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Jun 2, 2016 | 15:16 GMT

7 mins read

Syria's Kurds Are a Means to Others' Ends

A Kurdish fighter inspects a prison in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli on April 22. The Kurds are playing a central role in the Syrian conflict as Russia, the United States and Turkey try to use the minority group to meet their own goals.
(DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In the interconnected zone of conflict spreading across Syria, Iraq and Turkey, the Kurds have taken on an increasingly important role. Their dispersal across the geographic area has allowed them to play a pivotal part in the fighting time and again, while their political divisions have subjected them to manipulation by outside powers. Now the Kurds are once again at the center of attention. In spite of Moscow's ties to the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Russia has been cultivating connections with numerous Kurdish factions and, possibly, supplying them with arms. The United States has also been providing air support for several of the same factions for some time. Russian and U.S. assistance for these groups has, in turn, worried Turkey, which is concerned about the calls for autonomy coming from its own Kurdish minority. As the three powers continue to try to use the Kurds for their own ends, the embattled minority group will try to play them off of one another to further its own goals.

Russia's history with the Kurds dates back to the 19th century, when the Russian Empire recruited Kurdish tribes to its campaigns against Eurasian rivals, the Ottoman Empire and Persia. The Russian Empire's successor, the Soviet Union, inherited these ties and used them to undermine both Turkey and Iran. From 1923 to 1929, the Soviet Union operated its own Kurdish region — the Kurdistansky Uyezd — in the southern Caucasus and, in 1946, it helped establish the short-lived Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in Iran. Later in the Cold War, the Soviets supported the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), once again hoping to undermine their traditional enemy, Turkey, which was by that point a NATO member.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia's involvement with the Kurds diminished but never fully ended. Today Russia is once again embroiled in power politics in the region, and just as in the 19th century and in the Cold War, Moscow has turned to the Kurds. Moscow has increased its ties with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian opposition group that advocates Kurdish autonomy and federalism. The PYD's armed wing, the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), is a major player in the Syrian conflict. Although Russia supports the Syrian government, Moscow has cultivated a relationship with the PYD to gain leverage over Turkey, which opposes the party's political ambitions. In February, the PYD opened a representative office in Russia, its first overseas branch. Russia has also openly tried to coordinate with the YPG, hoping to defuse tension between the militant group and the al Assad government. Moscow has even coordinated operations against Syrian rebel forces to the benefit of both the YPG and Syrian loyalists.

More important, though, are indications that Moscow may be directly arming its old ally, the PKK. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Russia on May 30 of doing just that, claiming that Moscow is giving anti-aircraft weaponry to the PKK through Syrian and Iraqi territory. Moscow has denied the allegations, but Erdogan's accusation comes only a few weeks after PKK fighters used an SA-18 man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS) to shoot down a Turkish military helicopter. The downing of the helicopter was noteworthy because it was the first known incident of Kurdish militants using the relatively advanced weapons system, though they have used other MANPADS before. As usual, the Russian connections to the situation are murky — SA-18s can be found in Syria and the PKK may not have purchased them from Moscow. Nevertheless, Russia could be using the conflict in Syria and Iraq to strengthen its ties to the PKK, enhancing its leverage against Turkey while maintaining plausible deniability in the process.

Balancing Russian Aid With U.S. Support

Although Russia's ties with the Kurds are long-standing, it is the United States that gives them the most direct assistance through the PYD and its armed YPG wing. The U.S.-led coalition provides critical air support for this Kurdish faction, and Washington has embedded hundreds of U.S. special operations forces within the Syrian Democratic Forces, an anti-Islamic State coalition dominated by the YPG. Because of the United States' strong backing, the PYD will be careful to prioritize its ties with Washington even as it takes advantage of Moscow's outreach.

The PYD has already benefited greatly from U.S. largesse. The Syrian Democratic Forces' recent Raqqa offensive and other successes against the Islamic State have prompted Washington to approve an operation against Manbij, a city in northern Aleppo province near the Turkish border. Previously, Turkish opposition had forced the United States to redirect the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces southeast toward Raqqa. Instead, Washington chose to pressure the Islamic State in northern Aleppo using Azaz rebels, who have closer ties to Turkey. However, these rebels failed at their task, and the Syrian Democratic Forces will now step in over Turkish objections. Washington has made some concessions to Ankara by allowing the Arab components of the Syrian Democratic Forces to spearhead the operation, but Turkey is well aware that the YPG is very much involved in the assault. 

The YPG is now positioned to reach an objective it has pursued for some time: linking its three geographically separate northern Syrian holdings into a single contiguous area that it calls Rojava. Of course, its success is by no means guaranteed: U.S. support for the YPG is driven primarily by its interest in taking down the Islamic State. The Syrian and Turkish governments, by contrast, have a long-term strategic interest in stifling the YPG's efforts and containing the Kurds.

Turkey's Gambit

Turkey's position in the conflict is becoming more difficult as the fighting drags on. Ankara is in the midst of ongoing clashes with the PKK, which operates inside Turkey and sparked a fresh round of fighting in July 2015. Now, Russia's support could reinvigorate the militant group at a time when Turkish efforts to contain the YPG in northern Syria are in jeopardy. Ankara knows that Washington will not hold back the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces for long if it means allowing the Islamic State to survive. Once the Syrian Democratic Forces are able to push toward Manbij, the Kurdish goal of establishing Rojava may come closer to fruition.

With this dilemma in mind, Turkey appears to be considering a risky alternative. With the help of the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition group in exile, and Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani's Iraq-based Kurdistan Democratic Party, Ankara is reaching out to the Rojava Peshmerga. The 3,000-strong Syrian Kurdish group is currently in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan and has suspected links to the PYD's traditional rival, the Kurdish National Council. For this reason, the PYD has long opposed the return of the Rojava Peshmerga to Syria.

Many Kurds would support the Rojava Peshmerga's entry into the conflict in northern Aleppo. If the returnees then succeed in place of the Syrian Democratic Forces in pushing back the Islamic State, the YPG's goal of a united (and anti-Turkey) Rojava would be thwarted. But Ankara is making a big gamble. There is a distinct possibility that the Rojava Peshmerga may not be enthusiastic about cooperating with Turkey against other Kurdish factions, even those that are their rivals. And time is on the Syrian Democratic Forces' side; after all, they are already launching offensives in northern Aleppo.

As the fighting intensifies in southern Turkey and northern Syria, various Kurdish factions are becoming significantly more important. These factions, in turn, will try to play rival powers off one another to further their own interests. Ultimately, however, these powers might find that the Kurds are not enough to meet their goals in Syria, potentially prompting greater direct involvement by these external actors in the conflict. Indeed, Turkey may have already reached this conclusion, and as its options for containing the PYD dwindle, it may expand its own forces' activities within Syria.

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