Dec 20 2017

Turkey’s hands tied over Russian support for YPG - academic

While Turkey has been outspoken in its criticism of U.S. support for the majority-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in Syria, it avoids bringing up the subject with Russia because it has little leverage over Moscow, academic Gönül Tol wrote.

“When Brett McGurk, the U.S. official responsible for coordinating the international coalition against ISIL (Islamic State), visited YPG members in the Syrian town of Kobane and posed for the cameras with Kurdish commanders, Erdogan asked the United States to ‘choose between us or the terrorists’. The Turkish foreign minister said he should be sent home while pro-government columnists called for his detention,” Tol said.

“But when it comes to Russian support for the YPG, Ankara is mute.”

The reason for this, Tol said, was partly because Turkey knows it has no power over Russian foreign policy, and partially because the Russian relations with the Kurds are historically close.

“As American power in the region is perceptibly in retreat, Russia is trying to fill the vacuum,” she said. “In Moscow’s regional calculations, the Kurds might prove to be more than great fighters. They could provide the Kremlin with further leverage.”

Russia used the Kurds as a card to restrain Turkish influence in Central Asia after the Cold War, Tol said, and in the aftermath of the Turkish shooting down of a Russian jet in November 2015, Moscow not only sent weapons to the YPG, but also recognised a Syrian Kurdish diplomatic mission in Moscow.

Like in the past, Tol said, “the Kurdish question is Turkey’s Achilles heel.”

“But unlike then, Ankara has no leverage to moderate Russia’s actions.”

 

 

To Moscow, cooperation with the YPG maintains political pressure on Turkey and supports an effective fighting force against the Islamic State, which is a key security concern for Russia. But as in the past, the Kurds of the region serve a larger purpose for Russia’s regional policy. They provide Moscow with a channel of influence in the Middle East.

To that end, Russia has been cozying up to the Iraqi Kurds as well. While Washington, European countries, Turkey, and Iran opposed a move by Iraq’s Kurds to hold an independence referendum in September, Moscow issued no such call to cancel the vote. Instead, Russia announced its latest energy investment in Iraqi Kurdistan and became the lead funder of Kurdish energy deals. The move not only provides Russia with leverage in Iraqi politics but could also establish Moscow in a market that Turkey has been seeking to exploit to reduce its energy dependence on Russia.

Given Russia’s interest in returning in force to the region, Moscow is likely to deepen its ties to the Kurds. In Ankara, that prospect calls up memories of the 1990s. Like in those years, the Kurdish question is Turkey’s Achilles heel. But unlike then, Ankara has no leverage to moderate Russia’s actions. With a pro-Russia Chechen leader in charge, Russia is not as vulnerable to the Chechen nationalist movement, denying Turkey the lever of influence it enjoyed before.

That leaves Turkey weak vis-à-vis Russia. The only way out is for Ankara to return to the peace negotiations with its own Kurds. But that is a dim prospect before the 2019 presidential elections. Erdogan is playing on the Turkish nationalists, rendering a return to negotiations with the Kurds politically risky for the Turkish president. Until Turkey resolves its Kurdish question, Ankara will remain silent on Russia’s cozying up to the Kurds while bashing Washington for doing the same.