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Why Russia is Advocating on Behalf of Syrian Kurds

The following article was originally published in Rudaw.

Russia has been pushing for the inclusion of Syrian Kurdish parties, particularly the ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD), in negotiations aimed at ending the Syrian conflict.

In January, Russia produced a draft constitution for Syria which advocates ethnic, linguistic, and cultural rights for non-Arab Syrian minorities. In mid-February, the Russians held a conference of Kurdish groups in Moscow, leading some in the Turkish media to point out it was held on the anniversary of Turkey’s capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, back in February 15, 1999.

Moscow also recently reiterated its belief that neither the PKK nor the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the PYD, are terrorist organizations. Turkey, on the other hand, has long sought to exclude the PYD/YPG from negotiations and/or any ceasefire agreements, like ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, so it can continue to freely target them.

Russian state media reports on these developments frequently point out that Moscow aims to foster intra-Syrian talks between the Kurds and the regime about the country’s future. Following the February 15th conference, for example, Sputnik News reported that: “Syrian Kurds have discussed creation of a Kurdish federation with Syrian government representatives. Russia is acting as a guarantor of their talks with the Syrian government on federalization.”

The Syrian regime, opposition, Turkey, and the United States rejected the Syrian Kurds’ plan for a federal Syria, which they declared in the northern territories they control last March. The original name of this federal region, Democratic Federal System for Rojava-Northern Syria, was changed in December to the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria, conspicuously leaving out any reference to Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava).

“Russia has been steadily following its official line on the Kurdish aspirations from the very beginning,” Timur Akhmetov, an analyst on Russia’s Middle East foreign policy, told Rudaw English. “First of all, Kurds should have cultural and a limited scope of political rights, but the negotiations on the scope of these rights must be conducted after the war is finished and political situation in the country is stabilized.”

“Secondly,” he added, “any Kurdish autonomy must be implemented within a strong state. Russian decision-makers are, in a way, trying to offer the Russian model of federation, with autonomous regions having very limited political powers and broad cultural rights.”

“Russia has made it clear on many occasions that independent Kurdistan in the Middle East is not acceptable, since it can trigger a wave of crises in the neighboring regions,” Akhmetov clarified.

“Russia is trying to win over Syria Kurds with such statements to increase chances of the Assad regime’s survival,” he added, “More cooperative Kurds can be presented by Russia as a part of the Syrian opposition and be used to mitigate the opposition’s political demands.”

Also, on the military front, Akhmetov reasons, the Russians see the Kurds as “a very robust military power on the ground,” so are “naturally trying to keep the cold peace between the regime and PYD while dedicating all its resources to fighting against the armed opposition in other Syrian provinces.”

The PYD/YPG did not join the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, but instead consolidated control over their regions and have been fighting off militant groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS ever since. The Syrian regime and PYD/YPG have clashed in the past in cities in PYD-controlled territory where the regime have maintained a small enclave. These clashes, however, never did escalate into all out war between the two.

“Turkey is more of a concern,” from Russia’s perspective, Michael Kofman, a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, told Rudaw English. “Keeping Syria unitary is to prevent Turkey from being threatened by Kurdish independence, which would probably result in Turkish-Kurdish fighting inside Syrian borders for a prolonged period.”

Asked if this means that Moscow’s aim to keep a unified Syrian state is at least partially predicated on preventing a destabilizing outcome for the wider region, Kofman simply concluded by saying: “It’s best for all concerned, except the Kurds.”

This article was originally published in Rudaw.

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