Kurdish groups are divided over Russian presence in Syria and Iraq

Kurdish groups are divided over Russian presence in Syria and Iraq

Russian airstrikes in Syria and military aid efforts in Iraq have placed Kurdish groups in both countries in an awkward position. 

As Russia and the U.S. pursue alternate strategies in Syria and Iraq, Kurdish groups are caught in the middle of these two opposing camps, and are divided over whether or not to welcome Russian intervention efforts.

While Kurdish members argue that Russian airstrikes are beneficial because they target ISIS extremists, other leaders say Russia’s public support for Assad and opposing strategy to the U.S. makes an alliance with Russia risky.

The Kurds have proven to be one of the more effective and unified opposition groups to ISIS, and are an important sub-state actor in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. As such, greater cooperation between Russia and the Kurds could have significant geopolitical consequences and a profound effect on the fight against ISIS, U.S. military strategy, and sectarian tensions.

Kurdish response to Russian intervention

Russia’s increasing military involvement in Syria marks a significant development in the current crisis, complicating regional relations between major powers such as the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria is its first military foray within a country outside of the former Soviet Union in three decades. The Defense Ministry is reported to have recently reinstated $2.7 billion for defense budget spending for 2016, demonstrating the country’s longer-term commitment towards security operations in the region.

Over the past few weeks, Russia has also stepped up its efforts in Iraq, claiming Baghdad as the headquarters for the new intelligence sharing pact between Russia, Iran, and Iraq to fight ISIS. Russian officials also say they would “consider” carrying out airstrikes in Iraq upon the government’s request.

The Kurdish response to Russian airstrikes in Syria has been mixed thus far. While some leaders of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have been openly vocal about supporting Russian air strikes, others have been less welcoming.

General Commander of the YPG, Sipan Hemo, is quoted saying: “We can work together with Russia against IS…We want air support against IS. We want weapons support.” Likewise, Salih Muslim, the co-chair of the PYD, voiced support last week, stating “we will fight alongside whoever fights the Islamic State.”

A report by BasNews, however, later refuted Hemo’s statement, saying his words were “manipulated” and that the YPG is committed to the U.S. alliance.

In Iraq, Kurdish leaders are even more divided. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President, Masoud Barzani, pledged support for Russian military aid last week, while arguing that competing operations among the United States and Russia could imperil international efforts to defeat ISIS. He also added that the current situation “could further fuel tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in the region and lessen pressure on Islamic State” if the U.S. and Russia do not coordinate their counterterrorism strategies.

Kurdish leaders from the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), the Kurdish Islamic Party (KIU), and the Peshmerga (the military wing of the KRG in Iraq) are more skeptical of Russia’s actions. KIU Politburo Member Abubakir Ali said that the Russians support “oppressive regimes” and do not represent Kurdish interests: “We cannot stand against a Russian-led coalition, but we can avoid supporting them.”

Mixed reports have also circulated that the Russians are sending military aid to Peshmerga forces in Iraq. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said last week that the Russian government “replied to Kurdish requests regarding armament and are sending arms to them via Baghdad” and are including them in the intelligence sharing talks.

However, the Ministry of Peshmerga spokesperson, Jabar Yawar, is quoted saying the Peshmerga were not informed about “any cooperation between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Russia” in Baghdad and have not received military aid.

Implications of a Russian-Kurdish alliance

The mixed reaction amongst Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq underscores the sensitivity and complexity of Russian involvement in stirring regional tensions. An alliance between the Kurds and Russia in Syria could have significant consequences for political dynamics in the region.

First, with regards to Syria, favoritism of the Kurds by the Russians and the Assad regime could be seen as threatening to other Syrian opposition groups who are wary of growing Kurdish influence. In June, Sunni opposition groups accused the Kurds of “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims after taking over Kobani and Tel Abyad.

An agreement with Russia and Assad to protect and arm the Kurds as Russian airstrikes attack other modern Syrian rebel groups would only further fuel these on the ground sectarian tensions.

Secondly, a Russian alliance with the YPG could incite tensions between Turkey and Russia who see the YPG as an extension of the PKK.

Turkey and Russia historically have had good relations, especially economically. Turkey relies on Russia for more than half of its natural gas imports. Russia also has plans to build a nuclear power plant in Turkey. The Kurdish issue is an incredibly sensitive one to Turkey, and Russian support for the YPG in the north could threaten these economic ties.

Finally, Kurdish acceptance of Russian military aid in both Syria and Iraq would complicate U.S. military aid efforts to both the YPG and the Peshmerga. Growing Russian influence risks undermining the U.S. position amongst Kurdish leaders, who have historically cooperated with the U.S. to conduct airstrikes against ISIS militants.

Kurdish factions in both Syria and Iraq play a critical role in on the ground operations to fight ISIS extremism. Any foreign strategy to overcome the group would require a degree of Kurdish coordination to effectively defeat ISIS.

A Russian alliance with the YPG and the Peshmerga could have significant consequences in shaping a future political outcome in Syria and Iraq.

About Author

Madeleine Moreau

Madeleine Moreau is the GRI Senior Commissioning Editor and a Senior Analyst currently based in Beirut, Lebanon. She specializes in investment risk and opportunity in the Middle East and has previously lived in Jordan and Morocco. Her work and insight have appeared in several leading publications, including Business Insider, TechCrunch, Oilprice.com, The Atlantic Council, Yahoo News and OZY. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Arabic from Middlebury College.