Kurdish forces in Deir ez-Zor. Photo: YPG
Earlier this month Russia made a point of highlighting its support of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling ISIS in the last pockets of territory it held in Syria's eastern Deir ez-Zor province. This is a possible indicator that Russia seeks to build closer ties with these Kurdish-led forces.
Russian Maj. Gen. Yevgeny Poplavsky claimed that Russia's warplanes in Syria flew a whopping 672 missions in support of the SDF forces battling ISIS on the east bank of the Euphrates River.
This was interesting considering that when the separate campaigns against ISIS in Deir ez-Zor started early last September, the US supported the SDF on the east bank of the Euphrates and the Russians supported the regime forces on the river's west bank. The SDF warned the regime to stay out of the east bank and the coalition also insisted that the river should serve as a natural demarcation line to avoid any accidental clashes or midair collisions.
Neither of these suggestions were heeded: the regime used pontoons to send some forces to the SDF side of the river and Russian warplanes frequently flew over that area, in some cases flying dangerous close to their American counterparts.
The Russians’ motive in supporting the SDF could prove a short-term and tactical measure. Coming as late as it does into the campaign in Deir ez-Zor it may have been a cynical and opportunistic move on Moscow's part to swoop in and take credit for the defeat of ISIS there. Whatever the motive it's unclear if Russia has a long-term plan regarding its relations with the SDF, particularly that group's leading component the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).
"I think Russia's support of the SDF is a complicated subject which Russia doesn't have a real long-term plan for yet," Neil Hauer, an analyst whose main focus is on Russia-Syria relations, told Rudaw English. "The regime is openly insinuating that it plans to attack the SDF in Raqqa if they do not turn the city over, and they will likely attempt similar action in Deir ez-Zor over the oil fields there."
"Russia would very much like to prevent clashes, and it's not inconceivable that they could do this by deploying more military police to those areas, as they've done to deconflict the Kurdish-Turkish front-lines in Afrin and Manbij," he elaborated.
The ex-spokesperson for the SDF Talal Silo told Turkish press earlier this month that the Americans told the SDF/YPG they would provide no help when it came to security guarantees for their most far-flung and vulnerable Kurdish enclave, the northwestern Afrin Canton. According to Silo they had no problems with the Russians providing guarantees there, which is what happened with the Russian deployment of military police to that isolated corner to deconflict clashes between the YPG on one side and Turkey and its Syrian proxy fighters on the other.
In addition to seeking the retention of a status quo wherein the SDF continue to rule over Syria's Kurdish territories and the extra territories they've captured in the campaign against ISIS, "Russia is also pushing for Kurdish representation at the upcoming Syrian Peoples' Congress in Sochi, which remains up in the air."
"Ultimately, however, it remains difficult for Russia to restrain the regime, and should government forces launch a real assault on the SDF Russia will have no choice but to stand aside as it happens," Hauer concluded.
Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, argues that Russia's recent air support to the SDF/YPG "must be viewed within the context of operational military needs. Coordination of efforts in the air and on the ground aim to defeat ISIS as soon as possible.”
"In regards to the Russian activity in the Deir ez-Zor surrounding and lower basin of the Euphrates I think that it is the area where provocations can occur and where Russia would like to preserve stability," Akhmetov told Rudaw English.
On the prospect of any long-term Russian support of these forces Akhmetov says it's presently unclear: "They had a meeting, and Russia wants some kind of status quo on the delineation line between the Kurds and government forces."
On the political front "it depends on the dynamics around the Kurdish issue and the Geneva process. As we see the Geneva process is lagging, so Russia would be interested in pushing the Astana-related process, including the talks. On the other hand, Russia is trying to find an optimal formula for having Kurds represented."
Akhmetov doesn't believe that Turkey, which has lobbied successfully to date for the exclusion of the Syrian Kurds in the Geneva negotiations, can deter Russia from seeing to it that the Kurds are represented in future talks in some capacity.
"The Kurds are seen as an essential part of the process, while Turkey is accepted because it has leverage on opposition and is too dangerous to ignore," he pointed out.
"But in the final analysis, Turkey is just an outside factor," Akhmetov concluded. "A very important one though."