Russia arming Kurds as well as Syrian and Iraqi governments
The Syrian war has concluded its fifth year with few signs of ending. On one side is Syrian President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime. On the other, an armed opposition ranging from the Free Syrian Army to Islamic State jihadists.
What is most notable over the past year is that Russia has intervened militarily to support Assad. Western governments regard Russia’s intervention as spoiling plans for regime change in Syria, even as their policy of arming the opposition is proving to be a two-edged sword, arming extremists who have no love of Western political values beyond receiving funding and weapons.
Russia’s support of the Syrian government stands in stark contrast to Western patrons of the Syrian opposition, which have shifted their focus from driving Assad from power as they view with increasing alarm the rising militancy of the Islamic State (ISIS), as evidenced by the attacks in Brussels and Paris.
Consequently, Russia is expanding its military assistance beyond Syria to include more arms shipments to both Iraq’s government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
While Western governments ascribe dark Kremlin motives to Russia’s regional re-emergence, Russia’s Middle East policy is relatively transparent. First and foremost, the Kremlin views the chaos enveloping the Middle East as emanating directly from the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and concluded that authoritarian Middle Eastern governments are preferable to the political vacuum produced by their overthrow, where terrorism can fester and grow, as it has in Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
Accordingly, Russia’s view of Middle East conflict is simple: Armed insurrections against governments constitute terrorism and administrations facing armed uprisings deserve Moscow’s support.
A second Russian concern is that the country has been combating Islamic extremism since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in places and after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union in its Caucasus regions.
Despite 25 years of military intervention, the region remains restive. Russian intelligence estimates that thousands of Russian citizens are fighting in Syria and Iraq; accordingly, assisting the Iraqi and Syrian governments in resisting extremism allows the Kremlin to neutralise their radicalised citizens at the point of their training and gaining battle experience before they are able to return home and utilise their combat skills in Russia itself.
These policies remain a point of divergence between Washington, Moscow and Damascus, with the Assad regime is squarely opposed to Kurdish self-rule.
In Iraq, where Russia began arms shipments following the ISIS capture of Mosul in 2014, Moscow will soon supply 20 Mil Mi-28NE “Night Hunter” helicopters and has delivered three Sukhoi Su-25 strike fighters, capable of providing around-the-clock support to ground troops.
Russia is also supplying the KRG with weaponry to battle ISIS despite Baghdad’s worries that the KRG’s autonomy may eventually transform into an outright bid for independence.
Further complicating the Middle East political map, a by-product of the Russian arms shipments is not only weakening US influence but strengthening Kurdish groups, all of which Turkey regards as terrorists. Russia’s increasingly overt support of the Kurds can only worsen Russian-Turkish relations.
In an ominous new development, early on May 13th a Turkish AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter was shot down by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas in Hakkari province, with the PKK’s People’s Protection Forces (HPG) claiming responsibility. Gerilla TV, which has links to the PKK, posted a video of a PKK fighter firing a Russian-made 9K38 Igla — a man-portable air-defence system (MANPAD) — at the helicopter, which then crashed. The Kurdish Rudaw website noted: “This is believed to be the first time the PKK has successfully used such a weapon.”
The Turkish military initially claimed mechanical failure caused the crash. While Ankara has not accused Moscow of supplying the MANPADs, their appearance is more fuel on the volatile Russian-Turkish fire.
Washington has also belatedly discovered the Kurds; on May 21st US Centcom commander US Army General Joseph Votel made a secret visit to Syria where he met Arab fighters battling the Assad regime and commanders of the Syrian Kurdish armed group, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers terrorists.
A complex political and military crisis has become more intricate, with all sides increasingly seeing the Kurds as a decisive element. What price the KRG will extract for their support remains to be seen.