2017-12-23

Unresolved Kurdish issue may derail Russian efforts to stabilize Syria


Military alliance between U.S. and Kurdish-led SDF forces against IS has been a primary factor behind Russian efforts to lure the Kurds into the political dialogue with Assad by promising concessions in the issue of autonomy reserved for the ethnic minority in the predominantly Arab country. Today, extension of cooperation between Washington and Syrian Kurds in matters beyond fight against IS in the eastern Syria not only poses a serious threat to Russian plans and it may as well ultimately lead to confrontation between Russian and Iranian interests in near future.

For the last several years Russian stance on the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a leading political Kurdish force spearheading U.S. operations against IS in Syria, has been framed by the Kurds' successful military performance against terrorists and benevolent attitude towards Assad. Moscow was effectively enabled by the Kurds to concentrate its limited military resources on consolidation of the Syrian government's control over central and eastern provinces and promotion of de-escalation process in territories dominated by the Syrian armed opposition in Hama and Idlib.

But recent territorial gains of the U.S.-led SDF forces in Raqqa, occupation of oil-reach territories of the left side of the Euphrates and absence of any public statements of the U.S. officials concerning the future of relations between Washington and PYD after IS prompted Russian diplomacy to scrutinize its views on the Kurds.

While Moscow till recently has been tacitly acknowledging positive contribution of the Kurds to stability in the Kurdish-majority territories in the northern Syria, Russian officials were seemingly uneasy with the SDF forces successfully taking over a predominantly-Arab city or Raqqa and further expanding its control to the east of Syria.

Russian officials fear that Kurdish hold over a devastated Raqqa, control over resources necessary for future reconstruction projects under Assad supervision and creation of self-governance bodies in the non-Kurdish territories coupled with U.S. promises of military support against any attempts of the central Syrian government to push back the Kurds from occupied regions, - all these factors may derail Russian efforts to channel military conflict in Syria into a political process.

Attempts of the Russian diplomacy to court the Kurds by advocating their cause and demands for autonomy may be seen as an attempt to win the PYD over and make them stick to Russian plans of political transition. Constitutional draft presented by the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov earlier this year and Russian President Putin's recent idea to convene the Syrian Peoples' Congress are all public commitments to the Kurdish political forces to consider their demands during political process.

But Moscow in turn expects the Kurds to renounce their ties with the Americans. Continuation of political and military alliance between Kurds and U.S. may lead to further aggravation of a dialogue between Kurdish parties and Syrian regime. The worst case scenario would be a direct clash of the SDF and Iranian-led armed groups.

Main reason why Russia is disturbed by the possibility that Kurds inspirited by the U.S. commitments to defend Kurdish allies on the ground in their likely standoff with the Syrian government may eventually lead to consolidation of the Iranian influence in the Syrian military and, by extension, disintegration of framework of cease-fire agreements which would necessitate further Russian military involvement in the civil war.

Reluctance of the Kurdish leadership to compromise with the Syrian government and Assad decision to follow Iranian plans to resolve the Kurdish issue exclusively with military tools would lead to further complications in the western Syria. Turkey, who has long been opposing any idea of Kurdish policy, may start a long-preached offensive or alternatively use her Syrian proxies against the Kurdish-held Afrin once Ankara sees that U.S.-led Kurdish forces are attacked by the Syrian and Iranian forces in the eastern provinces. Operation against Afrin would effectively mean that Russia is deprived an effective tool to direct Turkish ambitions in a way concurrent with Russian plans in Syria.

Russia is aware that Syrian government is not ready to cease control to the Kurds and signals all relevant parties it is ready to engage the Kurds to retake Raqqa and oil-fields. Apparently, Syrian decision-makers are driven by Iranians who would like to expand their influence in conditions of political uncertainty. Possible confrontation with the Kurds would likely lead to further consolidation of the Iranian clout within the military apparatus. Expansion of Iranian influence within the military would likely be reinforced by Russia's reluctance to confront directly American assets and make further military commitments to the Syrian government.

It seems, however, that Russian efforts to mitigate a conflict between Kurds and Assad would require U.S. participation in bringing the conflict into purely political dimension. So far, to Russian regret U.S. declines to publicly outline its relations with the Kurds, it is speculated, moreover, that U.S. may be interested in limited cooperation with the PYD to aggravate relations between Iran and Russia and thus sabotage their coordinated efforts to end the civil war on conditions favorable for the Assad regime.

Moscow has intensified its diplomatic efforts to coordinate own moves with regional players. Synchronization of policies should prevent guarantor-states of the Astana mechanism from breaking out from a framework of agreements designed to increase predictability of the conflict. A prospect of clashes between Kurdish forces and Syrian government, if parties fail to solve Kurdish issue during political negotiations, urges Russia to follow every change in U.S. policy in Syria. All these issues make a task of solving the Syrian crisis daunting as never before.

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