Will Putin play the ‘Kurdish card’ against Turkey?
In the aftermath of the November 24th downing of a Syrian-based Russian Su-24 bomber that allegedly violated Turkish airspace, Russian-Turkish relations quickly plummeted to their worst level since the Cold War.
Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately denounced the action as a “treacherous stab in the back” committed by “accomplices of terrorists”, demanded an apology and ordered the deployment of sophisticated S-400 long-range anti-aircraft missile systems to the Hamim airbase in Latakia being used by Russia.
Three days later Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Russia was “playing with fire”.
At the heart of the dispute are Ankara’s and Moscow’s polar opposite views on Syria. Turkey maintains the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad as essential, a position that Russia totally rejects. Beyond this dichotomy, further differences emerge over who constitutes a terrorist in Syria’s convoluted civil war.
Russia maintains that forces battling the Islamic State (ISIS) and assisting the Syrian military are to be supported, including the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) affiliate in Syrian Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Turkey views both groups as terrorists and the Turkish military has repeatedly attacked the PKK and on occasion PYD positions in recent months.
And it is here that Russia, if pressed further, could make life difficult for Erdogan by providing support to both groups above and beyond diplomatic cover.
Russia’s ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov has infuriated Ankara by noting that his government does not consider either the PKK or the PYD as terrorist groups, further galling the Turkish government by bluntly pointing out: “Neither the PKK nor the PYD are considered terrorist organisations by either Russia or the United Nations Security Council.” Underlining this, in August, PYD leader Salih Muslim visited Moscow.
Moscow is also providing political support to Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP.) On December 23rd, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, where they discussed the possible opening of a HDP office there. After referring to Turkey’s downing of the Russian fighter as “not right”, Demirtas added: “They (the AKP) made a coup after June 7.”
The next day Turkish Prime Minister Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a meeting of businessmen in Ankara: “[The HDP] take sides with whoever Turkey is facing a crisis with. Demirtas saying in Moscow that Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet was wrong is a total disgrace and treason.”
Demirtas retorted at a news conference in Istanbul after returning from Russia: “I will apologise if (the government) can state a single benefit for Turkey in the downing of the Russian jet.”
Demirtas’s visit fuelled AKP suspicions that there is a Russian- Kurdish deal in the making with Putin trying to manipulate the Kurds in Syria to overstep Turkey’s red lines along the Turkish-Syrian border. The reality that Erdogan will eventually face is that both the Kurds and Russia, with their stalwart military operations against ISIS, are winning the global public relations campaign, while Turkey is increasingly viewed as a covert ISIS enabler.
Should further Turkish antagonism goad Russia to directly arm the PKK and PYD, the consequences for Ankara could be immense, particularly if the PYD succeeded in establishing an autonomous or fully independent region in northern Syria along the Turkish border, leading to increased unrest among Turkey’s own Kurds.
In world public opinion Russia is clearly seen in the ascendancy as having taken a strong military stand against ISIS, while Turkey is perceived as having aided in the rise of the jihadist group by maintaining a porous border, while surreptitiously aiding and abetting ISIS’s black market oil trade. Adding the proverbial fuel to the fire, Putin recently alleged that Erdogan’s son Bilal was actively engaged in the trade.
If Erdogan persists in further “provocations” against Russia, he may find Putin’s “blowback” includes support from Kurds not only in Iraq and Syria, but Turkey itself — a far higher, scorched earth cost than declining tourism revenues and vegetables rotting in the fields.
Who’s “playing with fire” then?