Does Russia still have a “Kurdish card” to play in Syria?
Longstanding relations between Moscow and the Kurds has provided Russia with a “Kurdish card”, that is, the ability to modulate its support to various Kurdish national ambitions throughout the Middle East, depending on what the Kremlin was seeking to obtain from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The current Syrian crisis is no exception and has promoted the Russian-Kurdish (PYD) partnership, especially during the period of harsh tensions between Russia and Turkey. This partnership has three goals: fighting terrorism, punish Turkey, and exert pressure on Damascus in Geneva. However, Ankara’s U-turn vis-à-vis Russia and Syria this summer has led Moscow to readjust its approach toward the Kurds.
The normalization of Russian-Turkish relations and Turkey’s subsequent operation “Euphrates shield” in northern Syria have upset Moscow’s Syrian equation. From the very beginning of the crisis, the Syrian Kurds were seen by Russia as a mean to weaken jihadists on the battlefield, no matter if it angered Turkey. The rift – although temporary – of the Russian-Turkish partnership in November 2015 led to a new level of military cooperation between Moscow and the YPG. The Russian air force carried out airstrikes to support Kurdish forces – especially around Manbij last summer helping Kurdish militants to move west of the Euphrates – and supplied some weapons to Peshmergas in the Afrin canton. Meanwhile, the Kremlin acceded to PYD’s longstanding request to open political representation in Moscow. This was done in February 2016. Yet, Russia’s support was far less important than the American’s military assistance to YPG, which has included weapons, airstrikes, and dispatching of Special Forces for training and combat support. Moscow’s help to the Kurds reflected deep hesitations within Russian Middle Eastern policy as what to do with the Kurdish question. Should Russia go ahead and support Rojava – the self-established Kurdish federal entity in Northern Syria – with the risk of feeding the implosion of Syria and Iraq, or should it modulate its assistance and not encourage the de facto on-going dislocation of the Syrian state? These fundamental questions were not solved, but part of the answer has been later brought by Turkey’s foreign policy U-turn.
The Turkish military involvement on the Syrian battlefield, with the support of Washington and the consent of Moscow, has put an end to the dream of the Syrian Kurds to build their own national entity. Their projected model of self-governance has been largely inspired from the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq (KRG), although Rojava’s demographic, territorial and economic realities differ very much from those of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey has now obtained what it has been claiming for years: a “security zone” in northern Syria, where refugees could find some relief and where the so-called “clean opposition” could have a haven and train. The payback for Moscow has been Ankara’s willingness to drop its “Assad must go” precondition for a political settlement of the crisis, and for the US, that the Turkish army would enforce the closing of the Syrian-Turkish border. So, what are the consequences of the “Euphrates shield” operation on Moscow’s relation with the Syrian Kurds? Actually, the PYD/YPG was considering – and to some extent still does – its partnership with the US as of superior importance in comparison with its partnership with Russia, since Washington has demonstrated its security commitment to the KRG in Iraq for more than a decade. However, Kurdish hopes have been dashed in light of America’s partnership with Turkey. This inflection could in fact lead the Syrian Kurds to reassess their relations with Moscow. From Russia’s perspective, the Kurdish issue remains a thorny question since it tends to bring Teheran, Ankara and Damascus closer to each other. Iran has faced a resurgence of violence in its own Kurdistan in the past months, whereas southeastern Turkey is the theater of more than guerilla warfare between Turkish forces and the PKK.
The Geneva process could bring a momentum to Russia-Kurds relations. Now that Turkey has grabbed its sphere of influence in northern Syria, preventing the emergence of Rojava, and solving by the same token Damascus’ Kurdish problem, both Turkey and the Syrian regime might be less frustrated by the potential participation of a Kurdo-Kurdish delegation in the peace process. The Kremlin, which has been placed in the position to mediate between the Turks and the Syrians, could find more room to push this initiative. It would provide Russia with greater influence on the political settlement while allowing Moscow to exploit Kurdish frustration toward the American position. On the other hand, should Russia-Turkey relations worsen again, it would be easy for Moscow to support guerilla action carried out by the Syrian Peshmergas against Turkish forces dispatched on the ground in Syria, while at the same time activate its support to PKK fighters based in northern Iraq. Moreover, should the truce on the battlefield hold, and considering the fact that it is less and less likely that the YPG would take part in any offensive against Raqqa – for which they were already reluctant to fight prior to the Turkish operation – the role of the Peshmergas as a spearhead of the fight against Daesh may soon be downgraded. The presence of the Turkish forces furthermore largely constrains the YPG which fought some CIA-backed “moderate” rebel groups in the wake of the operation “Euphrates Shield”. Therefore, and if they want their gains to be acknowledged and frozen in any peace document, the Syrian Kurds could turn to Moscow, since Russia appears today more than yesterday as the only stakeholder with the ability to promote PYD interest in Geneva. In that sense, Russia still holds its Syrian “Kurdish card”.
 Democratic Union Partym the main Syrian Kurdish party.
 People's Protection Units, PYD’s military wing.
 Kurdistan Workers' Party.