Suleyman Soylu, Turkey’s interior minister, said the offensive on Monday targeted the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“As of 8:00 this morning, we started an operation with Iran aimed at the PKK on our eastern border,” he told a crowd in the Mediterranean city of Antalya. “We will announce the outcome [later].”
Soylu, who first spoke of the planned offensive on March 6, did not provide further details.
However, Iran’s official news agency IRNA – citing an anonymous army source – said Iranian forces were not involved in the offensive.
The PKK, considered a “terrorist organisation” by Ankara and many Western countries, has fought the Turkish state for more than three decades seeking autonomy for the country’s Kurdish minority.
Tens of thousands have been killed in the conflict.
The group operates in Turkey and northern Iraq under its own banner, and as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria.
Its Iranian offshoot, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), has fought on and off with Tehran since 2004.
Peace talks between the PKK and Ankara collapsed in 2015, and the Turkish military has stepped up air and land assaults against the group, both inside Turkey and in northern Iraq, where the group’s main base is located.
The military has also launched two operations in northern Syria – Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Olive Branch in 2018 – to prevent the YPG from controlling territory along Turkey’s southern border.
Ankara has also persuaded Russia – the main backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad alongside Iran – to exclude the YPG’s political wing from talks with opposition groups while reiterating a 1998 deal with the Syrian government not to allow the PKK to operate on Syrian territory.
On Monday Iran’s chief of staff, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, travelled to Damascus to discuss combating “terrorism” with his Syrian and Iraqi counterparts, according to local media.
The Iranian Students’ News Agency quoted him as saying that “foreign forces” in Syria, including the territory controlled by the YPG, “must leave the Syrian soil as soon as possible” – an apparent reference to the US troops whose presence in Syria has so far prevented Ankara from carrying out a large-scale attacks on the YPG.
The group forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US’s main ally in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
With the support of US air power and weaponry, the SDF has reduced ISIL control over northeastern Syria to a small pocket of territory near the Iraqi border.
But with US President Donald Trump‘s decision in December to withdraw US forces from Syria, Turkey has repeatedly threatened to attack the YPG.
Alexey Khlebnikov, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, said if Turkey and Iran were indeed cooperating against the Kurds, it could have wider implications for the region.
“It might be seen as a strong message to Kurds in Syria and to the US,” he said. “Ankara-Tehran military cooperation might be well extended to Syria.”
But Ziya Meral, a London-based researcher, said Turkey’s alleged operation with Iran should be viewed with caution. “Many in Ankara still think Iran engages with the PKK and enables it while also wanting to contain its Iranian affiliate PJAK,” he said.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, the Iraqi army also clashed with PKK fighters in Sinjar, near the country’s border with Syria, while the Kurdistan24 news outlet reported that unidentified fighters carried out attacks on Iranian border guards in Iran’s Kurdish region.
The moves, experts said, raised the possibility the Kurdish rebels could face a crackdown in the four countries they operate in.
In the absence of further details about the alleged joint Turkey-Iran operation, Paul Levin, director of the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies, said it “could all be coincidence or more of the same low-intensity conflict we’ve seen for years”.
“If not, a stepped three-front fight against Iraq, Turkey and Iran would be difficult for the PKK and its allied forces in the region,” he said.