come from the United States. On the night of May 1-2, Turkish warplanes struck PJAK camps in the Qandil Mountains. Several of the PKK and PJAK camps in the Qandil Mountains are very close to each other. It is unclear whether Turkey deliberately bombed the PJAK camps or whether it mistakenly identified them as belonging to the PKK. There is currently no indication that the intelligence-sharing between Turkey and Iran extends to Ankara providing Tehran with imaging of the PJAK camps in the Qandil Mountains.

Basbug’s willingness to confirm publicly that Turkey and Iran are sharing intelligence and coordinating their military operations is an indication that the relationship is working and regarded as making an important contribution to Turkey’s war against the PKK. But it also puts Washington in a difficult position, particularly as it is likely to need Turkey’s cooperation if it attempts to apply pressure to Iran over its nuclear program. Although it is undoubtedly concerned about both Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the nature of the regime in Tehran, for the time being at least, combating the PKK is likely to remain the Turkish General Staff’s main priority.