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All eyes are on Russia again after the buffer zone proposal, which has further details and was mentioned by the US and Turkey. Moscow’s approach was considered decisive on many occasions about the Syrian crisis. Vital changes such as whether the Bashar al-Assad and Democratic Union Party (PYD) will come to terms or not, and the possibility of providing a buffer zone for the Kurds are the discussion points. A committee consisted Turkish Foreign Minister, Defense Minister, and Head of Intelligence arrived in Moscow in order to talk about Syria and the buffer zone with their counterparts. Since there are different approaches, President Erdogan has met with Russian Head of State Putin on 23 January.

Turkey is concerned about the ongoing diplomacy traffic of Russia with Kurds, and especially PYD. Ankara had protested the PYD-linked representative office which opened in Moscow on 10 February 2016. In response, Turkey vetoed PYD and denied their participation in the Astana peace process, which was held on 23 January 2017 for the first time and still being handled in conjunction with Iran and Russia. However, Russia held another meeting in Sochi in order to bring the Kurds to the table for a political solution. Moscow’s desire to bring PYD committee to the Sochi meeting on 18 November caused distress in Turkey. Furthermore, alongside PYD, the representatives of Syria Kurdistan Democrat Party, and Syria Kurdish National Alliance were invited to the meeting.

One of the statements which indicates Russia’s contact with Kurds came from Vitaliy Naumkin, Director of Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who is also the former consultant of Steffan de Mistura, Special Representative for Syria to the United Nations. “There were individuals in the committee from YPG, self-defense forces, Rojova autonomous government, and PYD, which is recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey. Russia do not recognize them as a terrorist organization.” Naumkin said, after explaining Sputnik that the committee of Syrian Kurds had visited Moscow in December 2018. Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, where Vitaly Naumkin acts as a director, celebrated their 200th anniversary last October. There is a 150-year-old Kurdology rostrum in this institute which dates back two centuries. Hundreds of reports and books published by the Kurdology institute still offers a significant study opportunity for the researchers. In other words, Russia has been making scientific researches about the Kurdish communities tediously for a very long time.

“Our Final Decision: Come to Terms with Damascus”

Badran Jia Kurd, Syrian Kurdish official, and made a statement while sharing the course of action to Reuters, which basically confirmed what Prof. Naumkin said earlier, on his way back from the negotiations in Moscow: “Our final decision is to come to terms with Damascus, whatever it takes, even if the US opposes us, we will make our arrangements towards this direction”. Jia Kurd also stated that they presented the course of action to the Russian diplomats towards making an agreement with Bashar al-Assad government in the meeting held in Russia. Adding that Russia also leans toward acting as a mediator, the Syrian Kurdish official also emphasized that they would like to make an agreement with Syrian Head of State Bashar al-Assad with the help of Russia acting as a mediator, separately from the withdrawal plan of the US. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated before the 23 January meeting between Turkish President Erdogan and Russia’s Head of State Putin that they will be persistent towards coming to terms beneficial for all parties including Turkey regarding the buffer area, and added: “Without a doubt, the security interests of all of the countries in the region including Turkey will be a part of the agreements. However, we believe that the best and the only solution lies behind the Syrian government and Syrian security forces to take control of the governing structures”.

Kremlin Delighted with the Developments

Moscow shows which sides they have taken in the region not only with their diplomacy, but also with the moves they make in action. For example, Russia carries out independent and “joint” patrol activities in and around Manbij occupied by YPG/PKK, which is recognized as a terrorist organization. Soldiers using armored vehicles carrying Russian flags are seen patrolling around and in the neighborhoods of Arima, located south-west of the district. In the footage showing the meetings held in the outpost, where the joint patrol activities are planned and managed, the pennants of YPG and YPJ are visible on the outer walls of the outpost aside from Russian flags. Furthermore, Russia’s Ministry of Defense revealed in a press release on 10 and 13 January that Russian army is on patrol duty throughout two routes, one of which is 48 kilometers, while the other one is 32 kilometers long. Kremlin Spokesperson Peskov stated the following after receiving a question whether they approve the control of Manbij, which is occupied by YPG, to be taken over by the Syrian government or not: “Of course we do. Without a doubt, this is a positive step for the situation in Syria to gain stability.”

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a warning statement about Turkey’s decisions towards carrying out a military action in Syria. Bogdanov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, stated the following during the 11th Russia-Syria Intergovernmental Commission meeting: “We continue our dialogue with all parties including Syria, and the Kurds outside Syria. We invite all parties to common sense. Ultimately, we believe dialogue and political methods are far better that armed conflicts, war, and destruction”.

ISIL is financed with the outbound oil income of Syria.

Another conspicuous point is the existence of different information Russia would bring forward to the international agenda in case the tension between Ankara and Moscow rises and both countries fall out with each other. Valeriy Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of Staff, revealed in a briefing before the military attaches of the other countries, that they have located oil convoys en route to Iraq and Turkey, and stated: “Russian intelligence regularly locates oil tankers en route to Iraq and Turkey in the regions controlled by the coalition forces in eastern Syria”. Gerasimov pointed out that the profit made from the oil sale is used to finance ISIL militants.

Russia and Kurds from From Mahabad to Damascus.

As a matter of fact, Russia has never been disconnected with PYD-YPK, and supported the Kurdish group of PYD-YPG who were fighting against ISIL. Russia is one of the countries which has never remained unresponsive about the Kurd matter. Their attention was even increased more during the following years after the end of World War II. Yevgeni Prmakov, who had held offices in the government such as Prime Ministry and department of foreign intelligence, points out Russia’s interest over the Kurdish communities in his diaries.

Primakov had written about tens of secret and open visits he had made to North Iraq Kurdistan region: “During the World War II, Defense Minister of the newly established Republic of Mahabad in Iran had been Mullah Mustafa Barzani. When the war was over, and the Russian forces had withdrawn from Iran, the republic was abandoned. Barzani made an asylum request from USSR by crossing the Iranian border together with 500 warriors he had mainly from the Barzan tribe. Some of the Kurdish fighters had been demilitarized and settled in Azerbaijan and Middle East. Barzani settled in USSR under Mamedov surname and lived there. Their presence in USSR was not revealed. They had lived in USSR for twelve years. After the Iraqi revolution in 1958, Barzani had returned back to Iraq. New government, considering the importance of an alliance with the Kurds, appointed Barzani as the Vice President of The Republic of Iraq. However, the relationships were scattered again, and Barzani moved to northern Iraq. The bloody war had continued between Baghdad and the Kurds.

I had a meeting with President Arif on 16 December 1966. He viewed the normalization of Northern Iraq as the most up-to-date problem. With regard to his words, I mentioned that we considered the region in Iraq where the Kurdish had lived as an indivisible whole… Then I added that I wanted to go to Northern Iraq, and he helped me with some support he provided. We headed towards the winter headquarters of Barzani with an armored vehicle. We had arrived to the Kurdish region after a difficult journey passing through dangerous passages and mountains. This region was controlled by the Kurdish forces of Mullah Mustafa Barzani. Barzani greeted me together with his two sons, Idris and Mesud. 17-year-old Mesud was the head of the radio station. I had brought small gifts for Barzani’s sons; “Pollet” watches made in USSR. Mullah Mustafa Barzani had greeted me with great joy. He had invited me to the small underground bunker… In accordance with the precautions, the meeting had been held at night. Two Kurds had wakened me up, and taken me to the other bunker. Barzani had hugged me and said “USSR is my father”. Furthermore, he had stated that he looked positively to the peace agreement, but did not trust Baghdad….
It has been decided for the journalists of Pravda newspaper in Moscow that the Kurdish region visitations would be continued. Thus, I had different visits to the regions where Kurdish people live in Northern Iraq”.

Middle East underwent a huge change in the middle of 20th century. Basic driving force of this change included getting under the influence of the developments occurred outside the countries located in the region, the globally rising tension between the US and the USSR, and the growing controversies between the Arabs and Israel. The desire of the USSR to inspire Kurdish and Arab nationalist revolutionists towards the socialist values favored by the Soviet ideologists had resulted in failure because of many objective and subjective reasons in 1960s and 70s. “The socialist phase” of the friendly countries of Russia had not taken place after the colonial period. Revolution romanticism faded away slowly after the colonial period. However, Russia, with the leadership of Putin, has been accomplishing some of their regional balance efforts which was left unfinished since the beginning of 2000s thanks to a very successful diplomacy.

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Arif Asalıoğlu is General Director of the International Institute of the Development of Science Cooperation in Moscow; expert in the field of Russian-Turkish relations; columnist of Informational agency REGNUM; Founder of Russian and Turkish Intellectuals Meeting.

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