Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right). AP file photo.
Russia and Turkey have recently decided to take steps to patch-up ties after the tense seven-month long fallout following Ankara’s shooting down of one of the Kremlin’s warplanes over the Turkish-Syrian border last November. How the rapprochement between these two powers will affect the Syrian Kurds, if at all, has yet to be seen.
The Russian and Turkish governments have said they both agreed on the need to cooperate against terrorism in the region. Turkish officials are quick to remind everyone that they perceive both the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Peoples Protection Units (YPG) fighters to be entities equally as bad as, if not worse than, Islamic State (ISIS).
In a 36-minute meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov last Friday Cavusoglu acknowledged that both countries still maintain different outlooks but can nevertheless talk about any issue, either “positive or negative”, since relations are returning to the cordial state they were in before last November.
Clearly Turkey and Russia still have some disagreements on the definition of terrorism. Turkey frequently insists that the PYD and YPG are inextricably linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – a group it is currently fighting in its own southeast and bombing in the Kurdistan Region. Russia, on the other hand, hasn’t designated the PKK a terrorist organization and even allowed the PYD to open an office in Moscow.
After aforementioned talks with Lavrov on Friday Cavusoglu claimed that, regarding the PYD office in Moscow, “We do not have sufficient information on this subject. We do not have sufficient information on Russia’s stance on the YPG and PYD in Syria.”
Russia insisted that the PYD be allowed to participate in the Syria peace talks at Geneva, however they were denied entry. The YPG, as part of the large Arab and Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) umbrella group, has been the most successful force on the ground in Syria in the fight against ISIS. They have consequently received support and training from the US-led coalition, however the coalition is hesitant about also supporting that groups political aspirations.
Since the Syrian war began five years ago Turkey has been demanding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down and supported armed groups fighting him, many of whom are Islamist militants. The Turks became so alarmed by how fast the PYD Kurds were able to consolidate their self-rule over Syria’s Kurdish territories that they even seemed to perceive an ISIS victory over them, during the siege of Kobani, to be more desirable than Kurdish self-rule under the PYD along their southern border.
Turkey has opposed the Kurds joining together all of their cantons since they don’t want Syria’s northern border to be completely dominated by the YPG. Last February the Turkish military fired artillery over the border at the YPG to prevent them from advancing against Islamist militants in Syria’s northwest.
While the Russians have expressed sympathy for Syria’s Kurds and their battlefield victories against ISIS it has deployed its military forces to Syria primarily in order to shore-up the Syrian regime. And the Syrian regime, along with the various groups that make up a loosely defined “opposition”, are viscerally opposed to Syrian Kurdish autonomy and the “federal democratic system” they declared in March.
While Damascus is unlikely to be able re-conquer all of Syria if it ever does get a chance it will likely seek to reign in the Kurds, control their region and deny them any genuine self-determination.
Turkey would likely acquiesce to Damascus moving in to crush Syria Kurdistan’s autonomous entity, and would likely be content with the prospect of the regime and the PYD Kurds fighting and weakening each other while hoping – in the same vein Henry Kissinger once lamented that, “It’s a pity they can’t both lose” about the Iran-Iraq War – they somehow manage to destroy each other.
Both Moscow and Ankara need to cooperate and reach some compromises on their diverging goals in Syria. Russia, like the US, would welcome Turkey closing off its northwestern border to cut off armed Islamists like Jabhat al-Nusra from having any access to the outside world.
Turkey in turn would like to see Russian discontinue its limited support of the Syrian Kurds and ensure Assad adheres to any negotiated transition process which might come about in the future that would see him stepping down as president. Ankara may well calculate that any new Syrian government made-up of both elements of the current regime and opposition are likely going to oppose Syrian Kurdish self-determination and possibly even seek to have it forcibly dismantled.
Ankara would rejoice at such outcomes and would likely be willing to make some concessions and some compromises, in negotiations with Moscow over the future of that war-torn country.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.