Syria Endgame?
Russia’s Kurdish Card in Syria

With the United States largely sidelined in the most recent Syria peace talks, Russia and Turkey have emerged as the key powerbrokers of the Syria conflict. With a new round of peace talks forthcoming, the Russians are pushing hard to get Syria’s Kurds at the table. Rudaw:

Russia has called for the inclusion of the Kurds in the expected Geneva talks later this month, after their exclusion in previous rounds of both Geneva and Astana talks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that his country is trying to bring the Kurds and the Syrian regime to a common ground aimed at preserving the unity of the country. […]

The Kurdish ruling Union Democratic Party (PYD) had earlier said that they had received assurances from countries including Russia, that they would attend the meetings in Geneva, a move strongly opposed by the Syrian opposition, and one of their regional backers, Turkey, which considers the Kurdish group an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and therefore a terrorist organization.

The Russian push to court the Kurds follows on a statement late last week from Russia’s foreign ministry stating that Moscow did not consider the PKK and YPG to be terrorist groups. And it comes after a broader controversy over a proposal at the last Astana peace talks, when Russia reportedly introduced a draft Syrian constitution with provisions for Kurdish autonomous regions. According to Al-Monitor, the Kurdish provision was especially controversial and appeared to be a non-starter for both Turkey and Syria, with Assad’s government issuing an outright rejection of the idea of Kurdish autonomy.

Damascus and Ankara have good reason to fear the Kurds, so why is Russia pushing the idea so insistently? Although Moscow claims to be working in good faith toward an acceptable peace, its real calculation is likely much more cynical. The Russians have a long history of weaponizing the Kurds for their own geopolitical ends, as Adam Garfinkle explained in these pages last year. In 1945, for instance, the Soviets propped up a short-lived Kurdish client state, the Republic of Mahabad, as a means to subvert Iran and Turkey. In later decades, they funded and armed the PKK, while cultivating ties with their Kurdish confreres in Syria. This history is not lost on Erdogan or Assad, who fear that Russia-backed Kurdish regions would become a lever for Moscow to inflict pain and pressure on both governments, as the need arises.

The Russians, of course, would not openly admit to instrumentalizing the Kurds in this way, and have denied that they want to dictate terms on Kurdish autonomy to Syria. The leaked news of their constitutional proposal, however, suggests that such schemes are very much on their minds. Syria peace talks resume next week in Kazakhstan, followed by the UN-supported talks in Geneva on February 20, so time will tell whether Russia can play the Kurdish card to its full advantage.

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