US and Russia compete to woo Syrian Kurd rebels


November 02, 2015

Now Obama wants to help the Kurds? Russia’s already there.

By  Reese Erlich

Sulimaniya, Kurdish Region, Iraq – President Obama’s bid to exert more influence in the Syrian civil war may be too little, too late. Stung by Vladimir Putin’s military intervention, Obama last week foreswore his previous refusal to put boots on the ground, announcing he’s sending a small contingent of U.S. special operations commandos to help America’s close allies, the Syrian Kurdish rebels. But to scant notice, the Kurds are receiving increased support from Russia as well—and are about to open an office in Moscow—in what has become a high-stakes poker game for influence in the region.


While previously the Kurds sought closer ties only with the U.S., now “we welcome a strategic relationship with both the U.S. and Russia,” Sherzad Yazidi, a representative of the Rojava administration living in Sulimaniya, told me on a recent trip to the region. “One wouldn’t be at the expense of the other.”


That may be mere rhetoric. At a time when the United States finds itself with waning support and fewer allies than ever in the Syrian battle space, the Kurds could decide to use the “Russia card” to put additional pressure on Washington for aid. The problem, says Sarbast Nabi, a lecturer at Cihan University in Erbil, is that the rebels “don’t trust that the U.S. will support them in the end. So they’re trying to find an alternative with Russia.”


Here in Iraqi Kurdistan’s second city, Sulimaniya, the Kurdish rebels have established a new front in the war. Operating out of a non-descript, beige residence, they are mobilizing political support among fellow Kurds and with the foreign press. So far the Kurds have not received arms from Russia, according to Yazidi, but they might in the future. But the Democratic, Self Administration of Rojava—as the Kurdish rebels call themselves—plans to set up shop in Moscow in the next few weeks.


The United States has already carried out limited combat missions in the region, such as the May commando raid that killed an Islamic State leader and the September assault on an Islamic State prison, which resulted in the death of a Delta Team sergeant.


The Russians have conducted hundreds of air strikes in recent weeks and lead to advances by the forces of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, whom the Kurds oppose. In other ways, however, the Kurds and Russians are also battling a common enemy in the Islamic State and al-Nusra, the radical Islamist groups.


The incoming U.S. troops are expected to act as spotters for F-15 jets and coordinate deployment of A-10 “Warthog” planes in helping the Kurds and possibly their Syrian allies. U.S. commandos hope to use friendly rebels to cut supply lines to Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital in Syria.


The new deployment, which the White House maintains is not introducing combat troops, could well result in casualties as the commandos engage in “all sorts of operations,” according to Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, interviewed by email.


“They can be effective fighters and assistants,” he said, “but they cannot defeat ISIS. To do that, the US would need to be able to establish a better government over the large expanse of ISIS controlled territory, which some claim is as large as Great Britain.”


For the past year Kurdish rebels have served as ground troops for the U.S. air war in Syria, and most notably, defeated the Islamic State in the battle of Kobane. Earlier this month the Pentagon air dropped 50 tons of arms and ammunition in northern Syria to arm the Kurdish fighters.


But Kurdish leaders remain suspicious of U.S. aims because Washington so far has resisted recognizing the rebels as a legitimate political force. Particularly after the Russians expanded their military activity in Syria in late September, the Kurds have sought new allies.


Russia, in its turn, is interested in the Kurds because of Putin’s apparent enduring ambition to stand up to U.S. and its superpower airs—and because Kurdish rebels now control a contiguous strip of land in northern Syria, broken up by one area near Jarabulus still held by the Islamic State.


Despite this military success, the United States has been reluctant to develop closer political ties, for example, allowing the Rojava administration to open a Washington office.


That’s because the US and the rebels aren’t the only ones sitting at the poker table. The Syrian Kurdish rebels are led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. The U.S. and Turkish governments label the PKK as a terrorist group because of its 31-year armed uprising against the Turks. The PKK says it is waging armed struggle for democracy and Kurdish autonomy within Turkey.


Turkish authorities fear that gains for the PYD in Syria will bolster the PKK in Turkey. They have strongly pressured the U.S. to minimize relations with the PYD and its rebel organizations, according to Nabi. Indeed, in recent months Turkish forces have attacked Kurdish forces in Syria. Following President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s electoral victory on Sunday, those policies are likely to continue, further stymieing U.S. political support for the rebels and opening the door to more wooing by Russia.


The game for influence becomes even more complicated because the PKK and its affiliates seek political status throughout the region. “We are fighting for democracy not only in Rojava and Syria,” said Gharib Hassou, the PYD representative in the Kurdish region of Iraq. “We are fighting for a democratic process for the entire Middle East.”


The PYD says it has created a unique experiment in democratic self-administration in Rojava, the Kurdish region in Syria. Local councils administer the cities under rebel control, guaranteeing representation for religious and ethnic minorities, as well as women.


PYD leaders say they provide a democratic, secular alternative to the extremist Islamist groups dominating parts of the region.


The councils are an experiment, according to Azad Ali, director of the Rudaw Research Center in Erbil. “It’s not a democracy and they are not perfect,” he said, “but they are better than military dictatorship.”


“The PYD is “involving civilians in decision making, not just the military,” said Ali, who is a Syrian Kurd.


Most importantly, says Ali, the rebels win popular support by providing security in a war-torn region. “My village would have been looted and destroyed if not for the PYD,” he said.


And yet the United States, while nominally supportive of democracy, finds itself unable to back the PYD’s efforts to spread its political influence. The PYD also faces criticism for excluding other Kurdish parties. Kamiran Hajo, a representative of the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party in Syria, says neither his nor other major Kurdish parties are allowed to organize politically or militarily in PYD-controlled zones.


Hajo expects the US to pressure the PYD to change that policy.


And he sees the military alliance between the US and PYD as temporary.


“The Americans are just using the [PYD] troops to fight against the IS,” he said. “After that I don’t think the Americans will have any political relations with the PYD or PKK.”


That’s what worries PYD leaders. They expect political recognition in return for their military success.


So, for now, they are willing to cooperate with Russia, the new player at the table. But no one yet knows who holds the best hand.


Reese Erlich is author of five books on foreign affairs and regularly covers the Middle East.

About these ads