When a senior Iranian official recently claimed that Tehran had captured a top Kurdish guerrilla leader, observers in Turkey feared the Kurdish insurgency had just taken an ugly turn. The move would exacerbate the recent upswing in violence in the country’s troubled southeast, they feared, by removing a relatively moderate guerrilla leader just as Turkey’s civilian government pushes a new anti-insurgency strategy.
Though Iran eventually denied having apprehended Murat Karayılan, the top active military commander of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the August 13-14 episode appears to be a message from Tehran to Ankara: Back off Damascus. The bloody suppression of anti-regime protests in Syria, an Iranian ally, has prompted harsh criticism from Ankara. Turkish observers say Tehran will do whatever it takes to keep in power one of its only friends.
“Iran is trying to send a message to Turkey: ‘Do not mess with my interests in the region. I have a Kurdish card that I can play,’” said Emrullah Uslu, a terrorism expert at Yeditepe University in Istanbul.
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Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.