Why a pro-Kur­dish Rus­sia in­fu­ri­ates Tur­key

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Rus­sia’s is­sues with Tur­key go be­yond the Su-24 down­ing, as Moscow’s de­sire to in­crease its pres­ence in the Mid­dle East is fun­da­men­tally at odds with Tur­key’s de­sire to do the same, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis by Strat­for, the global in­tel­li­gence com­pany.

Rus­sia knows ex­actly how to push an op­po­nent’s geopo­lit­i­cal but­tons. Since Tur­key downed a Rus­sian Su-24 fighter jet - ex­ac­er­bat­ing an al­ready tense ri­valry cen­tred on re­gional dom­i­nance - Moscow has set about pun­ish­ing Ankara po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally. Now, in its goal to an­tag­o­nise Ankara fur­ther, Moscow is ex­ert­ing its con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence on a par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive spot for Tur­key: the Kurds.

Last week, Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov wel­comed Se­la­hat­tin Demir­tas, the leader of the Peo­ples’ Democ­racy Party (HDP), Tur­key’s most im­por­tant Kur­dish po­lit­i­cal party. Ac­cord­ing to Demir­tas - who an­nounced the meet­ing from the south­east­ern prov­ince of Di­yarbakir, the main bat­tle­ground for Turk­ish and Kur­dish forces - the Peo­ples’ Democ­racy Party will es­tab­lish an of­fice in Moscow. The politi­cian claims he can do what Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan can­not: mend Tur­key’s re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia. What is left un­said, how­ever, is that Demir­tas wants to show Er­do­gan that the Kurds are a po­lit­i­cal force that can­not be sidestepped in elec­tions or crushed in the streets. This meet­ing, the high­est-level diplo­matic en­counter be­tween Rus­sia and Tur­key since re­la­tions soured last month, comes af­ter the Krem­lin re­fused point blank to rec­on­cile with Ankara.

Af­ter all, Rus­sia’s is­sues with Tur­key go be­yond the Su-24 down­ing. Moscow’s de­sire to in­crease its pres­ence in the Mid­dle East is fun­da­men­tally at odds with Tur­key’s de­sire to do the same. Rus­sia knows that by sup­port­ing the Kurds, it weakens Ankara. To this end, Rus­sia re­cently in­sisted that the Demo­cratic Union Party - Syr­ian Kurds as­so­ci­ated with the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party (PKK) - must have a seat at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble along with other Syr­ian op­po­si­tion groups. In Oc­to­ber, Rus­sia in­vited the Syr­ian Kur­dish group to open an of­fice in Moscow, em­pha­sis­ing a de­sire to co­or­di­nate with the Demo­cratic Union Party and the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment to tar­get the Is­lamic State.

Rus­sia has only re­cently come out in sup­port of the Demo­cratic Union Party’s mili­tia - known as the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units - in its fight against the Is­lamic State and against rebels hold­ing ter­ri­tory around the town of Azaz. Yet, the Syr­ian Kur­dish group was quick to deny this, wary of open sup­port from Moscow. This makes sense con­sid­er­ing the im­por­tance of US sup­port chan­neled through the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces.

The Rus­sians have in­deed launched deep in­ter­dic­tion strikes against the Is­lamic State in north­ern Aleppo, but have avoided the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units’ lines so far. Rus­sian jets could also be tar­get­ing rebel lo­gis­tics routes run­ning from Tur­key. Still, the Demo­cratic Union Party’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in ne­go­ti­a­tions could even­tu­ally lead to Kur­dish au­ton­omy in north­ern Syria, which could then be­come a fer­tile bas­tion of Kur­dish ac­tiv­ity from which the PKK could or­gan­ise strikes. This would be a ter­ri­ble out­come for Tur­key, and Rus­sia knows it.

For Demir­tas, a meet­ing with the Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter demon­strates the rel­e­vance of the HDP and its po­ten­tial to gain sup­port from Moscow, which the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party has en­joyed for decades. While the United States and Euro­pean Union have des­ig­nated the PKK as a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Peo­ple’s Democ­racy Party is a le­gal po­lit­i­cal party with rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the Turk­ish par­lia­ment. Al­though the HDP of­fi­cially dis­tances it­self from the PKK, both groups share cer­tain ideals, goals and pa­trons.

Rus­sia has a rich history of sup­port­ing the PKK and other Kur­dish groups. The Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party was cre­ated dur­ing the Soviet era and shared a con­gru­ent left­wing ide­ol­ogy with Moscow. The Soviet Union pro­vided havens through­out the Soviet Union for the con­stantly mov­ing Kur­dish pop­u­la­tions. In fact, the first Kur­dish lan­guage film, “Zare,” a silent black and white ro­mance about a dash­ing young vil­lager pro­tect­ing his bride from the de­signs of a evil feu­dal lord, was pro­duced in the Soviet Union in 1926. The Sovi­ets fa­cil­i­tated Kur­dish me­dia and pro­pa­ganda start­ing in the 1940s. In the 1980s, Soviet ally Syria of­fered the PKK a haven, and the group has legally op­er­ated in post-Soviet Rus­sia through­out the 1990s.

Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in Tur­key-Kur­dish af­fairs comes at a sen­si­tive time. Af­ter the cease-fire be­tween Tur­key and the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party rup­tured in July, con­fronta­tions be­tween Turk­ish se­cu­rity forces and the PKK in­creased. Two weeks ago, the Turk­ish army launched one of its largest do­mes­tic mil­i­tary oper­a­tions in re­cent years against the PKK. Ankara de­ployed ap­prox­i­mately 10,000 Turk­ish se­cu­rity per­son­nel, sup­ported by tanks. Er­do­gan even promised to “an­ni­hi­late” mem­bers of the PKK in their homes. Since the cease-fire was lifted in July, dozens of cur­fews have been im­posed and thou­sands have been killed in var­i­ous oper­a­tions, in­clud­ing Turk­ish airstrikes against the PKK in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan’s Qandil Moun­tains.

De­spite Ankara’s rash of ac­tions against the PKK, mem­bers of the Turk­ish par­lia­ment are look­ing to de-es­ca­late the Kur­dish is­sue through di­a­logue. Law­mak­ers in Ankara are cur­rently urg­ing the gov­ern­ment to restart talks with the Kurds as clashes in­crease in south­east­ern Tur­key. Last week, the deputy chair­man of Tur­key’s sec­ond-largest po­lit­i­cal party called for open di­a­logue in par­lia­ment in­stead of violence. The rul­ing Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party also called for talks. Tur­key’s con­cil­ia­tory po­lit­i­cal tone to­ward the Peo­ple’s Democ­racy Party is in­tended to put a wedge be­tween the Kur­dish po­lit­i­cal party and the PKK’s mil­i­tancy, thereby bring­ing HDP back into the fold. How­ever, this is likely to prove dif­fi­cult. Also last week, Demir­tas an­nounced that the south­east­ern Ana­to­lia re­gion of Tur­key has em­braced the idea of au­ton­omy in the face of what he called Ankara’s dic­ta­tor­ship. He went so far as to re­fer to snap elec­tions called by the Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party - af­ter fail­ing to achieve a ma­jor­ity -a “coup.”

Now, with the Kurds in­creas­ingly ben­e­fit­ing from Rus­sian pa­tron­age, Tur­key must face cer­tain re­al­i­ties. A stronger Kur­dish po­lit­i­cal con­stituency in Tur­key could push the Kur­dish au­ton­omy agenda, while a Kur­dish-con­trolled north­ern Syria has the po­ten­tial to sup­port the PKK in its at­tacks across the border in Tur­key. Equally im­por­tant, Ankara’s agenda of in­creased in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East does not ac­count for, nor lend it­self to, in­ter­nal po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity dis­trac­tions. Tur­key has so far failed to de-es­ca­late the sit­u­a­tion with Rus­sia be­cause Ankara re­fuses to ad­mit fault through an apol­ogy and ap­pro­pri­ate com­pen­sa­tion. Moscow there­fore re­sponded with sanc­tions tar­get­ing Turk­ish ex­ports and ac­cu­sa­tions that Er­doan has con­nec­tions to the Is­lamic State?s oil en­ter­prise.

Rus­sia is good at iden­ti­fy­ing an op­po­nent?s per­ceived weak­ness and then ex­ert­ing pres­sure. In Tur­key?s case, Moscow has found a pres­sure point in the form of the Kurds. It is sug­ges­tive of a Rus­sian proverb quoted ear­lier this month by Turk­ish jour­nal­ist Cen­giz Can­dar in the daily Radikal: “If you in­vite a bear to dance, it’s not you who de­cides when the dance is over. It’s the bear.”

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