What is Russia up to in Syria? A Kurdish perspective

October 16, 2015

Russia's current military action in Syria, its first such action outside former Soviet territory, has shocked the world.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan exclaimed, miserably: “Russia has no border with Syria, so why are they so interested in Syria?”

Russia and Turkey have played the same game in Syria: saying one thing and doing another. Both say they are targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but hit other targets as best suits them — the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for Turkey and for Russia, the Islamic opposition groups backed by the US and Turkey.

Syria is Russia's major ally in the Middle East. Many Syrians see the arrival of Russia as the “return of an old friend”, according to Hediye Levent, a Turkish journalist living in Damascus. But Russia has other goals than simply saving the Bashar al-Assad regime.

“Russia's purpose is to protect its own interests,” Syrian strategist Akil Said Mahfud told the Russian Sputnik Turkish. Russia is stalling the US, European Union and Assad while reinforcing and positioning its bases in the region.

Russia has its only overseas military base in the Syrian city of Tartus. Mahfud thinks the Syrian crisis has gone on too long with no hope of a political solution, so the rules of the game had to change. That is why Russia is stepping in.

Russia is also buying time for Assad, but only because it suits its purpose of positioning itself in the region. It provides an opportunity for Russia to expand the Latakia airport and to bomb the Islamic opposition groups allied with Turkey and the US to keep them away from the Mediterranean coast — which is strategically very important to Russia. When these and other tasks are completed, Russia might abandon Assad if it suits it.

Russia has developed many relationships in the region in recent times, including with Kurdish factions. This has extended Russian influence into Iraq. Russia now has a bridge on the political map from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea, which is more important than the issue of Assad, says Turkish socialist intellectual Aydın Çubukçu.

Russia's attacks on the messy and ineffective anti-Assad opposition backed by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar is an early intervention to try to stop a possible “new Afghanistan” for Russia. Russia is capitalising on the approach it adopted in Ukraine and Crimea. The West responded with a “desperate silence” when Russia showed its muscles in Ukraine. The same thing is happening again in Syria.

Kurdish positions

If ISIS was the only problem in the region, the answer to this question would be easy: The Kurds would support the US, Russia, Iran, Martians or whoever fought against ISIS. But the issue is so much more complicated.

At the start of the Syrian war, positions were clearer than today. Iran supported the Syrian regime. Iraq didn't say much, but didn't want Assad to go. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar supported and equipped every outfit with “opposition” in their title — except the Kurds. Some commentators announced the date of Assad's departure from power.

Among Kurds, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani — president of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq — adopted its traditional policy: positioning itself with the winners.

It assumed the US would back the Turkish, Saudi and Qatar block and aligned itselves with Turkey, at least until ISIS's invasion of Shengal in the KRG's territory. The policy matched the selling of South Kurdistan's oil via Turkey as well. The KDP expected the Syrian regime would collapse easily.

The KDP's coalition partners in the KRG, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani, who has previously made positive comments on the Assad regime, has not openly backed Assad. Nor has the Gorran Movement, which is the official opposition to the KDP-PUK government.

The PKK, for its part, predicted from the start that the Assad regime would not fall easily. It observed the weakness of the anti-Assad opposition and calculated that international pressure would not be enough to tip the regime out of power.

This is one of the main reasons Syrian Kurds have adopted a “third way” policy: not to fight either the regime or the opposition and keep Rojava out of the war.

The policy was implemented when the revolutionary forces in Rojava declared the territory an autonomous liberated zone in July 2012. Local agreements were struck between the Kurdish cantons and local representatives of both Syrian regime and opposition forces.

Apart from protecting the cantons from Syrian fire, the agreements were also intended to avoid confrontation with Turkey and Iran. But Turkey's harsh attitude towards Rojava threatened this policy.

Turkey would not accept Kurdish self-determination and encouraged first Al Nusra, then ISIS to attack Rojava. The PKK supported Rojava from the start. Because of its ties to Turkey, the KDP did not.

Russia has moved very quickly, forming an alliance with Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon's Hezbollah and claiming Syrian air space.

It is to be expected that some Kurds will be close to the Americans and some to the Russians.

The US has been co-operating with the People's Protection Units (YPG) — armed group for the Rojavan revolutionaries ideologically linked to the PKK — at the US “Operations Centre” in Iraq since October last year.

Russia has recently responded by inviting Kurdish representatives to a newly-established intelligence sharing centre of the Russia/Iran/Iraq/Lebanese Hezbollah alliance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has hailed the Kurds as only real force fighting against ISIS.

Ilham Ehmed, a senior official from the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that helps lead the Rojavan revolution, was in the US recently. She told Al Monitor's Barbara Slavin that Russia had expressed its willingness to work with Kurds against ISIS and other extremist groups.

“No doubt,” says Amberin Zaman, Turkish journalist in Washington, “Ehmed told US officials what Russia offered them.”

Letting Washington know what Moscow is offering may leverage Washington into improving its own offer to the Kurds. Rojava's Kurdish revolutionaries have paid a heavy price for what they have built in their territory. They are a force that cannot be ignored and they know it.

They can find grounds to cooperate with either the US or Russia, but will not be sitting in either of their laps.

Zaman thinks the PYD could benefit from the Russian move, by using the Russian intervention to liberate the Afrin Canton, the westernmost of Rojava's three cantons. “The sudden and powerful intervention of Russia” says Zaman, “can open new opportunities for Kurds.”

Putin made a famous call at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, for a “multi-polar world”. Russia's action in Syria is a “comeback” move. After the war, Syria's division will be inevitable and Russia wants to control its share, the Mediterranean coastal strip.

Whatever the manoeuvres of great powers in the region, the Kurdish revolutionaries in Rojava will seek to advance their goal of building and protecting an autonomous, democratic zone.

[I Zekeriya Ayman is a Kurdish-Turkish socialist living in Melbourne.]

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