A female Kurdish YPJ fighter Photo: Kurdishstruggle

US and Russia vying for Kurdish attention in Syria

  • October 23, 2015

Conflict & Combat

The Syrian Kurds are seen as IS’ most formidable enemy. Now that Russia has joined the Syrian war, its competing with the US for the Kurds’ attention.

This article was originally written for TeleSUR English.

Last week, the US announced it had dropped 50 tons of ammunition to rebel groups in northern Syria. Despite its public announcements proclaiming the contrary, most, if not all, of the ammunition ended up in the hands of the Syrian Kurds fighting under the banner of the Peoples’ Protection Forces, or YPG.

Sensitive about the negative disposition of the Free Syrian Army and their Turkish allies towards the Syrian Kurds, the US declared loud and clear that the support was intended for a number of Arab rebel groups in the Raqqa province who had organized themselves under the umbrella of the newly established Syrian Democratic Forces.

Regardless of the public discourse, there is little doubt that the US intended for the ammunition to end up in Kurdish hands from the start.

The YPG has been one of the United States’ closest allies in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS), and they have dealt a number of significant blows to the jihadist organization with the support of coalition air strikes. However, Turkish reservations about the organization’s close links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK — which has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state for the last thirty years — forced the US to keep its support to a minimum. Until now.

Not long ago, I wrote an article suggesting that the US, by choosing Turkey over the Syrian Kurds, had betrayed its true intentions in the fight against IS: to maintain its influence in the region rather than defeating the jihadists. The sudden change of US strategy, now that it has decided to provide material support to the YPG, does not undermine, but rather confirms this theory.

The relation between the US and Turkey has largely remained the same, but the appearance of Russia as a new party to the Syrian conflict has forced the US to make its regional politics subordinate to its global aspirations.

Russia began its airstrikes in Syria on September 30. Having already supported the Assad regime politically, financially and materially for many decades, its physical intervention in the conflict did not come as a big surprise — despite the fact that many had hoped it would never happen.

Russian air strikes have targeted all parties the regime views as terrorists, meaning basically everyone who carries a gun without being part of the Syrian Armed Forces — with the YPG being the notable exception, as they are neither in a coalition nor in direct confrontation with the regime.

In the context of the Syrian war, the only thing the US and Russia seem to agree on is their attitude towards the Kurds, whom both parties perceive as a potential key ally on the ground. This to the great horror of Turkey, which perceives both the YPG and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as terrorist organizations and has warned that arms distributed to these parties could eventually be used against the Turkish state.

Prior to the latest air drops one could hear increasingly critical sounds coming from the Kurds regarding their cooperation with the US. The coalition air strikes have played a crucial role in the advances of Kurdish forces against IS. But the White House’s neglect to speak out against Turkey — when the latter was waging a war on its Kurdish citizens in an attempt to crush support for the PKK — made the YPG and the PYD realize that Western support would only go so far.

When, in a recent interview, PYD co-leader Salih Muslim was asked about the Kurdish response to Russia’s military intervention in Syria, he replied: “We will fight alongside whoever fights Daesh. We will stand alongside whoever battles the Daesh mentality,” using the Arabic acronym for IS. This statement underlines the PYD’s main priority — fighting IS — and its willingness to accept aid from whoever is prepared to give it.

The Kurds and the US are only allies when it comes to fighting IS. Facing hostile forces on all sides — regimes forces and jihadists in the west and the south, Turkey in the north and the Kurdistan Regional Government in the west — the Syrian Kurds are not exactly spoiled for choices when it comes to choosing who to align themselves with. But since ideologically the PYD and the YPG are as far removed from the US as they are from Russia, there is a very real chance of them turning to the latter when their American “ally” fails to deliver.

Although the extent to which the PYD and the YPG support the Russian involvement in Syria remains unclear — one YPG commander proclaimed publicly that they had requested arms from Russia, while another statement denied earlier reports that claimed YPG support for Russia’s operations — Putin’s mentioning of the Kurds as an important force in battling IS during his speech at the UN’s 70th General Assembly stirred fears among the Americans for a Russian-Kurdish alliance. Out of fear to lose one of its key allies on the ground in Syria to its main opponent in the global political arena, the US was left with little choice but to step up support for the YPG.

So, does this mean that the Syrian Kurds can rest assured now that the main global powers are vying for their attention? Unfortunately not.

Both Russia and the US remain wary of stepping on Turkey’s toes. Russia knows that Turkey has the backing of NATO, and although a lot will have to go down before a full-scale escalation becomes a realistic threat, NATO’s patience has already been tested significantly during the Ukraine crisis. For the US, Turkey continues to be perceived as an indispensable regional ally, despite its covert support for many of the very same extremist organizations the US-led coalition is bombing right now.

From a Turkish perspective, the Kurds — both at home and abroad — pose a bigger threat to national security than IS or any other jihadist organization. As such, it will do its utmost to prevent any actions that might strengthen the Syrian Kurdish forces. Turkey’s plans for a buffer zone inside Syria might be off the table, now that the integrity of Syria’s borders is guaranteed by Russia, but it still has some leverage due to its control over the gates to Europe, as proven by the recent deals made with the EU regarding the refugee crisis.

At the end of the day, the Kurdish forces in Syria continue their very lonely struggle to wipe northern Syria clean of IS and other jihadist organizations. Russian intervention might have provided them with some limited opportunities to expand their support base at the international level, but being caught in the middle of a US-Russia power struggle for regional dominance is not a particularly enviable position to find oneself in.

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