Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be making another shrewd play for power in the Middle East by allying with the Kurds, in a step that undermines United States and Turkish policy in the region.
Russia-Turkey relations have deteriorated since the crisis over the downing of a Russian aircraft in November.
Syrian Kurds announced on Saturday that they would open their first foreign office in Moscow, with a ceremony to be held on Wednesday in a ceremony to be attended by Russian foreign ministry officials as well as representatives from several other countries, according to Abdulsalam Ali, the Syrian Kurdish envoy in Moscow.
“Our ambition is to rally support behind our Kurdish enclave in Syria through this office,” said Ali, according to Rudaw. He is also a member of the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), the main political organization in Syria’s Kurdish administrated areas.
The choice of Moscow and not Washington or Western Europe is telling.
Shmuel Bar, a senior research fellow at the Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Studies at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, said in an article for the Gatestone Institute that unification of parts of Syrian Kurdistan with Russian backing would help Iraqi Kurdistan achieve independence.
“It is highly likely that Russia will take advantage of the trend and support the Kurds, effectively turning an American ally into a Russian one,” wrote Bar, a veteran of Israel’s intelligence community.
Furthermore, Turkey’s enmity toward US cooperation with Syrian Kurdish fighters against Islamic State, is causing tensions in American- Turkish relations, US officials said in a report in The Wall Street Journal on Monday.
Hence, Russia’s Kurd gambit takes advantage of US hesitancy in fully supporting the Kurds because of worries about angering Turkey. It makes Ankara’s life much more difficult as it continues fighting a Kurdish insurgency at home.
The tensions flared in public when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced to reporters on Friday a visit by Brett McGurk, the United States’ new envoy to the coalition against Islamic State, to Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
“He visits Kobani at the time of the Geneva talks and is awarded a plaque by a so-called YPG general.
How can we trust [you]?” Erdogan said, according to Today’s Zaman.
“Am I your ally or are the ‘terrorists’ in Kobani?” Erdogan added.
Erdogan made the comments on Friday while traveling from Dakar Senegal to Istanbul, on his way back from a Latin America tour where he visited Chile, Peru and Ecuador, Turkish media said.
Gallia Lindenstrauss, a Turkey expert and research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post, “Russia is ‘rediscovering’ the Kurds since it has traditionally been favorable to the Kurdish cause, specifically the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).”
Russia has used the PKK as leverage in the past vis-à-vis Turkey, she said.
The US has already developed working relations with the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia – the military wing of the PYD party – the most dominant force among the Syrian Kurds and an affiliate organization of the Kurdistan Workers Party, located in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan and listed as a terrorist organization by the US, Turkey, and the EU.
Erdogan issued what can be considered as an ultimatum this week, said Lindenstrauss, that it’s “either us or the PYD.”
"The US has to find a way around the Turkish ultimatum that will satisfy both Turkey and the PYD. If the US doesn’t find such a formula, it will probably choose the Turkish side and that will push the Kurds closer to Russia," added Lindenstrauss.
The Kurds could use the military success of the pro-Assad forces on the ground in northern Syria as a deterrent against Turkish military action against them, she said.
The circumstances could lead the Kurds to unify their areas of control in northern Syria, something Ankara has declared as a “red line,” Lindenstrauss also said.
Daniel (Dima) Course, a founding member at the Israeli Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, who also teaches at Ariel University, told the Post that “the Kremlin is looking for every possible ally as they need them for political and psychological reasons even more than for practical – strategic ones.”
Putin’s legitimacy depends on the image of Russia which is trying to return to be a superpower, and “there are no superpowers without allies,” said Course.
“At the same time, even China, Kazakhstan, Iran, and Belarus – Russia’s closest partners are managing very pragmatic – if not cynical – relations with no interest in clashing with the West to further Putin’s cause.”
Therefore, said the Israeli Russian expert, the Kurds and Russia make an ideal tandem. The Kurds need all possible aid as a matter of survival and the Russians will get one more tool to pressure Turkey.
He also noted that Russia has a long history of ties with the Kurds, similar to Israel, going back to the 1960s, if not earlier. Course suggested further that this factor could provide another avenue for cooperation between Moscow and Jerusalem.