ANKARA, Turkey — Since a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkey in November 2015, Turkey has been scrambling to reconcile with Russia, but disagreements over the role of Syrian Kurds are now threatening a fresh deadlock. Despite the close dialogue between the two countries’ presidents, the rift over the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), seems to be deepening.
Last week, Russia invited 33 groups, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party, to a Syrian Congress on National Dialogue in Sochi on Nov. 18. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Nov. 3 that the initiative was an important step toward implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and that invitations had been sent to all opposition groups, including those outside Syria.
Resolution 2254, adopted in December 2015, called for a cease-fire and talks on a political transition between the Syrian government and the opposition, excluding groups seen as terrorists such as the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra). It said the political transition should be Syrian-led and called for “free and fair elections” under UN supervision.
Russia sees the Kurds as a major force in the fight against IS and believes they should take part in the conference. Speaking at the latest round of the Astana talks Oct. 30, Putin’s special Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev praised the Kurds’ contribution to the struggle against IS and said they should be involved “more actively” in the political settlement.
The Kurdish representatives invited to Sochi include the PYD along with the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria and the Syrian Kurdish National Council. The PYD’s Moscow representative, Abdussalam Ali, said the topics of discussion at the congress would include Kurdish plans for federalism and the future of the Democratic Federation, declared unilaterally in northern Syria in fall 2016. Bashar Jaafari, the head of the Syrian government delegation in Astana, said that Damascus trusted Moscow as a friendly state and would take part in the conference.
The Russian initiative has raised the specter of a face-off with Ankara, which sees the PYD and the YPG as Syrian offshoots of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is internationally designated as a terrorist organization, and treats them as terrorist groups as well. The invitation to the PYD caused astonishment, indignation and anger in Ankara.
While Turkey sought to mend fences with Russia after shooting down its military plane, Russia’s ties with the Syrian Kurds gained momentum. In February 2016, the PYD opened a representation office in Moscow, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s concerns over Russia’s ties with the PYD seemed to resonate little with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia refused to greenlight Erdogan’s plans to advance on PYD-controlled Manbij and Afrin after Operation Euphrates Shield. When talk of Turkish operations targeting Afrin and Manbij intensified earlier this year, the Russian flag was seen flying in Afrin, across the Turkish border, and Russian soldiers were photographed in the company of YPG members, wearing YPG badges.
Speaking to reporters Nov. 1, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin described the PYD’s invitation to the conference as “something of a fait accompli” and then added, “We took action immediately and conveyed our reaction. No doubt, we can never accept this. The PYD and the YPG are extensions of the PKK terrorist organization, and inviting it to Astana or Geneva or any other meeting is absolutely unacceptable.”
Russia seemed to stand behind the invitation. Russian officials said the invitees were not Turkey’s but Syria’s citizens and insisted the Kurds should be included in the political settlement process. On Nov. 5, however, Kalin said Russia had reconsidered the matter and postponed the peace congress. “If they don’t change their minds again, the gathering is planned to be held at a later date and not on Nov. 18,” he told NTV news channel. “We are not participating. Syrian groups will be taking part, and we are likely to send observers. … Russia told us that the gathering was postponed and that the PYD would not be invited.”
According to Huseyin Bagci, a scholar of international relations at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, the thawed atmosphere between Turkey and Russia might degenerate into a fresh crisis. “Economically and politically, Russia is the stronger side in its relationship with Turkey. Just like a skillful chess player, it has begun to make use of Turkey’s [weaker] position,” Bagci said. “A Kurdish problem will be now sprouting between Turkey and Russia. … Russia is moving toward the role of a PYD protector.” Bagci sees Turkey “squeezed in a clamp” as a result of overestimating its power and pursuing ill-conceived policies after the Arab Spring.
Erdogan Toprak, a senior lawmaker for the main opposition, believes that the ruling Justice and Development Party has come to a point where it has no choice but to pursue “policies of concession.” Reconciliation with Russia has come through economic and political concessions, he said, adding, “They have been trying to make up with Putin through a $2 billion S-400 [missile system] purchase atop the $22 billion nuclear power plant and the $16 billion Turkish Stream.”
Under the Astana deals, Turkish soldiers have effectively assumed the task of eliminating jihadi groups in Idlib and preventing them from attacking the Syrian army, according to Toprak. “Russia not only refused to approve a [Turkish] operation on Afrin … but invited the PYD and the YPG to the Syrian conference,” he said. “After our ally the United States, Russia has also taken the PYD and the YPG under protection.”
The Kurdish question in the Middle East has only recently forced Ankara into a major foreign policy U-turn. Following the Sept. 25 independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, Ankara turned against its hitherto ally Massoud Barzani and was left with no option but to align with Tehran and Baghdad — the two neighbors it was bashing for “Persian expansionism” and sectarianism until recently. Similarly, the Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Units — which have now gained the upper hand in northern Iraq — were labeled “terrorists” by Erdogan only several months ago.
In Syria, US cooperation with Turkey against the PYD is out of the question given Washington’s alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces, in which the YPG is the dominating force. Now, Russia has openly shown it sees the PYD as an interlocutor. The Sochi gathering may have been postponed for now, but the move seems aimed at appeasing Ankara and creating time for its persuasion. Turkey’s foreign policy troubles are growing to the backdrop of deepening economic woes, marked by rising inflation and unemployment rates, a swelling public debt and a tumbling lira. The economic strains make it even more difficult for Turkey to afford a new crisis with Russia, a major economic partner, over the PYD. Well aware of Ankara’s constraints, Putin believes the time is ripe to play the Kurdish card against Erdogan. By stepping back a little for now, he is likely to keep the chessboard under control before making his next move.