Lots of ink has been spilled in the old stock media about the effect of Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria and what it means for the the United States’ and more generally the West’s interests and policies in the region. What I haven’t seen discussed is its impact upon the Kurds and their aspirations for self-determination. And make no mistake, the Kurds are firmly in old Vlad’s calculations:
“We should finally acknowledge that Assad and the Kurds are valiantly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria,” said Putin.
Who are the Kurds?
The 25-35 million Kurds are divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. They speak various Kurdish dialects which linguistically related to Persian. They are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim but there are also many Kurds of Shia and Alevi Muslim faith and of various smaller indigenous religions. Of the four countries in which they reside, Turkey and Iraq have the worst record of oppression and discrimination against their Turkish minorities, Iran has the best, with Syria somewhere in between. In their quest for self-determination the Kurds have repeatedly rebelled against the Iranian, Iraqi, and Turkish governments since the end of the Great War (Until the beginning of the current civil war, the Kurds of Syria had lived relatively peacefully). Since the 1960s the Kurds in Iraq have been quietly supported by Israel. This support continues until the present day. As a legitimate, recognised regional government within Iraq the KRG has also received a good deal of support over the years from the United States and other western countries including Canada. Other Kurdish groups have not faired so well, often being designated terrorist groups by western nations.
The present situation on the ground.
In Turkey, the last few years of peace between the Kurdistan Peoples Party (PKK) and the Turkish state erupted into a deadly rebellion earlier this summer seemingly as part of President Erdogan’s strategy to gain a majority in snap parliamentary elections that were called in November. The PKK for its part receives support in the form of supplies, training bases, and fighters from the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) and its militia the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria. This has led to the Turkish air force bombing YPG positions in Syria in the past few months even though the United States and other allied forces have been supporting the YPG in its fight against ISIS. At the same time Turkey has been maintaining cordial relations with the KRG in Iraq as the KRG ships oil via Turkey to international markets. The KRG, aside from capturing Kirkuk in June last year after ISIS drove the Iraqi government forces out of that city has until recently been content to sit on the sidelines of the conflict with ISIS. This is in contrast to the YPG which has taken the fight to ISIS.
So what’s the big deal about Russia and the Kurds?
Russia’s entry into the conflict in the last couple of weeks promises to change these relationships. While the Russians have been bombing Syrian opposition forces, they have not attacked YPG units despite the PYD’s official position that Bashar al Assad must go. In fact senior PYD officials are saying nice things about the Russian intervention as are the KRG despite the military support both groups are receiving from the United States and other western countries.
You could say these are just platitudes issued by politicians hedging their bets, but you’d be wrong. Both the KRG and the PYD have a great deal to gain from dealing with Russia.
The advantages the PYD see in cooperation with the Russians are immediate and obvious – a halt to Turkish air strikes on their positions. Russian incursions into Turkish airspace over the past few days have ramped up tensions with Turkey which is exactly what they were intended to do. They’re designed to make the Turks think twice about entering Syrian air space in order to bomb PYD targets. From the al-Monitor interview linked to above:
Al-Monitor: What do Russia’s moves spell for Turkey?
Muslim: Turkey’s Syrian policy is totally bankrupt. Two years ago I was talking to a Russian official and he asked me, “What do the Kurds most fear?” “Possible Turkish intervention,” I replied. He laughed and said, “That is not Turkey’s border [with Syria], but NATO’s,” to which I responded, “In that case you have given me relief, thank you.” Turkey cannot intervene in Syria without the blessings of the big powers.
The advantages the KRG hope to gain from cooperation with Russia are even greater – complete independence from Iraq – something that the United States is to Does anyone truly believe that Putin would pass up a chance to humiliate the US, especially now that they and the Iranians are .
You can be sure right now that a panicked Obama administration is burning up the phone lines ordering Erdogan NOT to give the Russians cause to create a provocation by violating Syrian air space.
The advantages the KRG hope to gain from cooperation with Russia are even greater – complete independence from Iraq – something that the United States is opposed to Does anyone truly believe that Putin would pass up a chance to humiliate the US, especially now that they and the Iranians are firmly ensconced in Baghdad.
“Certain coordination of military actions, especially between Syria, Russia and Iran, was planned. Now, the functions have been distributed, and that can be called kind of an operative planning headquarters,” Ivashov told Interfax.
He reiterated that the role of Russia and Iran will be to form “recommendations regarding specific military actions to the countries at war: Iraq and Syria”…
“We should pay less attention to the Americans. The right to individual and collective defense is allowed by the UN Charter. Everyone understands that all this story against Syria and Iraq was started by the Americans and they are unlikely to help with anything,” the general said.
And on the note of humiliating the US (and NATO) it must be very tempting to Vladimir Putin to stoke the PKK insurgency currently raging in Turkey and which threatens to spiral out of control. If as I suspect, Russia creates a safe haven from Turkish attacks in PYD-held areas, this will provide the PKK a base from which to operate. It would be easy enough to feed supplies and fighters across the border as Russia has done in the Ukraine for the past few years. Of course Turkey is a much more formidable foe than the Ukrainians, but on the other hand, the PKK are a much more formidable set of rebels than the ragtag bandits, mercenaries and extreme nationalists than those the Russians are supporting in Ukraine. And it appears that the Russians are already at the very least providing moral support to the PKK.
According to Dr. Sedat Laçiner, a former president of International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) and a former rector of Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, “Since [the Kurdistan Worker’s Party] was founded, there has been a close relationship between the PKK and Russia. They had collaborated on various issues, including arms transfers, both during the period it had bases in Syria and after.” Moreover, he added, “Russia, Iran and [President Bashar] al-Assad’s Syria perceive the PKK as one of the main instruments for impeding Turkey in the region” (Bugün Newspaper November 2, 2013). It should be noted that a large, if not major, proportion of the PKK’s weapons and explosives are supplied by Russia (Today’s Zaman, June 24, 2010; Wikileaks.org, February 19, 2013; UPI, October 4, 2010). Further evidence suggesting that the PKK may have been used as a tool of Russian pressure on Turkey stems from the fact that, in early August, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called the Turkish government’s military operations against the PKK illegitimate (Infocenter.media, August 6). Whereas, Moscow did not similarly criticize the PKK for fighting against Turkey
Putin has previous form in creating client states beholden to Russia. He also enjoys humiliating the Obama administration, and he is a determined foe of NATO. Don’t be surprised to follow these same strategies in his dealings with the Kurds in the coming months.