Does the Kurdish Issue Undermine Turkish-Russian Relations?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 19

President Vladimir Putin with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Source: Sputnik News)

A technical round of the so-called “Joint Task Force” on the crisis in Syria, launched on the initiative of Turkey and Russia, was held in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, on February 6 (Syrian Arab News Agency, Sputnik News, February 6). Participants included experts from Russia, Iran, Turkey, Jordan and the United Nations. The meeting—a follow-up to the first full round of talks hosted by Astana on January 23–24—was held to discuss the implementation of the ongoing ceasefire as well as to negotiate details of the upcoming United Nations–backed Geneva peace talks, likely to be held on February 20 (Karar, January 31). Despite previous suggestions of a delay, the second round of the Joint Task Force Astana process begins on February 15 (TASS, February 15).

During the first round of the Astana talks, on January 23–24, Turkey and Russia agreed with Iran to enforce a tripartite mechanism to jointly monitor the ceasefire in Syria. Russia and Turkey stress that these talks are not an alternative to the Geneva process, but rather preparation for further negotiations under the auspices of the UN. Namely, a series of failed ceasefires and repeat violations of past pauses in the fighting consistently undermined any progress in the Geneva talks, Moscow and Ankara argued (BBC Türk, January 25). The fact that the Arab state of Jordan was invited to the technical round of the Astana process, on February 6, highlights a progressive expansion of the regional cooperation format (Akşam, February 6). Nevertheless, the Astana process is bedeviled by potential obstacles to success stemming from outstanding problems in relations between Ankara and Moscow.

During the Joint Task Force talks on January 24, the Syrian opposition and the Bashar al-Assad regime were both represented. But conspicuously absent from the meeting were any representatives of major Syrian Kurdish groups, namely of the Democratic Union Party (PYD—a group with links to the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF—a multi-ethnic opposition umbrella group, led by the PYD). The SDG/PYD are among the list of groups not invited to the UN’s Geneva talks as well, the main reason being that Turkey considers the SDF/PYD a terrorist organization (ANHA, August 23, 2016). Instead, representative of the SDF and the PYD attended a separate meeting in Moscow, on January 26–27, convened by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Cumhuriyet, January 26).

A notable outcome of the January 23–24 Astana gathering was a proposed draft Syrian constitution, apparently put forward by Moscow. For Ankara, however, the draft constitution included worrisome elements regarding the war-torn country’s Kurdish population. Specifically, the document called for establishing a cultural autonomy for Syrian Kurds. Moreover, the suggested constitution afforded equal legal status for the Kurdish and Arabic languages (Sputnik News, January 26).

Although Turkey and Russia have been working, since last summer, to restore relations following the November 2015 jet shoot-down incident (see EDM, July 7, 2016), the two sides nevertheless still seriously diverge on the issue of the Syrian Kurds. Ankara is not comfortable with and opposed to the Kurdish-populated northern Syrian Rojava cantons being united adjacent to Turkey’s border—a policy apparently backed by Moscow (Al-Monitor, October 24, 2016). Rather, Turkey has pushed for a safe zone in northern Syria, for which it promised to provide security (Al-Monitor, February 13). Beginning in August 24, 2016, soon after mending relations with Russia, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield on the Syrian border. Euphrates Shield is still ongoing, and Turkish and Russian fighter jets even carried out a joint aerial bombing of Islamic State targets in al-Bab. Despite such cooperation, it is obvious that the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey on Syria has not changed Moscow’s Kurdish policy; Russian cooperation with the SDF/PYD continues, and the PYD’s representative office in Moscow is still open. Before the Astana talks, Russia welcomed Kurdish leaders from Rojava at the Hmeymim airbase in eastern Syria, from which Russian forces operate. Reportedly, the negotiations at Hmeymim revolved around peace with the al-Assad regime (Sputnik News, December 30, 2016).

Turkey’s stance regarding the Syrian Kurds unequivocally equates the PYD with the PKK, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization. The Turkish government is ready to cooperate with Kurdish groups not linked to the SDF/PYD, but this approach does not sufficiently bridge the gap between Moscow’s and Ankara’s Syrian Kurd policies. On February 8, for instance, Russian foreign ministry official Aleksandr Botsan-Harshenko said Moscow did not officially consider the PKK in Turkey or the People’s Protection Units (YPG—the armed wing of the PYD), which operates in northern Syria to be terrorist organizations (Sputnik News, February 8).

The Kurdish issue continues to be a major sticking point in Russian-Turkish relations and will likely derail or at least hamper success in their joint Astana process. Abdurrahman Mustafa, the president of the Syrian Turkmen Assembly, who is supported by Turkey and participated in the Astana talks asked, “Why was a cultural autonomous region granted to the Kurds and not other minorities? Why are the Kurds granted special privileges?” According to Mustafa, the Syrian Turkmen oppose the new constitution floated in Astana; they support a unitary Syria, where individual ethnic groups are not granted special privileges. “Neither the military groups participating in the Astana talks, nor the political wing of the opposition National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces nor the High Negotiations Committee support Russia’s project of a new Syrian constitution. They believe that the Syrian constitution should be written by Syrians,” he declared (Author’s interview, February 7). Indeed, the draft constitution proposed by the Russian side will not be received favorably by Turkey either.          

This widespread rejection of the Russian-proposed constitution for Syria by various opposition groups inside the country threatens to undermine any success coming out of the Astana process. On the other hand, the ceasefire deal reached during talks in the Kazakhstani capital, which Iran, Russia and Turkey pledge to support as guarantor states, may in fact provide a boost for the Geneva peace negotiations. The Joint Task Force Astana process could also play an important role in strengthening Russian-Turkish relations. The trust established between Russia and Turkey on Syria may have a positive impact on bilateral ties. However, until the Kurdish issue is resolved in a way agreeable to both parties, tensions will continue to roil Ankara’s relationship with Moscow.