A man with a flag of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). File photo: AP/ Serkan Gurbuz
After Islamic State (ISIS) is finally defeated in Syria, Damascus says it is open to negotiating with the country's Kurdish minority over recognizing the country's de-facto autonomous Kurdish territories. It's the interests of Russia, a key backer of Damascus, to help make these negotiations a success.
Presently the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) group has removed ISIS from most of Raqqa, its so-called capital, and has also forced the militants from large swaths of Deir ez-Zor. The regime also advanced into Deir ez-Zor in a separate campaign. The Euphrates River has acted as an, albeit imperfect, demarcation line for the separate areas of responsibility in that province. The risk of these two campaigns, where US-backed SDF and Russian-backed regime forces are in very close proximity to each other, clashing were apparent last month when Russian warplanes bombed SDF positions.
But a war between Damascus and the SDF is in the interests of neither Damascus or Moscow, argues Professor Joshua Landis, a Syrian expert and head of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“If Syria goes to war against the Kurds who have US backing, it could be ruinous to the government,” Landis told Rudaw English.
“The government's situation is already facing many challenges,” he added. “Russia has been trying to encourage Damascus to talk to the Kurdish authorities about autonomy for over a year without any success. Russia looks on the Kurds as allies and hopes to head off a war between the two.”
Back in January Russia put forward a draft constitution for Syria which notably included provisions for Kurdish autonomy and language rights.
Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, argues that Russia's policy towards the Syrian Kurds “are shaped by several factors.”
“Kurds are now in control over large swaths of territory, they have effective and rigid military units in their disposal,” Akhmetov told Rudaw English. “Several times Russian officials pointed at the Kurd's physical control over territories as a prime reason why they should have participated in the Geneva negotiations.”
The fact that the Kurds have successfully avoided war with Damascus, of which Russia is the primary military backer, means that Russian interests are not at stake in dealing with them and even making concessions with them to avert further conflict in Syria – where the regime has retaken most of the country with decisive backing from Moscow.
Akhmetov calculates that the SDF advance into Deir Ez-Zor, which accelerated earlier this month mere days after the aforementioned major regime offensive against ISIS into the same province began, “might be driven by plans to either seize control over the oil fields to trade them during talks with Damascus.”
“Alternatively,” he went on to suggest, “Kurds may want to keep the fields to support its polity in the long run under substantial support of the US.”
Either way, the “ultimate goal” of these Kurds “is to gain autonomy, and by proposing mediation in their talks with Damascus, along with limited international support, Russia may want to keep initiative.”
“Besides, by keeping the autonomy issue on the agenda Russia may want to encourage Kurds to participate in the Geneva talks as a part of the opposition without being substantially hostile to the central government,” Akhmetov added.
When it comes to autonomy for Syria's Kurds the elephant in the room is obviously Turkey. Ankara is staunchly opposed to the ruling Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the Syrian Kurdish territories and has attacked them numerous times in recent years arguing that this group as no different than the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
“The best way for Russia to convince the Turks about autonomy will be if the US is brought into the negotiations,” Landis said. “Turkey is likely to listen to both Russia and the US.”
Akhmetov suggests that Russia might be trying to make a case “whereby any form of Kurdish autonomy is a given fact, leaving Turkey with two options: either watch how the Americans arm and invest in the Kurds and turn them into their proxies in the region or keep cooperating with Russia, who eventually genuinely may acknowledge Turkish concerns and channel autonomy talks in a tolerable way for them.”