Russia’s Policy Towards Kurds Throughout the Syrian Conflict

Jwan Dibo
Jwan Dibo

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Russia has espoused an inimical position towards the aspirations of the Kurds in Syria. Russia’s stance was formulated based on the interplay of the Kurdish political and military forces with Russian strategy that sought to protect and uphold al-Assad regime.

Russia’s agendas as a superpower and the Kurds as a local power were and still incompatible throughout the Syrian calamity. Russia intervened militarily in the Syrian crisis in 2015 aiming to save Assad regime from an impending collapse. While the Kurds sought to obtain self-rule within a new Syria, which they hoped would be federal and decentralised. So, it was understandable that Russia to stand against the Kurds and even to support those who hostile them.

When Turkey shot down the Russian aircraft in 2015, Russia began to use the Kurdish issue in Syria against Turkey. Due to the intransigent stance of Turkey, many Russian officials stressed the necessity for self-determination of the Kurds in Syria as well as in the entire Middle East. However, before the escalation between Russia and Turkey, the Kremlin showed its high resentment and decisive reluctance about the formation of the Kurdish self-administration in north and east Syria in 2014. The Kremlin, simply, considered the Kurdish move as a threat to his ally’s power, viz., Al-Assad regime.

After the American air forces helped Kurdish Peoples Protection Unites (YPG) against ISIS in the battle of Kobane in 2014, the relations between U.S and Turkey started to worsen. Russia took the opportunity to improve its relations with Turkey by intimidating Ankara that U.S is helping the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Russia went further when it frequently proclaimed that U.S supports Kurdish separatists in Syria referring to PYD and its military wing YPG that made up the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

In the beginning of 2018, the Kurds in Syria received the first Russia’s tangible betrayal when it allowed Turkey to invade the Kurdish city of Afrin and to undermine a part of the Kurdish self-administration. The disgraceful deal between Russia and Turkey was known as Afrin to Turkey in exchange for Ghouta to Russia and the Syrian regime.

Prior to Turkish occupation of Afrin, Russia’s stance on the independence referendum of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017 was based on its policies in Syria and the role of Turkey and Iran. Russian position on the referendum at the beginning was relatively better compared to the positions of other great powers. But later it turned out that this was to blackmail Turkey and Iran and to obtain concessions from both states in Syria.

Russian anger toward the Kurds increased when the latter who lead SDF became the U.S. essential partners in fighting ISIS in Syria. In other words, when the largest Kurdish political and military forces in Syria practically became dependent on U.S. in terms of supply and protection. Russia started to punish Kurds by mediating between Damascus and Ankara in terms of diplomacy and intelligence over the rise of the Kurdish situation in Syria, the matter which disturbs both states.

Now, Russia desires to repeat Afrin’s black scenario in the town of Ain Issa which is considered as the administrative capital of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. After SDF rejected Russia’s proposal to hand over the town to the Syrian regime, Moscow granted a green light to Ankara to commence a new offensive against the Kurds. Russia tries to utilise, as much as possible, from the rest days of Trump’s administration and to shuffle more the cards in the game on the Syrian arena. The reason behind that is to make Biden’s administration confront a complex and bewildered reality in Syria.

Historically, the former Soviet Union and its successor, Russia, have not been friends and allies of Kurds. In 1946, the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan was established with a hidden support from the Soviet leadership. Eleven months later, the Republic of Mahabad collapsed by Iranian authorities after, Joseph Stalin, abandoned the Kurdish Republic. Soviet leaders adopted another passive attitude towards the Kurdish revolution in Iraqi Kurdistan led by Mustafa Barzani during the sixth and seventh decades of the last century.

These days, history is repeating itself again and in another way in Syria. Once again, Russia is standing up against the legitimate and modest Kurdish aspirations in Syria in order to preserve its interests that conflict with the Kurds’ obtaining some of their rights. Russia has not hesitated for a moment to penalise the Kurds in Syria, even by allowing Turkey to occupy their lands and shed their blood. Yes, it is the logic that says that a state ruled by an absolute dictator and has a long history of persecuting different peoples cannot support the rights of another oppressed people like the Kurds in Syria.

 By: Jwan Dibo