2 – Kurdistan relies on Godfather
BSSB.BE nationalinterest.org 14.03.2016
Post-Soviet Russia and the Kurds
The motives for post-Soviet Russia’s continued collaboration with the Kurds were twofold. The Russian state had been dealing with Kurds for over two centuries and retained memory and infrastructure. Maintaining that capacity was a relatively cheap way to preserve some Russian leverage in the Middle East. More specifically, the “Kurdish card” provided an effective deterrent against Turkish support for Chechen or other militants in the Caucasus.
Whereas the Kurdish and Chechen questions are symmetrical in form, they are not in impact: Turkey is smaller than Russia, and Turkey’s Kurds are some twelve to eighteen times more numerous than Russia’s Chechens. Kurdish separatism poses a far graver challenge to the Turkish Republic than Chechen separatism could ever to the Russian Federation. The contrast between Chechnya today and the state of virtual civil war in Turkey’s southeast illustrates this.
Russia’s Kurdish Play: A Warning to the United States
Today, Russia is once again vigorously backing a Kurdish national movement. Given Russia’s long track record in cultivating relations with the Kurds, it should be little surprise that Putin, like his predecessors in intelligence Shelepin, Sudoplatov and Primakov, finds himself collaborating with the Kurds to pursue Russia’s foreign policy goals.
- It is not just a source of arms and intelligence, but also, unlike the United States, it is proving itself to be a militarily decisive actor inside Syria. Russia, as a diplomatically experienced country and permanent member of the UN Security Council, can offer support to the Kurds on multiple levels.
- Moscow’s priority in Syria is to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and although Assad is now willing to recognize wide autonomy for Syria’s Kurds, he has not yet signaled a readiness to accept the secession of Rojava from Syria and the redrawing of Syria’s borders. Another brake on any rush to recognize a fully sovereign Kurdish state would be Iranian opposition.
- Iran is an essential partner for Russia in Syria. It is only thanks to Iran’s far larger military commitment to the Assad regime that Russia’s effort to prop up Assad can succeed. Iran faces its own violent Kurdish insurgency, one led by another PKK subsidiary, PJAK, and has no desire to see an independent Kurdistan. Indeed, prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war Turkish-Iranian relations were amicable, thanks in large part to a common animus toward the PKK and PJAK.
The PKK is a supremely disciplined and hierarchical organization, and is neither liberal nor democratic. It does not command anywhere near unanimous support even among Turkey’s Kurds, and it poses a mortal threat to the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, with which it has irreconcilable visions of the Kurds’ future.
Finally, Russia’s Kurdish play should also shake up Washington. American policymakers’ willful misreading of Russian interests and persistent underestimation of Russian capabilities has allowed Russia to successfully blindside U.S. policymakers in Georgia, Ukraine and now Syria.
- It is no secret that Putin seeks the disruption of American alliances and aspires to weaken the NATO alliance. American partnership with the PYD has introduced severe tension into relations with Turkey.
- There is no mystery why. The PYD’s parent organization is seeking through violence to change the political order in Turkey, and the PYD’s success in Syria will aid the PKK immeasurably. The war with the PKK has claimed an estimated forty thousand lives over the past three decades, and it will claim more.
- There has been considerable angst in Turkey that U.S.-supplied arms will be employed not against ISIS but against targets inside Turkey, whether civilian or military. Brett McGurk’s visit in February to PYD-controlled territory in Syria prompted Erdogan to ask angrily and openly whether the United States was on Turkey’s side or that of the PYD. Many Americans, of course, have posed precisely the same question about Turkey’s past policy toward ISIS.
These are signs of a painfully fragile relationship. Among other lessons, what Americans needs to take away from Russia’s Kurdish play is that they are not the only game in town, and that their leverage over the Kurds is limited. The Kurds have options, and in Russia, the PYD and PKK see a patron with extensive experience—and without the best interests of the United States at heart.
Michael A. Reynolds is associate professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is the author of Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918, winner of the American Historical Association’s George Louis Beer Prize.
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