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Russia’s dance with the Kurds

Russians and Kurds have a relationship that dates back decades. In 1946, with strong Soviet support, Kurds established the Republic of Mahabad during their conflict with Iran. Although the pro-Soviet Kurdish republic existed for less than a year, it inspired Kurds to realize their years-long aspirations for an independent state. Russia has promoted Kurdish nationalism ever since.

The commander of this short-lived republic was Mullah Mustafa Barzani, father of the current president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Massoud Barzani, who had fled Iraq. Today, Iraqi Kurds run their own relatively prosperous region in northern Iraq; they have their own army and pursue their own foreign policy. They have been in charge of their affairs since the 1990s. In 2007, Russia opened its Erbil consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Syria is one of four Middle Eastern countries (along with Turkey, Iran and Iraq) where Kurds live in large numbers — approximately 2 million. With the Syrian war began, Kurds started to demand autonomy in the country, and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) took control of Kurdish-dominated towns in Syria on the border with Turkey, such as Qamishli, Kobani and Afrin.

Turkey is rightfully against a Kurdish entity forming a corridor on its border. Ankara regards the PYD as an illegitimate entity that is a direct affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally accepted terrorist organization that has been fighting against Turkey for more than three decades in a war that has cost more than 40,000 lives.

Because the PKK was founded with Marxist-Leninist roots in 1974, this made it ideologically attractive to Russia, which continued its relations with the PKK since the Soviet era. Today, thanks to political and military support from Western countries, developments in Syria favor the PKK’s sister organization, the PYD, which is also cozying up to Russia.

 
It would be rational for the Kremlin not to play the Kurdish card at a time when it is restoring ties with Ankara amid a changing balance of power in the region and Syria in particular.  
— Sinem Cengiz

Moscow has a long record of weaponizing the Kurds for its own geopolitical interests. They receive a large amount of military support from Russia in order to fight Daesh, but also to come a step closer to Kurdish independence. Nonetheless, Kurds are not fully confident over Moscow’s stance, questioning in their minds whether Russian support is temporary.

Meanwhile, Moscow is trying hard to include the Kurds in Syria talks. PYD leader Salih Muslim has visited Moscow several times, and last year the Russians held a press conference in Afrin to promote their support for Syrian Kurds.

In January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and PYD representatives met in Moscow. Russia hosted a conference on Feb. 15 that drew Kurdish political figures from Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. It was attended by Osman Baydemir, a lawmaker from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and former mayor of Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated south-eastern city of Diyarbakir.

The meeting, which Kurds call the Kurdish National Conference, seems to mark a milestone in their position in the Middle East. Political support from Russia and elsewhere seems to be playing into the hands of the Kurds, who have emerged as important regional players.

There is no doubt that Russia’s vision for Syria’s future includes a greater Kurdish role. Russia called for the inclusion of the Kurds in the recent Geneva talks, after their exclusion in previous rounds in Geneva and Astana due to Turkey’s objections. Because Geneva is an important step for Kurds to gain legitimacy in Syria’s future political structure, Moscow is not hesitating to push for it.

Although Kurds have asked Russia to support an independent Kurdish state in Syria, Moscow has refrained due to its complicated ties with Turkey and Iran, which are strongly opposed to Kurdish plans. Yet Russia currently needs to support Syrian Kurds to achieve its long-term regional goals: Countering Daesh, preventing Western dominance and preserving its military bases in Syria.

In post-war Syria, Russia wants to guarantee local collaborators — Kurds — so it is pushing hard to include them in talks. However, the issue is how the Kremlin will walk a thin line between the Kurds and Turkey. Moscow needs the cooperation of both in the Middle East. It would be rational for the Kremlin not to play the Kurdish card at a time when it is restoring ties with Ankara amid a changing balance of power in the region and Syria in particular.

• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz