A Delicate Balancing Act: Russia, Turkey, and the Kurds

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By Pietro A. Shakarian

Russia and Turkey have been improving their relationship since June 2016, the Kurdish question presents a potential challenge to their attempts to strengthen their ties. Reconciling Kurdish aspirations with Turkish fears will be a top priority for Moscow in its effort to broker a post-war peace in Syria.

After a period of tense relations following the Nov. 24 Turkish shoot-down of the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 plane over Syria two years ago, Russia and Turkey began a tenuous rapprochement in June 2016.  Moscow’s desire to repair relations with Turkey is not only motivated by mutual economic interests, but also by political factors.  Specifically, Russia views a potential Ankara-Moscow détente as crucial for a resolution to the Syrian Civil War.

Moreover, it also seeks to draw Turkey away from the West and NATO by moving it toward an informal alliance with Russia and Iran in order to stabilize the Middle East.  Russia enjoys a long-standing historical relationship with Turkey that has been both antagonistic and cooperative.  Cooperation with Ankara is consequently seen in Moscow as not only desirable, but natural and complementary to Russia’s relations with Iran.

However, one major issue threatens to disrupt the potential of a cooperative Moscow-Ankara relationship.  This issue is the fate of the Syrian Kurds, represented by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG).  Previously, Turkey’s primary interest in Syria was the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

However, Ankara has since abandoned this position and its primary concern in Syria is now the Kurdish question.  Ankara alleges that the PYD-YPG enjoys close ideological and political ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).  The latter has been at war with the Turkish state since 1984 in the predominately Kurdish provinces of eastern Turkey.  The PKK’s aims have shifted over time from outright political independence to regional autonomy to political and civil rights for the Kurds.  Ankara regards the PKK as a terrorist organization and, by extension, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has regularly accused the PYD-YPG of being a “terrorist group.”

By contrast, Russia enjoys friendly relations with the PYD-YPG.  Its relations with various Kurdish groups date back almost 200 years, from the time of the Russian conquest of Transcaucasia in the early 19th century.  As the Soviet Union, Moscow played a vital role in preserving Kurdish culture by promoting Kurdish language and literature among its Kurdish minority.

Even more important, it broadcasted Kurdish-language radio transmissions from Soviet Armenia that could be received by Kurds outside of the USSR.  The impact of such broadcasts in the development of Kurdish ethnic self-awareness was inestimable, especially at a time when the Kurdish language was heavily repressed in neighboring Turkey.  The Soviet Union also produced the first Kurdish film, Zare, in 1926 and provided refuge to Iraqi Kurdish rebel leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani and his formidable fighters from 1947 to 1958.

The Shadow of Mahabad

Although those aspects of the Russian-Kurdish relationship are still celebrated among Kurds in various countries, there was also the tragic experience of the Mahabad Republic of 1946.  After supporting the establishment of this self-proclaimed Kurdish republic in northern Iran after World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin withdrew support.  The USSR had secured important oil concessions from the West.  Abandoned by Moscow, the Mahabad Republic was quashed by Tehran.  This historical episode forms part of a broader Kurdish national narrative, in which promises of support from various great powers always prove fleeting, leaving the Kurds with “no friends but the mountains.”

The Mahabad episode is well-known not only among the Kurds, but also among Russian Middle East policymakers and specialists.  The memory of Moscow’s earlier abandonment of the Mahabad Kurds strengthens its commitment to ensure that the voice of the Kurds is heard in any Syrian post-war peace.  Moreover, during the course of the Syrian Civil War, Russia and the United States vied for an alliance with the Syrian Kurds.  In the end, the PYD-YPG succeeded in securing an alliance with both powers in the fight against ISIS.  Now that ISIS is defeated in Syria, the United States, influenced by Ankara, has announced that it will stop supporting the PYD-YPG.  This leaves the PYD-YPG with Russia as its sole ally among the great powers.

Geopolitically, this is a major victory for Moscow, but it is a victory that comes with great responsibility and an obligation to guarantee the Syrian Kurds a seat at the table in any peace negotiation on the future of Syria.  The situation is made is easier by the fact that the PYD-YPG supports two key positions of Moscow: (1) the territorial integrity of the Syrian republic and (2) the transformation of Syria into a federal state.  It is conceivable that Russia will be able to reconcile differences between the Syrian Kurds and the Assad government.  Already the Assad government has offered the Kurds political autonomy, indicating its openness to a devolution of powers in a post-war Syria.  For its part, the PYD-YPG has stated that its forces it will join the Syrian national army if a federal state in Syria is guaranteed.

Between Turkey and the Kurds

A much more difficult task for Moscow will be placating Turkey in the Syrian peace process.  Given its hostility to the PYD-YPG, Ankara has consistently worked to exclude it from earlier Syrian talks.  Turkish President Erdogan also periodically threatens to invade the Syrian Kurdish canton of Afrin, separated by the main territory of YPG-held Rojava by a strip of territory controlled by Turkish-backed rebels.  However, given that the YPG presently controls approximately 30% of Syria’s territory, any move to exclude it from any serious peace negotiations aimed at ending the war would be inconceivable.

Further, given Moscow’s obligation to the Syrian Kurds, its desire to see an end to the Syrian war, and the historical shadow of the earlier experience of the Mahabad Republic, it will not abandon the Kurds.  At the same time, Moscow will work hard diplomatically to assuage Turkish fears about the PYD-YPG’s alleged connections to the PKK and to reassure Ankara that Syria’s territorial integrity will be respected.  It is a delicate balancing act for Moscow, but not impossible.  Russia has managed to work constructively with Ankara in the past, and Turkey stands to gain far more from Moscow as an ally, both economically and politically, than as an antagonist.

The signs appear to be promising so far.   At the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for an all-Syrian peace congress, representing all major national and religious groups, including the Kurds.  This congress is due to be held in Sochi and the PYD-YPG has been invited by Moscow to participate, much to Ankara’s annoyance.  However, although Turkey has rhetorically sounded its displeasure about the possibility of the PYD-YPG’s participation in such a congress, it nevertheless supports the idea of the congress itself.  It has also demonstrated its willingness to cooperate and compromise with Russia.  However, tension between Ankara and the PYD-YPG remains.  Reconciling Kurdish aspirations with Turkish fears will be a top priority for Moscow in its effort to broker a post-war peace in Syria.

Pietro A. Shakarian is a PhD candidate in History at The Ohio State University in Columbus, focusing on Russia, Eurasia and Caucasus. He earned his MA in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, his MLIS at Kent State University, and his BA in History at John Carroll University in Cleveland.

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