President Barack Obama shakes hands with Russias President Vladimir Putin in a bilateral meeting. AP File Photo.
When Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently said that Russia is ready to support the Syrian Kurds in their fight against Islamic State (ISIS) he reportedly made a point of saying the weapons and funds they would give that group would go through the central government in Damascus. Meaning that Russia would, in essence, be pursuing a ‘One Syria’ policy as the Americans do with Iraq.
There has been much speculation since the Russian deployment in Syria and the subsequent tensions with Turkey over whether or not the Russians will begin directly backing the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) forces in their fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and other Islamist groups. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) victory against ISIS at Tishreen Dam on the Euphrates this weekend may prove to be the beginning of a YPG offensive against ISIS and other Islamist groups in that direction. Which would benefit some of Damascus and Moscow’s short-term tactical, perhaps even strategic, goals since it would help sever supply lines to groups the Russians have been bombing in that area.
The YPG officially denies that any such coordination is taking place or in the works. The political wing of the YPG, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), also says there is no future for Assad in Syria. They do not seek outright independence for Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) but seek a form of autonomy within a democratic, federal and secular Syrian state. It’s doubtful they would willingly acquiesce to being under Assad’s rule again. Since the onset of this conflict Syria’s Kurds have wisely stuck to themselves, defended their territory and avoided starting a fight with the regime, instead gradually waiting while the Syrian military’s foothold in their parts of the country decreased over time. Since ISIS was kicked out of the city of Hasakah earlier this year, for example, the YPG has gradually taken control over three-quarters of the city, while Syrian soldiers only have a foothold in the remaining quarter. While there have been clashes between the two they have taken steps to ensure they do not escalate.
Assad has boasted of supplying arms to the YPG to help them against a common adversary and threat. However this is likely just because of the nature of the threat and because he wants to be perceived as an earnest supporter of counter-ISIS efforts in Syria. There is little indication that neither Russia nor the Syrian regime will accept nor tolerate, in the long term, an autonomous Kurdish military force in Rojava, like the Peshmerga in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, or even a quasi-autonomous Kurdish polity. Even the United States, which is opposed to the current regime in Damascus, has issued statements insisting that it supports a unified Syria and that its arming of the SDF, of which the YPG is the primary component and driving force, is purely ad-hoc given the few forces on the ground in Syria they have to work with and the pressing nature of the threat posed by ISIS.
It’s also no secret that the U.S. has been seen supporting a group which is a political offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But even in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, where the powers that have been long-time allies of the U.S., Washington is still wary about circumventing Baghdad’s central authority and has been rigorously adhering to a One Iraq policy. The same will likely prove to be the case with the Russians in regard to Damascus. The Russians however, may go further and actively either back diplomatically and/or assist militarily a future attempt by Damascus to once again subjugate Rojava under its complete control. While the U.S. would likely condemn such a Syrian move to forcibly disarm the YPG after the ISIS threat is removed it’s extremely doubtful they would fight in defense of Rojava’s hard-won autonomy.
In both Iraq and Syria the Kurds are doing more than their fair share of heavy lifting in the fight against ISIS. In Syria the U.S. is counting on the SDF to march south and free Raqqa. Russia and Syria would likely welcome a protracted SDF war against ISIS to keep the major factions in the northeast preoccupied while they take care of armed groups fighting them closer to home. Remember, neither of them has even managed to pry Palmyra back from ISIS’s grip yet while the SDF has been actively clearing ISIS from villages in Hasakah province. Meaning that any major ISIS defeat in Syria will likely be afflicted by the SDF, not the Syrian army or any other ground force under Assad’s command. Yet the Kurdish force which form the real battle-hardened muscle of the SDF aren’t even being given promises of basic autonomy by neither Damascus nor Moscow for potentially overstretching their forces in a potentially costly offensive to rid Syria of ISIS.
Similarly in Iraq the Kurdistan Region has expressed its willingness to spare forces for the long anticipated offensive against ISIS in Mosul despite the continued restrictions placed upon them by One Iraq. A policy which hasn’t been challenged by any incumbent Washington administration.
In conclusion the Kurds should remember that while the great powers have a use for them today they may well view them as disposable tomorrow. Something which wouldn’t, sadly, be unprecedented.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.