Having support from both Russia and the West, the Kurds could potentially become a uniting force capable of bringing Russia and the U.S. closer together in their fight against ISIS in Syria.
A Kurdish fighter shows the extent of the damage from a truck bomb in Kobani, Syria. Photo: AP
Amidst the intensification of diplomatic and military activity around Syria over the past month, one event has gone unnoticed: the growing role that Syrian and Turkish Kurds are playing in the Syrian conflict. On Oct. 20, a delegation of Syrian and Turkish Kurds came to Moscow to discuss the situation in Syria and opportunities for creating a broader anti-terrorism coalition in Syria. They also held meetings with Russian think tanks and had talks in the Russian Foreign Ministry, including with Russian President’s Middle East Envoy Mikhail Bogdanov.
This visit certainly underlines the importance of the Kurds delegation in light of the war in Syria and tensions with Turkey over the Kurdish issue. Given the Western view of the Kurds as a moderate opposition force in the region and the initial support that the Kurds have given to Russia’s airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), there is now greater potential for the West and Russia to come to some sort of agreement about how to coordinate anti-terrorist activity in Syria.
The meeting of the Kurds in Moscow comes against the backdrop of significant military and diplomatic activity in the region. In addition to airstrikes against ISIS, Russia continues to coordinate the fight against terrorists with Iran, Iraq and Syria. In early October, the U.S halted its train-and-equip program for Syrian rebels, which was acknowledged as a failure and immediately after that, started a new arms supply program to the rebels based in Northern Syria.
The diplomatic track has also experienced a number of notable developments, including meetings of Russian President Vladimir Putin with Saudi Minister of Defense Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Emirati Prince Mohammed Al Nahyan, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In addition, there were numerous talks involving Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with his Middle Eastern and Western counterparts.
All of these developments demonstrate the very intensive work Russia has been undertaking on military and diplomatic tracks. This suggests that Moscow has a certain plan in mind it is trying to push forward. Could the Kurds be part of this plan?
The Syrian Kurds factor
Since the very start of the Syrian civil war, the Kurds have been playing a significant role – a role that has become even more important with the rise of ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria. Kurdish resistance forces, and especially the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), have been fighting against terrorists in Syria, making them an important factor in the overall anti-terror activity in the region. Moreover, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has established an example for political organization during a time of crisis.
The Kurdish factor is a complicated issue, not only in Syria but also in the entire region, as Kurds are living in four Middle East states: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey (Eastern, Southern, Western and Northern Kurdistan, respectively). Their striving for independence or autonomy within the states they live in is a challenging question for those states’ leadership. Since the beginning of the war in Syria, Kurds have been using it as an opportunity to obtain more autonomy within the Syrian state.
By defending their lands (which are also inhabited by Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians and Turkmens) from ISIS and other terrorist groups, not fighting against the Syrian government and being united and a strong force, the Kurds have increased their chances for greater autonomy within Syria. They also strengthened their hand in negotiations with the Syrian government. The Kurds remain one of the few united and powerful forces in the Syrian conflict, which allows them to play an active role in both the military and diplomatic tracks.
Syrian Kurds and the rivalry in the region between other powers
The Syrian PYD, which is considered one of the most important and influential Kurdish parties in Syria, was part of the Kurdish delegation to Moscow and was headed by the party’s co-chairwoman, Asya Abdullah. It is worth noticing that Salih Muslim, another PYD leader, visited Moscow earlier. On Oct. 9, he met with Putin’s Middle East envoy and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov.
From the first days of the Russian airstrikes in Syria, the Kurds have supported Moscow’s move.
“We have shared this view with the United States as well: We will fight alongside whoever fights Daesh (Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS). We will stand alongside whoever battles the Daesh mentality,” Muslim said in the Oct. 1 interview.
In addition, right after halting its $500 million train-and-equip program, the U.S. started arms supplies to a new alliance calling itself the Democratic Forces of Syria. This alliance includes the Kurdish YPG militia, the PYD and Syrian Arab groups. In effect, the U.S. recognized the PYD as an ally. This move actually looks like the U.S. is betting on one of the most united and rigid moderate forces – the Kurds - who are in addition very friendly and supportive to Russia. This potentially creates an opportunity for cooperation between Russia and U.S. through the Syrian Kurds and Arab forces, which will ally around them.
In this light, the arrival of the Kurds in Moscow takes on greater significance.
At the conference hosted by the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies on Oct. 20 and devoted to the prospects of establishing an international anti-ISIS coalition, Abdullah of the PYD expressed solidarity with Moscow’s efforts to unite all forces that struggle against terrorists and voiced Syrian Kurds’ support for Russian actions in Syria.
“We welcome the participation of international forces in the struggle against the Islamic State, we also welcome Russian airstrikes on terrorists … . We believe that it is needed to unite sound forces inside Syria as well as international forces to confront the main threat,” she said.
Andrei Baklanov, the head of the International Affairs Department of the Federation Council of the Russian Federal Assembly, characterized the current moment in the Syrian conflict as a “moment of anticipation” for the formation of a new power balance that will define the credible negotiating parties for the political process.
According to Baklanov, the Kurds have a chance to become one of those forces. Moreover, the Syrian government always includes the Kurdish question in the political agenda of the conflict settlement, which makes the prospect of their dialogue very possible.
Abdullah also stressed that Syrian Kurds are “the strongest power among the opposition and have already worked out a political settlement for their territories and have been successfully implementing it. Syrian Kurdistan has already acquired a special status with the number of victims it paid while defending its territories from ISIS.”
The most resonant declaration she made was that Syrian Kurds are ready to participate in political dialogue and discuss the settlement with all parties of the conflict in Syria. However, despite concerns of many, according to Abdullah, “Syrian Kurds view themselves as a part of unified and indivisible Syria but with their own special status.”
However, the main obstacle for them is Turkey’s rejection of any claims for Kurdish autonomy in Syria as Ankara views the Syrian PYD and YPG as threats to its own security, as they may spark more separatism among Turkish Kurds. Also, Ankara is cautious because of the connections of the PYD and YPG with the Turkish Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which is labeled as a terrorist organization by Ankara.
Still one more dimension of this issue is the Turkish-Syrian border, which, according to Vladimir Evseev, an expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences, is “the main source of supplies of armament and militants to Syria.” This makes control over the border a crucial task in fighting terrorist activities.
All of these complicate the Syrian war even more. On the one hand, the U.S. supports the Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS and also cooperates with Turkey against Islamic State. On the other hand, Turkey is hitting Syrian Kurds instead of focusing on ISIS targets. All of this adds more uncertainty and doubt to the coordination between the U.S. and their allies in the region. It also opens the door for new cooperation.
Opportunities for a fresh start
Summing up, there are certain areas where opposing parties in the Syrian conflict can and should cooperate although there are certain contradictions not only between them but also among the allies.
The Kurds, being one of the most powerful, unified and heretofore militarily and politically successful groups during four years of the civil war in Syria, have already become a force that has to be taken seriously in any political settlement of the conflict. This allows them to play an active role in both the military and political tracks. Having support from both Russia and the West, the Kurds can potentially become a uniting force that can bring Russia and the U.S. closer in their coordination in Syria.
Moreover, current regional dynamics create a good opportunity for parties to negotiate. Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Iran are already coordinating with Russia on their airstrikes in Syria. Saudi Arabia is now more inclined to negotiate due to plummeting oil prices, its involvement in Yemen and unclear U.S. policy. Turkey is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in the beginning of November. Many experts doubt these elections will be successful for Erdogan’s party, which might make Ankara more accommodating.
Therefore, taking into account Russian airstrikes in Syria and advances of the Syrian Army on the ground, the formation of the new alliance of Syrian Kurds and Arabs with support of the U.S., and intensified diplomatic attempts to kick-start the political process in Syria, we could see an emerging new dynamic in the conflict that ultimately can pave the way to a political settlement.