Three indications of a new Russian-Kurdish rapprochement

A Kurdish fighter in the city of Qamishli (Sputnik)

A Kurdish fighter in the city of Qamishli (Sputnik)

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Enab Baladi- Zeinab Masri

With talks about expected Turkish military operations in several Syrian regions against the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), indicators of a new convergence between the Autonomous Administration, the civilian entity of the SDF, and Russia have emerged recently. Russia is a key actor in the Syrian issue and the main ally of the Syrian regime, and it always coordinates its actions in Syria with Turkey.

Signs of new convergence

For the first time, Russian Sukhoi landed at Qamishlo airport in the east of the country on 28 October. This airport, which is close to the U.S.-military base, is used by the Russian military police as a military base, the Kurdish journalist Hoshank Hussein tweeted. 

Two days earlier, co-chair of the KCK Kurdistan Communities Union, Jamil Bayek, who also calls himself the Kurdistan Workers Party’s (PKK) second-in-command, told Annahar, a political and independent Lebanese newspaper, about the uneasy relationship between the Autonomous Administration and Russia. 

Bayek said, “Nothing is more natural than for the Autonomous Administration to establish relations with a political authority that does not attack the Kurds or deny their existence, just as nothing can be more natural than having relations with Russia.”

 Bayek added,” We know very well that both the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Autonomous Administration have relations with Russia.” He noted that these relations were sometimes indirect and at other times were direct. Furthermore, their relations with Moscow vary depending on Russia’s relations with Turkey.     

He added that the PKK does not have a passive approach towards Russia or any other country. However, several countries have negative attitudes towards the party because of its bad relation with Turkey. Therefore, the PKK has many issues with the U.S. and some European countries.

Just a few days before these statements were issued, under the protection of the SDF, a Russian military column, consisting of several armoured vehicles, entered al-Salihiya, a line of contact between the Syrian regime and the SDF in the governorate of Deir Ezzor.

In protest, many people of Deir Ezzor blocked the roads. However, the Russian column crossed at dawn on 22 October, to the town of Abu Khashab and from there to the Karafi road towards Raqqa, in secrecy. This, consequently, caused extreme tension in the region, the Euphrates Post Network reported.  

It is worth noting that the Russian forces had already removed the earthen berms opposite the SDF-held village of al-Junaynah to cross into Raqqa easily. 

SDF fears U.S. withdrawal

All the above-mentioned indications⁠, accompanied by the Autonomous Administration’s previous diplomatic activities and its meetings with foreign officials, known recently to be actors in the Syrian file, raised several questions⁠ about the reasons behind the recent rapprochement between the SDF and Russia and the gains that both sides will achieve. 

Researcher and political analyst Majed al-Aloush believes that the Russian aircraft’s landing in Qamishli Airport is a peripheral issue, which has been exaggerated by the media because the airport is under the control of the Syrian regime. Perhaps the establishment of a Russian military base at the airport at a later time is more important, al-Aloush said.  

Apart from the immediate military issue, the political situation is what matters. And this is what Russia has been working on for a while, Majed al-Aloush told Enab Baladi

Russia has taken advantage of the SDF’s panic over the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan and its plans for a near withdrawal from Iraq. In other words, Russia is trying to push the Syrian Kurds into reconciliation with the Syrian regime, taking advantage of Turkey’s escalating threats of launching military operations against the SDF, following a spate of attacks in areas controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army(SNA), Afrin in particular. 

U.S. President Joe Biden said that he stands squarely behind his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, noting “that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” despite the “chaotic” withdrawal.

Biden announced, in a joint statement with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, on 26 July, the end of the U.S. military’s combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year. 

The U.S. presence in Iraq will be shifting to concentrate

on training, assisting and aiding Iraqi government forces, Biden said.

 Mutual benefits

This is not the first time the Autonomus Administration has got engaged in dialogue with Russia. In fact, the administration began its talks with Russia at the start of the Russian military intervention in Syria; the Russians have taken control of large areas along the boundaries of the SDF-controlled areas. Thus, a contact line between the SDF, the military wing of the Autonomous Administration, and Russia was constituted.

 The SDF is trying to play on the relations between Russia and the U.S. and their contradictions, in order to create a new political and administrative situation in the region, especially with the retreat of the U.S.administration, Syrian journalist Firas Allawi said.

Allawi told Enab Baladi that Russia is moving fast to fill the void that the U.S. will leave in northern Syria by making remarkable rapprochement with the Kurds and finding joint political and military formulas and understandings in the areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration.

Russia is exerting pressure during this timeframe, which could lead to the negotiated restoration of the Syrian regime’s control over northern Syria and the achievement of a comprehensive political solution. In order to implement its political solution, Russia must include the Kurds in it, according to the Russian vision. 

In return, the Kurdish component could benefit from this rapprochement by finding an additional backer in the region (Russia). Thus, the Kurds will feel less concerned about a sudden U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria, as happened in Afghanistan. Actually, the Kurds want to ensure a regional or international military force that supports their positions in Syria. The Kurds have not found better than Russia. Knowingly, Russia has a stronger hand in the Syrian file. This rapprochement also ensures their presence in the political solution, according to Allawi.  

Department of Defense spokesperson Navy Cdr. Jessica McNulty said that around 900 U.S. troops remain in Syria to work with the SDF in Syria, reported Defense One, a website specialized in security and military affairs, on 8 October this year.

“Our sole mission in Syria is the enduring defeat of ISIS. The United States remains fully committed to the fight and will maintain its military presence in northeast Syria and in the vicinity of al-Tanf Garrison in southeast Syria,” McNulty said.

On 7 October, Ilham Ahmed, president of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the SDF aid that the U.S. made a clear commitment to the Kurds to remain in Syria during the meetings of the SDF delegation in Washington with representatives of the White House and the State Department and the Pentagon. 

Why does the SDF cozy up with Russia?

Journalist Firas Allawi believes that the Kurds attempt to reach a rapprochement with Russia to support their position against the Turkish operations. They want to benefit from the Russian-Turkish rapprochement on several points concerning the Syrian issue. This benefit includes a sort of maneuvering or political action to prevent the expected Turkish military operation.

Allawi does not expect a large-scale Turkish operation in northern Syria. Yet, Turkey might carry out “swift and quick” military operations in certain areas for a limited time, with fewer effects than the previous ones(Peace Spring- Euphrates Shield)for many reasons related to the lack of political understandings. In addition, the U.S. does not give Turkey the green light to launch its offensive in Syria. Plus, relations between U.S. and Turkey grow tense, and Turkey’s economic performance is currently deteriorating.  

Russia needs northeastern Syria for reconstruction  

The recent rapprochement between Russia and the SDF can be understood as follows: The SDF attempts to enter into a partnership with the central government in Damascus, regardless of the presence of al-Assad or not. The nature of this partnership is that the SDF does not want to be a partner in ruling Syria, but to be as “an exclusive owner or representative of the three eastern governorates and their tribal and cultural affiliations on the right bank of the Euphrate (Jarabulus, Manbij and Maskana) in partnership with the Syrian government in Damascus. 

 In principle, the Russians do not object to that because Turkey cannot possibly launch a full-scale military invasion against the Kurds in northern Syria. Furthermore, the Russians do need the wealth of northeastern Syria in order to rebuild Syria, or at least to finance the project of the Assad State, which has come close to collapse more than once due to the successive economic crises.

These frequent economic collapses still threaten the Assad project with its final collapse in one sudden instant, according to researcher Majed al-Aloush.

al-Aloush said that the Russians dream of taking control over the east of the Euphrates. Therefore, they are using all their potentials and engaging in every political game to make their dreams come true because this region is like a guarantee against the comprehensive and final collapse of the Assad state, which they paid a lot to preserve. 

 He added that the SDF’s fears of collapsing from within are growing due to the nature of its project and vision for the region. However, the SDF will not go out of war empty-handed, and therefore, “it will lure the Russians, flirt with Assad, and seek protection from the Americans.”

Ilham Ahmed, president of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the SDF,  during an expanded meeting that took place in the presence of some officials of the Autonomous Administration-affiliated institutions on 27 October, said that they met during the last round with officials in Moscow, Washington and London. During these meetings, they touched upon the importance of the Syrian-Syrian dialogue and the need to open its tracks between the Damascus government and the Autonomous Administration.

Ahmed added that the parties she met with underlined their support for the Autonomous Administration-held areas. They will help with improving infrastructure and providing necessary support with regard to educational and economic projects.

A delegation from the Syrian Democratic Council headed by Ahmed visited the Russian capital, Moscow, last September and discussed with the Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa, Mikhail Leonidovich, the recent developments in the situation in northeastern Syria, and the developments of the political process.

The SDF is considered the political arm of the SDF, which was formed in October 2015. The SDF is the military arm of the self-declared “the Autonomous Administration” in northeastern Syria, and its mainstay is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), backed by the U.S. 

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