By Raman Ghavami
The Kremlin has managed to use the Kurds to weaken its enemies.
Since 2011, the relationship between Russia and Turkey has been tumultuous. Despite the new alliance between the two countries, it is undeniably unbalanced in favour of Russia. To achieve this, Moscow understood the deep existential threat that the Kurdish question represents to Ankara and used this to its own advantage by manipulating the Kurds, particularly the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). By linking the Kurdish question in Turkey and Syria, Russia was able to steer Turkish policy in Syria to its advantage.
THE KURDS IN SYRIA
Turkey’s renewed anxiety about the Kurdish situation stems from the PKK using the war in Syria as an opportunity to establish its system—by legitimizing itself through its branch in that country. As a result, the Turkish parliament passed a resolution in 2013 allowing the Turkish army to invade Syria. The objective of this policy was, first and foremost, to fight the Kurds and halt the linking of the three Kurdish cantons. However, in order to garner support from its allies, Turkey also claimed this invasion would weaken Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In order to link the Kurdish threat to Assad, Turkey distorted the truth about the PKK’s relationship with the Syrian regime, convincing the United States that the Kurds in Syria were helping Damascus. This invasion plan never materialized because the US and the European Union (EU) considered it to be a very dangerous move that they could not endorse. In part, this was because the Syrian Kurds had found support in Russia.
The main reason behind the Kremlin’s support of the Syrian Kurds was to protect Assad’s regime and the interests of the Russia-Iran-Syria alliance. As such, having the Kurds controlling a large part of the Turkey-Syria border was a shrewd strategy from Iran and Russia as it impeded Turkish and Western influence in Syria.
The crucial point here is that the Kurdish region of Syria is controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is affiliated with the PKK—the latter is recognized by both Turkey and the West as a terrorist group. This, therefore, prevented Washington from having open ties with the PYD until 2014. Even since then, ties between them were a source of unease for the Obama administration, which manifested itself in the exclusion of the Kurds from the Geneva peace talks at the behest of Turkey.
The turning point for the Syrian Kurds was the battle of Kobane in 2015, which became the focal point of international media and demonstrated to Western powers that the Kurds were wholly committed to the fight against the Islamic State (IS). The US and France soon started arming and supporting the YPG.
THE KURDS IN TURKEY
Meanwhile, as the Kurds in Syria were gaining power, the Kurds in Turkey were also witnessing a turn of events, as the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) entered government for the first time. This Kurdish momentum in both Turkey and Syria was too much to handle for Ankara.
By 2015, after a series of terrorist attacks on pro-Kurdish rallies in Turkey, the PKK killed two Turkish soldiers as it accused the government of having assisted IS in bombing Kurdish rallies. This was a critical moment as the peace process soon collapsed and the PKK launched a fight in the Kurdish region of Turkey in late October 2015. However, this was a big mistake on behalf of the PKK, resulting in disastrous military and civilian consequences.
Kurds are now angry both at the Turkish government and the PKK, as the situation is arguably worse than it was during the “Dirty War” of the 1990s.
RUSSIA MAKES ITS MOVE
In this context of extreme Kurdish-Turkish tension, the shooting down of the Russian jet incident by the Turkish army occurred. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened that this would have “serious consequences for relations between Russia and Turkey.” Indeed, the consequences have cost Ankara, as it offered Moscow its greatest opportunity to put pressure on Turkey.
The PKK was desperate to get revenge for its failed war and the breakdown of the peace process. In the Kurds, Russia found a double-pronged strategy that would not only make Turkey pay the price for the fighter jet incident, but also change its policy in Syria. On May 13, 2016, the PKK shot down a Cobra helicopter belonging to the Turkish army using MANPADS in Turkey, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Russia of having supplied such weapons to the PKK. Whether Russia did sell weapons to the PKK or not was irrelevant because Moscow understood the paranoid anxiety that the Turkish government was experiencing due to the Kurds, and it seized the opportunity.
The timing of all these incidents is indicative of Russia’s strategy. First, on November 4, 2015, Turkey shot down the Russian jet. Following this, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov engaged with Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas in Moscow on December 23, 2015, tapping into Turkish fears of growing Kurdish political power. Then, in May 2016, the PKK shot down the helicopter. Finally, on June 27, Erdogan sent his apologies to Putin, just over one month after the PKK’s attacks.
The most important reason that prompted Erdogan to send a letter of apology to Putin was that, both politically (HDP and PYD) and militarily (PKK and YPG), Turkey was under mounting pressure from the Kurds. Russia, therefore, used the Kurdish tool against Turkey in an astute manner as it was the only way to change Ankara’s policy in Syria. Moscow successfully used the PKK and the Kurds in Turkey to strengthen its strategy in Syria and the Middle East.
WEAKENING THE US POSITION
As a result, Russia has not only pacified Turkish policy in Syria, but it has also managed to weaken the US in the region by getting Turkey on its side. As long as the Kurdish question exists in Turkey, it will be very challenging for Erdogan to move out of Russia’s sphere of influence.
After more than six years of war in Syria, it has become clear that neither the Americans, the Turks or the Kurds are in a winning position. After a humanitarian disaster and billions of dollars spent, neither Western powers nor its allies have grasped the great extent to which Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East is guided by its existential fear of the Kurdish question. This was what Russia and Iran wanted because they now have the upper hand and Turkey is no longer seeking the removal of Assad.
At present, there is a competition between Russia and the US over who can secure Turkey as an ally. Of course, this could put the future of the Kurds both in Turkey and Syria in danger because the only way to get Ankara’s full allegiance is by offering the most support to defeat the Kurds, which Russia is now doing. The Kurds in Turkey and Syria have been played and their future is becoming more uncertain as Assad’s forces advance toward Kurdish areas. While the Kurds were not invited to Astana peace talks, the Russians will keep negotiating with them using back channels in order to keep them on their side.
With the Trump administration in the White House, it is clear that the US has lost much influence in the Middle East as Russia and Iran have been leading negotiations over Syria. If Washington wants to turn the tables around, it will need to develop a Kurdish policy that goes beyond simply arming the Kurds without giving them any political rights in return, and which understands the geopolitical significance of the Kurdish question.
Raman Ghavami is a Middle East analyst. He has worked for various social and political organisations across the Middle East and Europe. He is currently working for a consultancy firm based in the United Kingdom. Ghavami holds an MA in International Relations and former advisor to the Kurdish Knowledge Centre (KKC).