Russia faces complex choices on how to play the Kurdish card
Syria’s unending civil war has witnessed the unfurling of a new chapter with the cross-border bombardment by Turkish artillery on the Kurd-dominated pocket of Afrin. This move from Turkey was followed by relentless bombastic anti-Kurdish sentiments from Turkish political leaders. Turkish media have now gone into a nationalist frenzy, shrouded with war cries.
This action by Turkey now threatens the entire status quo of Kurdish demographics in the region, which could bring in Kurdish fighters not only from Syria, but from Turkey, Iraq and Iran as well. The Turkish-Iranian consensus against Kurds in Iraq might have set a precedent for the Kurds to adopt more hostile views on Iran.
The latest Turkish assault on the Kurdish pocket in Afrin can be seen as a well-calculated step taken by global warcraft entities to drag the conflict on, and possibly lead toward a more dangerous direct conflict among nations. As the Russian Ministry of Defense has pointed out, the US chose to take a provocative step by arming the Kurdish population so as to sow the seeds of separation in the region. More important, and curiously enough, the process of arming the Kurds in Syria by the US was bait for NATO ally Turkey to begin a second round of invasions into Syria.
The relations between Kurdish militia outfits and Moscow and with Washington is a complex matter. The US had to align with the Kurds to stay in Syria for longer period, once its policy for regime change in Damascus failed spectacularly with Russia’s intervention in 2015.
Much to the dismay of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s second-largest military, the US decided to arm the Kurds for a “struggle against terrorists.” Turkey views the Syrian-Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), key components of the US-patronized Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as sisters of the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan People’s Party), which is also blacklisted by European Union and the US as a terrorist organization.
The US assurance of taking back arms from the SDF upon the end of the conflict in Syria failed to please Turkey, as US military adventures in the Middle East apparently never end. On the other hand, Moscow since the days of the Soviet Union has maintained close relations with the PKK, which reached a peak during the Cold War.
The PKK and PYD (Democratic Union Party, a Kurdish political party in Syria) were staunchly Marxist and Leninist ideologically since their inception, and they looked upon themselves as part of the continuation of the Bolshevik revolution. The PYD is looked on as a pro-Western militia fighting extremism in the region, but Turkey views it as the Syrian branch of the PKK.
In 1946, with the close backing of the Soviet Union, Kurds in Iran established a short-lived Republic of Mahabad during their conflict with Tehran. Although the republic lasted less than a year, the Kurds continued to dream of self-determination. Since then, Moscow has maintained relations with the Kurds in the region. The Kurds were useful instruments for the Soviet Union to overshadow US interests in the Middle East, particularly in Turkey and in Iran under the Shah.
The Kurdish insurgency in Turkey during the Soviet era received arms from the USSR via back channels, and the current president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in 2016 believed that Russia was continuing that practice. Such accusations subsided when Erdogan survived a failed military coup with the help of Russian intelligence, but if Russia fails to give clearance to Turkey for anti-Kurdish operations in Syria, such accusations will again come in to light.
After the downing of a Russian jet in 2015 by Turkey, Moscow started providing weapons to PYD militias in the Afrin conclave. And on May 14, 2016, Kurdish media outlets posted a video showing a PKK fighter using a Russian-made MANPAD (man-portable air-defense system) to shoot down a Turkish helicopter in the Iraqi border region.
A Kurdish fighter shoots down a Turkish helicopter using a Russian weapon.
As reported by the Washington Institute in 2016, an official at the annual Moscow Conference on International Security proposed arming the Kurds to counter the recurrence of the events of March 13, April 5 and April 23, 2016, when Syrian jets were shot down either by US forces, Turkish-backed rebels or ISIS. In light of these events, the Kurds in Syria are also looked at by Moscow as a potential force to counter pro-Turkey rebels. Russia also had troops posted in the Afrin conclave to maintain the Astana de-confliction agreement reached by Ankara, Tehran and Moscow.
Russian troops and the YPG Kurdish militia patrol together in Afrin.
The PKK also received cordial support from Hafez al-Assad, with its chief living in Damascus during the 1980s and 1990s. The relations between Damascus and the Kurds got new impetus after a crisis sprang up in Syria in 2011. Very recently, despite political differences, Syria allowed the Kurds to use government-held territory to reinforce Afrin to face the Turkish assault.
Since the failed military coup in Turkey, Erdogan has found it useful to court Moscow, including acquiring Russian state-of-the-art S-400 missile systems. Despite securing a weapons package from Russia, Ankara has failed to garner support from Moscow on its anti-Kurdish operation in Afrin.
Russia has so far remained reluctant to close its post in Afrin, which houses several high-ranking officials, including a general. The post reportedly falls directly in the Turkish line of fire. The airspace over Afrin is controlled by Russian and Syrian air defense systems. Russia will also be reluctant to give up its leverage on the Kurds in favor of Turkey, which is still in NATO despite Ankara’s differences with Washington.
As a key element of NATO, Turkey is bound by some restrictions when it comes to dealing with key adversaries of Washington. As the Pentagon unveiled its latest security strategy document, pointing at Russia and China as its top priorities rather than terrorism, NATO will follow suit.
As for Russian-Turkish relations, Russia’s access to the Mediterranean depends solely on the Bosporus, given that the Caspian air corridor is vulnerable because of the presence of NATO anti-aircraft installations in Iraq. Meanwhile, Damascus sees Ankara as a key destabilizing force. Syria also expects to settle the Kurdish question amicably, hoping that Moscow’s influence on the Kurds is played in the favor of Damascus.
As the situation stands, Moscow will not be willing to take sides too swiftly. Moscow may opt to replicate the US strategy of using covert warfare to deal with the Afrin problem. As for Turkey, so long as it remains in NATO, Erdogan can’t expect a blank check from Moscow on the Kurds.