Dr. Kamal Said Qadir
Kurdish Affairs Analyst
The comeback of an old ally
Throughout history, from the Tsarist era through the Soviet times and to this day Russia has been the only country among those involved in the Middle East to play exclusively a positive role in the history of the Kurdish national movement. During the Tsarist rule, Russia was the only foreign power to establish ties with the Kurdish national movement and support it against the Ottoman Empire. In the Soviet era the first and only Kurdish republic in the history of Kurds was declared in Eastern Kurdistan, currently known as the Iranian Kurdistan, in 1946 with direct military, economic and political support of the Soviet Union.
Even the so-called Kurdish revolution of September 1961 in Iraqi Kurdistan was, according to documents from Russian archives, apparently initiated by the Soviet Union and supported militarily and financially. Mustafa Barzani, the leader of this revolution himself spent twelve years in exile in the Soviet Union with several hundred of his followers, where he established strong ties with security and military circles and maintained them until he completely shifted to the United States to be later betrayed by them in 1975. He died in his U.S. exile in 1978 and his son Masoud Barzani inherited the position as the chief of the Kurdistan Democratic Party which was a copy of a political party under the same name established with Soviet assistance in Iranian Kurdistan at the end of the WWII.
After the reemergence of Russia in the Middle Eastern arena, the positive attitude of Russia towards the Kurdish political aspirations is continuing, which led the Russian Federation to open a consulate general in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Kurdish political delegations from Iraq, Turkey and Syria were officially invited by the Russian government to hold talks on the potential for political, security and economic cooperation.
On the cultural level, Russia was the first country to establish an institute for Kurdology and grant scholarships to hundreds of Kurdish students at Russian universities, not to mention the role of Russian Orientalists in promoting the Kurdish history, culture and literature. It is also worth mentioning that Russia has never prosecuted its Kurdish citizens on the ground of their ethnic identity.
All in all, Russia was not always able to support the Kurds militarily and politically because of its own national interests, yet it never betrayed them. The Kurds themselves turned sometimes to other powers for help, only to turn to Russia again after their betrayal by those powers.
For the time being, the Kurds of Syria, the so-called Western Kurdistan, seem to be main beneficiaries of the Russian comeback in the Middle East. Islamist generally consider Kurds to be infidels for their secular and mostly leftist stance. This is the reason why the Arab Spring of 2011 sparked by various groups desiring political change threatened to result in an Islamist jihadist winter for the Kurds as well as other national and religious minorities in Syria.
Russian campaign against Islamist terrorists in Syria essentially prevented a new wave of genocide against the Kurds and other minorities in the region. It also opened a new window of opportunity for a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish question in Syria, since the Kurdish forces, the Syrian government and Russia are all positioned at the same front against ISIL terrorists.
It is highly likely Russia will try to include the Syrian Kurds in any peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis on the basis of their legitimate political, economic and cultural rights. Nevertheless, the comeback of Russia in the Middle East arena brings not only advantages, but it could also bring serious risks for the Kurds.
What are the risks?
Russia, like any other power, is pursuing its national interests and will be rarely ready to sacrifice these interests for the benefit of others, including the Kurds.
On the economic level, ties between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria on one side, and Russia on the other side are very strong, while Kurds do not have a lot to offer to Moscow except for limited oil investments in Iraqi Kurdistan not exceeding USD 1bn. Russia’s strong economic ties with the above-mentioned countries is the main obstacle for Russia’s strong alliance with the Kurds.
Iraq, one of the major customers for Russia’s defense industry, now feels strengthened militarily through its new ties with Moscow is attempting to dispute the Kurds’ control of and oil resources. Iraqi air force, for example, which increasingly relies on Russian deliveries, has already bombed positions close to Kurdish Peshmarga forces around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in addition to threatening statements by Iraqi officials. The Kurds in Iraq therefore fear being overrun again by Iraqi forces, as it was the case in 1961-1991.
Turkey has a trade volume with Russia that exceeds USD 100bn. This strong economic link between the two countries is one of the reasons why Russia is exercising a very cautious approach when dealing with Kurds residing in Turkey.
If the Kurdish administration in Syria strengthens its ties with Russia and consequently becomes friendlier to the Syrian government, Turkey’s potential intervention may pose another risk. Ankara is already seeking a pretext to abort the Kurdish self-administration experiment in Syria and accuses Kurdish forces there of being PKK-friendly.
In Syria too, Kurds have also been facing persecution and forced Arabization for decades, there is no guarantee that they will enjoy their legitimate rights through a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis. There is an increasing fear among Syrian Kurds that as a result of the political process Russia could sacrifice their interests in favor of support for the Syrian government.
The Kurdish curse: Oil and gas
The energy sector remains the Achilles heel of the Russia-Kurdish relations. It was also the main reason for the Soviet Union to withdraw its support for the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in 1947 when the Iranian government granted the Soviet Union oil exploration rights in Iran. A similar situation could happen now with Kurds in Syria, if Russia and Turkey become part of a political deal to resolve the Syrian crisis.
Turkey’s increasing energy demand and its geo-strategic location as a potential transit hub for Russian gas to Europe, take a prominent place in Russia’s strategy towards Turkey. This relationship has especially become important to Russia after the Ukrainian crisis, when several rounds of sanctions were imposed against Moscow. The Syrian crisis itself and Russian military involvement in it have a lot to do with energy supplies to Europe, where the West’s goal is to try to break Russia’s gas monopoly in the EU.
If Russia supports the Kurds in Syria and Turkey strongly and openly then Ankara could try to substitute its gas supplies from Russia by turning to its second largest supplier, Iran, or even to Iraqi Kurdistan where huge fields of natural gas have been recently discovered. Other options for Turkey could include creating a hub for non-Russian natural gas that could be transported to Europe from Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.
The same energy dilemma that is now the main source of the Syrian conflict could become common ground for a possible political solution of the Syrian crisis between Russia, the West and their allies. If such a deal was brokered between Russia and the West, the Kurds in general, and especially those of Syria could become definite winners. If the Syrian government stays in power Kurds could finally get autonomy but if the Assad government goes Kurds could easily become yet another persecuted minority group.
Both Russia and the West could gain economic advantages by turning their backs on Kurds in Syria. Russia’s advantage will be mainly in energy cooperation with Turkey that is against a possible Kurdish autonomy in Syria. The West’s advantage would be with the new government in Syria formed by the Arab-Sunni majority, which has always opposed Kurdish national rights.
The Kurdish problem is a source of strategic advantage for many regional and international powers and therefore it is being currently kept on the back burner. Kurds should exercise the highest degree of caution in their foreign policy and opt for a policy, which would place them strategically in between the United States and Russia.