Wladimir van Wilgenburg is an Erbil-based Dutch journalist and author who specializes in Kurdish affairs. He is the author, with Harriet Allsopp, of The Kurds of Northern Syria: Governance, Diversity, and Conflicts (2019, I.B. Tauris) and has also coauthored, with Michael Knights, Accidental Allies: The U.S.–Syrian Democratic Forces Partnership Against the Islamic State. Diwan interviewed him in early December to discuss the Iranian government’s attacks against Kurdish areas in the context of weeks-long protests in the country, as well as the Turkish threat to launch a new military operation against Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

Michael Young: One of the less publicized dimensions of the protests in Iran has been the Kurdish factor. Mahsa Amini, whose death set off the protests, was a Kurd, and the Iranian regime intervened militarily in Kurdish areas after the protests began. Can you explain what the relationship is today between the Islamic Republic and the Kurds, recalling that in 1979, soon after the revolution, there was an uprising in Iranian Kurdish areas?

Wladimir van Wilgenburg: Actually, Mahsa Amini’s real name is Jina Amini, but that has not been publicized because there have been restrictions on issuing Kurdish names in Iran. Although Iran’s Kurds are not very well-known in the West and do not get the same attention as Kurds in Iraq and Syria, who became well-known through their battles against the Islamic State group, the Iranian Kurds have a long history of struggle for autonomy within Iran and are a strongly nationalist Kurdish movement. One of the main Iranian Kurdish parties, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDK-I), was established in 1945. One year later, the PDK-I founded a short-lived Kurdistan Republic in Mahabad led by its charismatic leader Qazi Mohammed, which only survived for one year. Another prominent Kurdish party is Komala, a socialist-Marxist party that was established in the fall of 1969 by Kurdish intellectuals. During the revolution against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s regime, Iranian Kurds hoped to gain a form of autonomy, but after the Islamist takeover, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was unwilling to give Kurds any rights. Fighting continued between Kurdish rebel forces and the Iranian security forces until 1983. The new Islamic Republic didn’t allow free Kurdish political participation, although there are also Kurds serving within the Iranian government and parliament.

Iran also assassinated several Kurdish leaders after 1979, including PDK-I leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou in Austria during peace negotiations with the Islamic Republic in 1989, and his successor Sadegh Sharafkandi in Germany in 1992. This caused a leadership vacuum among Iranian Kurdish parties, and further divisions. Eventually Komala and PDK-I both moved to Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war. Furthermore, both Komala and the PDK-I have suffered from splits and internal divisions, although both recently reunited—PDK-I before the September 16 protests that erupted after the death of Amini, and Komala after.

Moreover, there is the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), established in 2004, which is affiliated with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Another party is the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), established in 1991. PAK is a smaller party, based in Iraqi Kurdistan, which played a significant role in the fight against the Islamic State and against Iraqi forces in Pirde in October 2017, after the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2017. There was also much solidarity among Iranian Kurds with the referendum. In 2018, a Cooperation Center was established by five Iranian Kurdish parties to better coordinate their activities.

On September 8, 2018, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched the first cross-border missile attack on the PDK-I in Koya, killing at least eighteen people. Moreover, Ramin Hossein Panahi, a Komala member, was executed on the same day. Also, a day before the strike, three fighters of a PJAK-affiliated group were killed in a clash. The strike was seen as a message to the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia that Iran could now strike its rivals outside the borders of Iran, and a message to Kurdish parties that wanted to establish relations with the United States. Widespread protests erupted in Iran after Amini’s death, and there were large-scale protests inside Iranian Kurdistan. To divert attention from its domestic situation, Iran has hit the PAK, Komala, and PDK-I with drone and missile strikes since September 16 and bombed the borders of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, where there are also Peshmerga fighters of Iranian Kurdish parties.

MY: As you just noted, Iran has also attacked Iranian Kurdish positions inside Iraq. How powerful are these groups in Iraq, and what is their relationship with the Iraqi Kurds, whose two major parties have tended to have good relations with Iran?

WVW: During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, thousands of Iranian Kurds fled to Iraq and a large number of them still live in camps, such as in Koya. Moreover, most Iranian Kurdish parties have bases and camps (including fighters) in the Kurdistan Region. Komala, for instance, has a base near Sulaymaniyah that was hit, while the PDK-I was hit in Koya and the PAK in Pirde (which is closer to Kirkuk) in the recent strikes. Apart from the PKK-affiliated PJAK, which operates in PKK-territory along the borders, the rest of the Kurdish parties are inside areas controlled by Iraqi Kurdish parties—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). In general, they have had a good relationship with the PUK and KDP in recent years, although they also had their differences and tensions during the Iran-Iraq war. Iran has demanded the disarmament of the Iranian Kurdish parties, or their removal, and has threatened to launch cross-border operations. The best option for Iran is to have the Iranian Kurdish parties moved abroad, as that is what happened with the Iranian opposition Mojahedin-e-Khalq, which was moved to Albania from Iraq, where it had been based after 1986. But so far, the Iraqi Kurds have not bowed to pressure to remove the parties, and have recently agreed with Baghdad to send more forces to the border with Iran.

MY: What are the prospects of an Iranian ground intervention in Iraq?

WVW: It is difficult to say. It is always possible that Iran, feeling threatened by domestic unrest, could launch a limited cross-border ground offensive. Turkey in the last few years has carried out several offensives in Iraqi Kurdistan against the PKK. But it seems more likely that Iran will continue its drone and ballistic missile strikes on Iranian Kurdish parties, which are less costly and have the same threatening effect and put the Kurdistan Regional Government under pressure. The Iranian Kurdish parties currently do not pose an existential threat to Iran and cannot prevent the crackdown in Iranian Kurdistan, which is ongoing and has cost many lives. It should also be noted that the Iranian government’s claim that Kurdish parties are separatist is untrue. For instance, the PDK-I has always promoted democracy for Iran and federalism for Kurdistan. The Kurdish parties have also refrained from getting militarily involved in the protests, fearing Iran could use this to create divisions within the protest movement (using Iranian nationalistic sentiment against Kurds). We have already seen tensions in the Iranian diaspora between Kurds and Persians over Kurdish flags and symbols.

MY: Elsewhere, Syria’s Kurds are facing the prospect of a new Turkish military intervention in northern Syria. How likely is this to happen, given that both the United States and Russia appear to want to avoid such an outcome? What is Russia doing, in particular?

WVW: It is difficult to say. It is possible that Turkey will carry out a limited operation near Manbij and Kobani. The longer the Turks wait, the unlikelier it will happen soon. On the other hand, it is also possible that Turkey will carry out a ground offensive in the spring, when the weather conditions are better, and this would be closer to the June 2023 elections. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party has lost popular support and needs to mobilize more nationalistic voters.

Nevertheless, it seems that Russia and the United States oppose a ground intervention, at least in public. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of armed groups dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), has demanded a stronger position and underlined it is not enough to deter Turkey. Moreover, Russia is trying to use the Turkish threat to build closer relations between Damascus and Ankara against the YPG, or force the YPG/SDF to give up more territory to the Syrian government. Damascus wants Turkish troops to leave northwest Syria, while Ankara wants to end the Syrian Kurdish-led autonomy project of the SDF in its Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Both Damascus and Ankara also want the U.S.-SDF partnership to end. Turkey wants to return Syrians to Syria amid growing Turkish hostility against Syrian refugees, because of worsening economic conditions.

Anti-refugee sentiment was also one of the reasons why the AKP lost Istanbul and Ankara to the Republican People’s Party in the last municipal elections. The Nationalist Movement Party, a coalition partner of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), wants the AKP to reconcile with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but the Islamic base of AKP opposes this. However, after the Erdoğan meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, this alternative is more possible, since the meeting showed that the Turkish president is willing to reconcile with former enemies. Erdoğan has also stated he could meet with Assad when the right time comes. Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentiev told TASS on Monday that the meeting would require preparation, since Erdoğan in the past had called on Assad to step down.

MY: Can the United States continue to protect the YPG, which it believes is a valuable ally against any resurgent Islamic State group, given Turkey’s adamant opposition to the YPG?

WVW: The United States can prevent a Turkish incursion through economic pressure and sanctions. Turkey’s economy is in a fragile state and Erdoğan needs votes, but at the same time the Americans and Europeans need Turkish cooperation on Ukraine. So, it is a different situation than in 2019, when the United States managed to limit Turkey’s incursion to Ras al-Ain and Tell Abyad. Moreover, Europe is afraid that Turkey might allow Syrian refugees to go to Europe. Even if Turkey launches an operation near Kobani and Manbij, it would be possible for U.S. forces to stay in Hasakeh and Deir Ezzor Governorates. Kurds in Kobani would flee to Raqqa and Hasakeh, or go to Syrian government-controlled areas. However, it would be more difficult for the YPG and SDF to continue their relations with the United States, since many of the SDF leaders are from Kobani. If both Afrin and Kobani fall under Turkish control, it would make more sense for the SDF to improve its relationship with Russia and Damascus in order to prevent a Turkish incursion. However, it is unlikely that Damascus will recognize any form of local autonomy, while Russia has allegedly demanded that the SDF withdraw its military presence from the border to the M4 motorway, which runs parallel to the border with Turkey between Latakia and Saraqib, and leave the area under its control to the Syrian government.