Russia and the Syrian Kurds: A complex interaction
LONDON - Along with supporting the Assad regime, Moscow also backs the powerful Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) opposition group, one of the most effective forces in combating the Islamic State (ISIS). Russian support bolsters Moscow’s claims that it is fighting against ISIS in Syria and not just the non-ISIS opposition to the Assad regime.
The United States also supports the Kurdish opposition in Syria — something its NATO ally Turkey is not happy about. Ankara claims the Syrian Kurds are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the authoritarian Kurdish nationalist movement that has long sought secession from Turkey.
While Washington has sought to assuage Turkish fears about the Syrian Kurds, Moscow has had no such concern since the sharp deterioration in Russo-Turkish relations following Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military aircraft near the Turkish-Syrian border last November. Indeed, the desire to punish Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdogan for this incident may have encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin to support the PYD.
One of the few successes for US foreign policy resulting from the intervention in Iraq in 2003 is the rise of Kurdish forces in northern Iraq that have been willing — indeed, eager — to cooperate with Washington. While Ankara has never been happy about this, Washington worked to promote rapprochement between Turkey and what became the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
The rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq led to further cooperation between the United States and Iraqi Kurds. Washington saw Syrian Kurds as allies against ISIS and gave them support as well. While not supportive of outright Kurdish independence, the United States became the most significant outside power aiding the Kurds.
Kurdish nationalists are willing to accept support from other powers as well. Somewhat supportive of them prior to the sharp deterioration in Russo-Turkish relations, Putin has been much more willing to help the Syrian Kurds since November. In addition to discomfiting Ankara, Putin’s support for the Syrian Kurds poses a problem for Washington.
If the United States reduces support for the Syrian Kurds because they are cooperating with Moscow, it risks losing influence with the PYD and Kurdish nationalists in general — to the benefit of Russia. Yet, if Washington continues to support the Syrian Kurds, this will further Putin’s goal of isolating Turkey. Either way, Moscow gains.
Still, Moscow’s support for the Syrian Kurds complicates Russian relations with certain other governments. Moscow has responded favourably to the PYD call for a federalised Syria with an autonomous Kurdish region that Damascus would not control (much like the Iraqi Kurds have done). Syrian President Bashar Assad, though, has indicated that he intends to re-establish his rule over all of Syria. If and when ISIS is driven out of Syria or becomes a much weaker force there, the Assad regime and the Syrian Kurds appear destined to clash.
Russian support for Syrian Kurds is as likely to complicate Moscow’s ties with Iran, which also faces a Kurdish nationalist opposition. Just this month, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) announced its fighters had killed five Kurdish rebels near the Iranian border with Iraq and that they belonged to a group with the PKK in Turkey. Tehran worries that Moscow’s and Washington’s support for Kurdish separatist forces in Syria could inflame Kurdish nationalism elsewhere.
Is this really a problem for Moscow? If Russia was the only external power that the Assad regime depended upon, it might not be. If ISIS’s position in Syria became untenable, Moscow could either support Assad in moving against the Kurds, force Assad not to do so or cynically help them both against each other. However, because Iran — with its deep commitment to the Assad regime, large IRGC presence and alliance with Hezbollah force — is such a strong player in Syria, Moscow’s room for manoeuvre is constrained.
Even if Russia will not, Iran can be expected to support Assad regime efforts to crush the Syrian Kurds. Moscow may then have to choose between acquiescing to this or trying to stop it. Either way, it could lose what influence it has with Assad to Tehran.
Is this likely? Russian media have commented on how Moscow’s and Tehran’s interests in and policies towards Syria are not in tune with each other. As neither the Russian nor the Iranian governments are known for being especially cooperative, it is doubtful that they can avoid differing over Syria — something the Assad regime will undoubtedly exploit fully.
While Russian support for the Syrian Kurds is causing problems for Washington’s Middle East policy, it is likely to cause problems for Moscow as well.