The Syrian Kurds are considered one of the most significant and influential parties of the ongoing conflict in Syria, mostly due to their direct engagement and relative successes in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and resulting support they receive from the major powers, the United States and Russia. Currently, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) controls a large part of northern Syria and expects to legitimize this de-facto autonomy or even pursue an independent status within a future political settlement to be reached at the end of the civil war. Since the start of the armed hostilities, the PYD and its military wing, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), have presented themselves as an independent force that combats the ISIS and does not openly oppose Bashar al-Assad’s regime or the opposition groups. At the same time, they skillfully play on contradictions between Washington, Moscow, Ankara, Damascus and other stakeholders to promote their own interests.
The current interaction between Russia and the Kurds is better understood through the prism of their close historical ties. For two centuries during the czarist times and the Soviet era, Russia had been dealing with the Kurds recognizing their strategic importance for its regional policies, as evidenced, for example, by its support for the Kurdish national movements and the creation of Red Kurdistan in the Caucasus or the short-lived Republic of Mahabad in Iran. At the same time, Russia pragmatically pursued its own interests, withdrawing support for the Kurdish independence when the situation required doing so. In the post-Soviet period, Moscow maintained limited collaboration with the Kurds to preserve its remaining leverage in the region and deter what it perceived as Ankara’s support for the Chechen insurgents. It is also noteworthy that, unlike the NATO, the United States or the European Union that designated the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization, Russia has never put the PKK on its blacklist. Moreover, Russia does not share the Turkish view that the PYD and the YPG are the PPK’s subsidiaries inside Syria.
Nevertheless, in the initial phase of the Syrian crisis, Russia tried to distance itself from the Kurdish factor, in stark contrast to Washington which actively cooperated with the Syrian Kurdish armed groups. Moscow understandably wanted to have a greater flexibility and room for maneuver in building its dialogue with the Middle Eastern partners over the future of Syria and Assad’s regime. At that stage, its only visible support for the Syrian Kurds was on the diplomatic front as Russia insisted on their inclusion in the Geneva peace talks, despite the Turkish opposition. Thus, while refraining from publicly endorsing the Kurdish statehood ambitions, Russia unofficially acknowledged the legitimacy of the Syrian Kurds by promoting their participation in the Syrian peace process. On the other hand, Moscow’s effort to include the Kurds in the political negotiations also represents an attempt to avoid the fragmentation of Syria and salvage the unity of the Syrian state.
The situation changed after the Kremlin made a decision to restore its influence by becoming a new power broker in the Syrian civil war. Speaking at the 70th session of the UN General Assembly in September 2015, on the eve of the Russian military intervention in Syria, President Putin implied that Russia would intensify its support for the Syrian Kurds. He stated the following: “We should finally admit that President Assad’s government forces and the Kurdish militia are the only forces really fighting the ISIS and other terrorist organizations in Syria. Yes, we are aware of all the problems and conflicts in the region, but we definitely have to consider the actual situation on the ground”. The consequent introduction of the Russian airpower has not only guaranteed the survival of the Syrian government, but also assisted the Kurdish-led multi-ethnic alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), already backed by the U.S.-led coalition’s air support, weapons and on-the-ground advisers, to regain initiative in its military operations against the ISIS and expand the territory it controlled along the Syrian-Turkish border.
After the November 2015 jet shoot-down incident, Russia has made modifications in its policy towards the Syrian Kurds to showcase its essential role in the Kurdish issue. In February 2016, Russia allowed the self-proclaimed government running the Kurdish-held Syrian territories, or the Rojava (Western Kurdistan) region, to open its first foreign mission in Moscow. While no Russian government officials, diplomats or politicians were present at the opening ceremony, this was clearly a retaliatory move against Turkey. The Rojava representative office operates legally as a non-governmental organization and is not formally recognized as a diplomatic mission by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs which stated that Syrian Kurdish interests in Russia should be represented by the official Damascus-designated diplomatic mission. However, this move was widely perceived as a sign of Russia’s tacit support for the Kurdish goal of self-determination. Subsequently, the Syrian Kurds opened their missions in Prague, Stockholm, Berlin, Paris and The Hague.
Eventually, despite the thaw in relations between Moscow and Ankara, Russia has started to increasingly mirror the U.S. policy towards the Syrian Kurds with regard to the fight against the ISIS. Justifying the need to maintain working contacts with the Kurdish militia units, President Putin reiterates his point about them being “a real factor in the situation in Syria” as the most combat-ready groups. In response to Turkey’s concerns about possible deliveries of Russian weapons, Putin insists that Russia doesn’t have any intention of supplying arms to the Syrian Kurds, as they have other sources, such as the United States which has recently announced its plan to supply heavy weapons to the SDF fighters. The Russian Ministry of Defense has also denied allegations that it plans to build military bases in the Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria, though it has not refuted claims that Russian specialists trains the Kurdish forces. In addition, the Russian units also serve as a buffer at the line of contact between the Syrian Kurds, on the one side, and the Turkish army and Turkey-supported armed groups, on the other.
As declared by Moscow, cooperation with the Kurds is indispensable for the enforcement of the ceasefire and the success of its plan to create de-escalation zones in Syria, as well as for ensuring the security of the Russian service personnel involved in this effort. It is possible that Russia deliberately hides some aspects of its cooperation with the Syrian Kurds, but, more importantly, it is obvious that Moscow is engaged in realpolitik in Syria as it pursues several strategic and tactical foreign policy objectives. First of all, Russia’s Syrian campaign is part of its push to reinstate its global standing, and by supporting the Syrian government and simultaneously aligning itself with the Syrian Kurds Russia demonstrates that its critical interests in Syria and the Middle East extend well beyond supporting Assad’s regime and winning the war against the ISIS. By playing the “Kurdish card”, Moscow plans to reenter the region as a permanent powerful actor, influence Turkey’s policy, counterbalance the United States and weaken the Turkish-U.S. and Turkish- NATO relations.
The major question is how strong Moscow’s commitment to the idea of the Syrian Kurds’ self-determination is. While understanding the impracticality of the Kurdish independence and publicly advocating the territorial integrity of Syria, Russia hinted that it might support the autonomous or semi-autonomous status of the Kurds as part of the post-war settlement in Syria. The PYD leader, Salih Muslim, who is in favor of the so-called “Kurdish democratic autonomy” within indivisible Syria, visited Moscow several times to discuss possible scenarios. After its initiative for the federalization of Syria was rejected by Damascus and mainstream opposition groups, Russia has put forward a draft constitution for a future Syria that grants the Kurds greater administrative freedoms within a more decentralized secular government, with the Kurdish becoming an official language along with the Arabic in the areas predominantly populated by the ethnic Kurds. The PYD welcomed the Russian constitutional draft describing it as an “important and very positive step” for a post-conflict Syrian state.
Russian decision-makers realize that the growing military power of the Syrian Kurds and their key role in the battle against the ISIS provide them with a historic opportunity to legitimize their demand for statehood. At the same time, Russia fully understands potential implications of its support for political aspirations of the Syrian Kurds, as they may regard any autonomous status as a prologue for their subsequent full independence. The fragmentation of Syria would damage Russia’s strategic priority to keep a friendly and strong central government in Damascus that is capable of maintaining internal order. While currently Assad’s regime and the Kurds are tactical allies against the ISIS, there is a great risk of escalation between them in the long run. More importantly, a possible Kurdish independence or comprehensive autonomy would seriously deteriorate Russia’s relations with its major regional partners – Turkey, Iran and Iraq – all of which have their own reasons for opposing an independent Kurdistan. Therefore, Russia will most probably support a more restricted version of the Kurdish autonomy.
As history shows, Russia has never provided a strong and continuous support to the Kurds, using them largely as a useful instrument to promote its own goals. Among other things, Russia’s current attachment to the Syrian Kurds is motivated by its desire to influence Turkey’s foreign and domestic policies. Given the instability of its relations with Ankara, Moscow regards the Kurds as “the enemy of my possible enemy”. Russia aims to restrain Turkish ambitions through the regular use of the Kurdish factor, as Turkey fears that the formation of a Syrian Kurdish autonomy along its southern border would create a dangerous symbolic precedent and reignite separatist activities of the Turkish Kurds. One of the expected favorable results of this policy for Russia would be Turkey’s complete renunciation of its demand for Assad’s ouster. Indeed, in Moscow’s view, if Ankara wants to stop the expansion of the Syrian Kurds, it should cooperate with Damascus and be more lenient to Russian interests.
While at present Russia and the United States are temporary allies in their military support for the armed Kurdish groups, the growing Turkish-U.S. differences over the Syrian Kurds is a welcome development for Russia as they provide Moscow with another potential advantage. While Washington needs Ankara’s support for its military operations in Syria, including through the continued use of the Incirlik air base, the U.S. close collaboration with the PYD and the YPG threatens not only the bilateral Turkish-U.S. relations, but also complicates Turkey’s commitment as a NATO member. If this contradictory situation persists, Turkey might consider curtailing its military partnership with the United States and other NATO allies, including the closure of the Incirlik air base. On the other hand, if Washington decides to constrain its support for the Syrian Kurds in response to Ankara’s pressure, Moscow might be able to replace it as their major external patron, but this will only be a temporary tactical alliance from the Russian perspective.
To conclude, there should be no illusions or misperceptions about the Russian policy towards the Syrian Kurds. First and foremost, Russia is guided by its national interests and strategic objectives, rather than by the promotion of the Kurdish cause. As the Syrian conflict is far from over, Russia needs help and involvement of Turkey and other regional actors to consolidate the peace process and secure the future of Assad’s regime or any other Syrian government that is acceptable to Russia. It appears that Moscow will pursue a pragmatic policy in northern Syria, similar to what it does in northern Iraq, where it cooperates with the Iraqi Kurds without undermining the state’s integrity and irritating the central government in Baghdad. Over the longer term, Russia has no strategic incentives to support an independent and friendly Kurdistan. Moscow will not risk losing many regional partners it currently has in the Middle East for one new unreliable ally.
Dauren Aben holds a Master’s in International Relations from Kainar University, Almaty, Kazakhstan, and a Master’s in International Policy Studies and certificates in nonproliferation studies, conflict resolution, and commercial diplomacy from the California-based Monterey Inst