Even without the complications of Syria’s civil war, Russo-Turkish relations are an incredibly complex mosaic of partnership, rivalry, and suspicion. Syria’s agony has added to these complexities, particularly because it has forced Moscow to reconcile two fundamental principles of its foreign policy: namely, the desire to play a great role in defending its Middle Eastern allies and the fundamental importance of partnership with Turkey that has been a cornerstone of Vladimir Putin’s policies since he took office at the end of 1999. But it is a tribute to Putin’s sure footwork and ability to maximize Russia’s advantages in this relationship that Russia was able to preserve, even possibly extend, its cooperation with Turkey in Syria during 2017.
The Kurds as a Means of Influence
Here we focus on the Syrian context of the Russo-Turkish relationship, and that perforce leads to a focus on the Kurdish issue in Syria and its impact on the very tense Turkish-Kurd relationship inside Turkey. Moscow has an extensive legacy and skill in manufacturing, inciting, and exploiting ethnic tensions inside conflicted states. Russia’s exploitation of the Kurdish issue is a textbook example. Indeed, these tactics were a hallmark of Russian policy toward the Kurds and Armenians in the late Ottoman Empire — and in the present day. Recent studies of Russian policy toward the Kurds and toward Iraq show that Russia’s attitude toward the Kurds varies with the prospects for its ties to Turkey and Iraq. Moscow’s links to the Syrian Kurdish groups that support Bashar al Assad and check Turkey’s ambitions are not new; Russia’s previous support for them dates back to the 1890s.
Moscow has stated that it pays special attention to the Kurdish issue. In early 2017, Russia called for “cultural autonomy” for ethnic Kurds in the postwar Syrian state and the constitution it is sponsoring for that state.The Russians are thinking about applying a Bosnian model based on the Dayton peace accords for the former Yugoslavia to Syria. This would permit integration of the various militias into a postwar Syrian army but would also ensure a weak central state that tolerates diverse cultures and peoples, including the Syrian Kurdish movement, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, and the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Moreover, such an arrangement would allow Moscow the ability to interfere in Syria for years to come, as it does in the Balkans. And yet, Russia has been building a military facility in YPG-controlled territory at Afrin — originally to train Kurdish military units against ISIS, but probably also to remain pro-Russian for the future. Certainly, such a force obstructs Turkish military designs in Syria — particularly Ankara’s determination to prevent any kind of cohesive Kurdish political community. This, plus Moscow’s overall support for the Syrian Kurds, obliges Ankara to engage Moscow to act freely in Syria, constrains Turkish options to determine Syria’s future, and ensures that a future Syrian government must also pay heed to Moscow’s clients.
Building on such actions, Moscow has permitted the PYD to open an office in Moscow and allowed the YPG to expand its territorial remit in northern Syria. Since many observers believe the PYD and YPG to be subsidiaries of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – the Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bête noire — this effectively raises the specter of Moscow supporting both Syrian and Turkish Kurds either against Ankara or in the future against Damascus. The point of all these moves is not that Moscow supports such open state-building efforts but rather that it is gathering in its hands leverage over any future Kurdish developments in Syria and Turkey so that it can use the Kurds, as it has for over a century, to weaken Turkey and keep Syria dependent upon Moscow. In this way, Russia gains an advantage over both as the actual arbiter and potential destroyer of those states and achieves comparable leverage over the Kurds as their main foreign protector. Thus, Russia retains maximum flexibility and maneuverability in an attempt to meet all future contingencies and to preserve its ability to protect all of its military-economic-political investments in Syria and Turkey by being able to threaten or support those states as it deems necessary.
Moscow Plays the Long Game with Ankara
Clearly, Russia utilizes the Kurdish card in Syria and Turkey not just to promote restive minorities to weaken targeted states but also to put diplomatic pressure on Ankara and Damascus on behalf of its own interests and gain lasting leverage over the Iraqi, Kurdish, Syrian, and Turkish economies and political systems. As a recent paper observes, “You do not need ISIS to prevail for as long as Turkey has an ongoing conflict with the Kurdish nation in the broader region.” In Syria, Moscow’s Kurdish game also balances Syrian and Turkish considerations.
Thus, Turkey’s obsession with the Kurds provides Russia with an enduring “Achilles heel” to exploit endlessly and successfully. Indeed, while Turkey never stops berating the United States for its support of the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds (who were the main ground force against ISIS), it remains — much to the discomfiture of the Turks — silent about Russia’s cooperation with the Syrian Kurds. For example, the Kurds are providing security for a Russian task force on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, and there has been no protest from Turkey comparable to its public unhappiness about U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds. The explanation for this silence about Russia lies in the fact that Turkey, especially after the “economic war” of 2015-16 with Russia and the abortive coup of July 15, 2016, has little advantage in its relationship with Moscow.
Russia’s long-standing support for and contacts with the Kurds in Turkey and Syria give it enormous credibility with those groups. Therefore, it even has the ability to sell them out when needed. But most of the time it has not needed to do that. Instead, it has been able to use both the Turkish and Syrian Kurds, not to mention the Iraqi Kurds, to advance its own interests at the expense of Turkey, Iraq, and/or Syria. Erdogan previously has accused Russia of arming the PKK with anti-aircraft and rocket systems through Syria and Iraq. Thus, the Kurdish card, in tandem with Russia’s ability to wage economic war against Turkey and prevail, has given Russia substantial advantages in Syria and in its bilateral relations with Turkey that it has not hesitated to use to its utmost. And the fact that Moscow has no scruples about using terrorism as a weapon gives it a major advantage in regard to Turkey.
In fact, at least one explanation on Russia and Turkey in Syria is that it was Moscow’s “unleashing” of Kurdish terrorism that finally forced Erdogan to yield to Moscow and restore relations in June 2016 after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in November 2015. On May 13, 2016 the PKK, allegedly, shot down a Turkish Cobra helicopter using Manpads, leading Erdogan to accuse Russia of selling these weapons to the PKK. Whether Russia did sell weapons to the PKK or not is not definitively known. But ultimately, it doesn’t really matter because Moscow fully grasps Ankara’s paranoia about the Kurds and seized the opportunity.
The timing of all these incidents is indicative of Russia’s strategy. First, on Nov. 4, 2015, Turkey shot down the Russian jet. Then, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov engaged with Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas in Moscow on Dec. 23, 2015, tapping into Turkish fears of growing Kurdish political power. Then, in May 2016, the PKK shot down the helicopter. Finally, on June 27, Erdogan sent his apologies to Putin, just over one month after the PKK’s attacks. According to this argument, Erdogan’s most important reason for apologizing to Putin for the shooting down of the plane was the mounting political and military pressure of the Kurds upon Turkey. Russia, therefore, astutely used the Kurdish issue as a tool against Turkey and thus changed Ankara’s policy in Syria. Moscow thereby strengthened its strategy aims in Syria and the broader Middle East region.
The United States can learn from these illustrations. If we want to repair our relationship with Turkey, a NATO member, we will have to obtain real advantage over Turkey and not be shy about using it, because Erdogan clearly responds to leverage. But doing so requires either having a real strategy insofar as both Turkey and the Middle East are concerned or alternatively merely waiting on events in the hope that “something will turn up” that we can then use to induce Turkey to cooperate more broadly with the U.S. and the West. However, the unfortunate truth is that we do not have a strategy for either Turkey or the Middle East. We cannot rely on hope as a strategy.
Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.