On January 20, 2018, the Turkish Armed Forces launched “Operation Olive Branch” against the Kurdish forces in Afrin, an area controlled by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is governed democratically by the Kurds in the region. The military campaign also includes Turkey-backed jihadist groups Free Syrian Army (FSA), who in the past have repeatedly launched attacks on Northern Syria from across the Turkish border. Turkey has never accepted Kurdish self-determination and encouraged first Al Nusra, then ISIS to attack Rojava in past too. It has been alleged that the major political force in Syrian Kurdistan – the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has maintained close ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey has branded a terrorist organization.
Nevertheless, the Turkish Armed Forces could not have started their operation without the consent of Russia because the Russian military controls the airspace over Afrin. For the first time on March 31, 2018, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief adviser Ilnur Cevik has confirmed that Russia allowed his country’s invasion of the Afrin region in Syrian Kurdistan. During an interview with CNN Turk, Ilnur Cevik stated that “If Russia did not open the airspace, we would not only not be able to enter Afrin and Al-Bab, we would not be able even to take off a drone.”i Russia which previously backed Syrian Kurdish administration as an important actor and encouraged them to participate in a various forum to end the conflict in Syria has now suddenly turned hostile to Syrian Kurds. This vacillation of Russian positions raised several questions on its policy towards Syrian Kurd and at the same time has also deteriorated its pleasant relations with the Kurdish-led administration in Afrin.
Since the onset of civil war in Syria, the Kurds have been playing a major role in battles against the Islamic State (IS) and other extremist groups. They have liberated vast territory in the north of the country and they have proclaimed Rojava to be a Kurdish autonomous region. The federalism declaration by Kurd is not intended to detach the north-eastern Kurdish region from Syria, but to bring a measure of self-rule in Syria. Since its involvement in the Syria civil war, Russia has indicated on several occasions that it favors an idea of giving the scope of autonomy to ethnic minorities, including Syrian Kurds. Russia has been consistently standing up for the interests of Syrian Kurds and tried to ensure that the Kurds have been represented at every international forum for resolving the Syrian issue, including in Geneva, and Astana Peace Processes. Further, Russia has allowed the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, as Syrian Kurdistan to open a representative office of Syrian Kurdistan in Moscow on February 10, 2016.
Moreover, during the course of Syrian civil war, both Russia, as well as Syrian Kurds, have diversified their strategy in the region to defeat their enemies. On the one hand, Russia has managed to win over Turkey, an ally of the West and second-largest NATO army in the region to its side through its regular involvement in Astana Peace Process. Hence, in order to serve its own interests, Russia is pitting Turkey against the United States. Russia apparently wanted to divide NATO from within. To certain extends, it has succeeded in excavating the contradictions that prevailed among NATO members. Therefore, in order to accommodate Turkey’s interests, Russia was compelled to put aside the interests of Kurds in Northern Syria.
On the other hand, Kurds have also aligned with the United States in order to defeat the Islamic State. This military cooperation with the United States deteriorated its relations with Assad Government and Russia. Furthermore, the Russian leadership alleged that the United States is using the Kurdish forces as a bargaining chip for the future to maintain its dominant position in the Middle East. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov told Sputnik in an interview on February 8, 2018, that “developments of the situation in Afrin, provoked by the actions of the United States among other things, can lead to even greater destabilization in this region.”ii Similarly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also argued that the United States is moving to establish alternative institutions of state authority on a substantial part of Syrian territory.iii In order to punish the Syrian Kurds for their cooperation with the United States, Russia had allowed Turkey to launch the attacks on Afrin and blamed the United States for assault.
In such conditions, the leadership of PYD failed to understand the game plan of the United States in the region. The United States has never seriously fought against Islamic State in Syria whereas it is more concerned about its own interests in the region rather than Kurdish interests in Syria. Whatever may be the reasons behind the alignment of PYD with the United States but it is not appropriate for Russia to give the green light for “Operation Olive Branch” in Afrin.
Nevertheless, the Kurds of Syria have been disappointed because their sacrifice in the field has been ignored not only by Assad Government but also by major powers including Russia. Despite the fact that Russia has expressed a genuine interest in Kurdish issues, so far it has failed to pursue Assad Government to accommodate the long-standing autonomy demands by Kurdish in the region. In contrast, Russia had compelled Kurds to hand over Afrin to Syrian President Assad in order to prevent the Turkish military offensive. In this regard, Russia has given up its earlier balanced approach between Kurds and the Assad government in Syria and forced Kurds to compromise with President Assad. However, the Afrin administration refused to obey the dictates of Russia.iv Consequently, when the proposal was refused, Russia withdrew from the region. It appears that Russia had to abandon Syrian Kurd and “prioritized its alliance with Turkey and Iran.”v
Russia, like the Turkish state, is equally responsible for these bloodbaths in Afrin. In present circumstances, the friendly relationship between the Syrian Kurds and Russia has been shattered. People in Afrin feel that Russia has betrayed them by allowing Turkey to carry out attacks on Afrin in Syrian Kurdistan.
*Manabhanjan Meher, Research Assistant in Europe and Eurasia Centre, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.