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Why are Syrian Kurds pivoting toward Moscow?

- February 12, 2016
Members of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) celebrate their victory in Kobane, Syria, Jan. 26, 2015. (European Pressphoto Agency)

On Wednesday, an affiliate of the largest and most powerful Kurdish party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), opened its first official mission abroad — in Moscow. Given the amount of military and political support the PYD has received from the United States, this decision is likely to be received with some shock and confusion in the West. But a closer examination of the PYD’s historical experience and core interests suggests that the politics behind a potential realignment with Moscow makes strategic sense.

Since its intervention in late September 2014 to defend the besieged city of Kobane, Syria, against the Islamic State’s advances, the United States has been deeply involved with the PYD. But recently the relationship has taken a new turn. Washington has been coordinating with Turkey on Syria policy, even as Ankara has waged an escalating war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with which the PYD is politically — though not formally — affiliated. On Jan. 30, PYD representatives left the Geneva peace proceedings on Syria after being denied a seat at the table by the coalition against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At roughly the same time, the United States sent Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, Brett McGurk, to Kobane for urgent talks with Syria’s Kurds.

Why are America’s rebel allies now turning their diplomatic attention toward Russia, Assad’s champion and the United States’ regional competitor? Does this diplomatic initiative suggest that the PYD is abandoning its partnership with the West? Here are three dynamics to keep in mind:

The Syrian Kurds aren’t cheating on the West because they were never going steady

As typically framed in one recent article, “Is America Losing the Kurds?”, Washington debates tend to focus on that question. But the United States never actually had Syrian Kurds to lose. Kurds have a long and bitter history of abandonment by external allies, and no Kurdish player is likely to play all its cards on one option.

Kurdish politics are fragmented across the region. While some Kurdish political organizations have been longtime partners of American forces in the region — such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraqi Kurdistan that have been tied to the West for more than two decades — others are relatively new solicitors of American support. This is particularly relevant to the PYD, given its close relationship with the PKK in Turkey.

Created in response to the Syrian uprising in 2011, the PYD’s military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), only began to seriously coordinate with the United States during the siege of Kobane and afterward. The group’s own political origins hardly indicate a natural alliance with the United States, as the PKK has been on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list for nearly 20 years. Such affiliations have always made the United States hesitant to wholeheartedly involve itself with the YPG out of fear of angering its larger NATO ally to the north. Late last month, Vice President Biden triggered Kurdish fears by describing the PKK as a terrorist organization posing as great a threat to Turkey as the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL. This ambivalence has not gone unnoticed in Rojava, Syria.

This is not to say the PYD and YPG have not been U.S. partners in the region. In fact, YPG forces have been some of the most successful coalition allies in the war against the Islamic State. However, Syrian Kurds were never the obvious or established allies that other Kurdish groups have been. If the Syrian Kurds are positioning themselves to keep options open with regards to Moscow, it hardly represents a major break from the Kurdish or American perspective.

The supply-side politics of coalition support are looking shaky

In practical terms, the PYD may expect a more fruitful alliance with Moscow because its odds of maintaining productive ties to the West are becoming increasingly low.

Existing research on when third parties are more likely to support local rebels highlights the importance of a clear alignment of interest between both sides. This ensures that both actors benefit from exchanging support, but also helps mitigate any potential principal-agent dynamics.

As an important NATO ally, Turkey’s increasingly “us or them” approach to undermine U.S.-PYD relations may be putting heavy stress on the American-Kurdish alignment of interest. At the same time, Ankara is also trying to preempt any strategic alignment between the United States and Russia on a joint front against the Islamic State and an endgame in Syria. The downing of a Russian jet over Turkish airspace on Nov. 24 forced NATO allies to take sides.

As the Turks squeeze the PYD and Russians away from further coordination with the United States, the two have found each other to be useful allies, both against the Islamic State and Turkey. In fact, it was the Russians who pushed to have PYD representatives acknowledged in last week’s Geneva talks on Syria and the current assault on Aleppo is believed to have helped the YPG greatly.

Furthermore, the United States is notoriously unpredictable in its support for rebel groups — and the Kurds are no exception. Although Iraqi Kurds are profuse in their appreciation of U.S. support, few forget that the United States refused to help the Kurds during the Anfal campaign at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, or that the withdrawal of U.S. aid from Iraqi Kurdish forces at the climax of the 1974 to 1975 Kurdish-Iraqi war contributed to the collapse of Kurdish resistance forces. Although Russia has its own history of double-dealing with the Kurds, the West is not inherently a more stable or prudent ally than others.

As the Kurdish position changes, so must its diplomatic strategy

The PYD may have new strategic incentives to shift its diplomatic engagement from Assad’s adversaries to allies because of its growing dominance over the Syrian Kurdish movement. Contributing to a budding research agenda on rebel diplomacy and international outreach, my research demonstrates how intra-insurgent movement politics and local dynamics can fundamentally affect groups’ larger diplomatic strategies abroad.

One key characteristic of insurgent diplomatic strategy I examine is who groups target diplomatically. I distinguish between two types of actors: international allies and adversaries of the counter-insurgent (COIN) state. The more an insurgent movement is fragmented, the more likely that diplomacy will target the COIN state’s adversaries for support. As existing or potential supporters of the rebellion, these actors control political-military resources that can affect the outcome of intra-insurgent rivalries.

However, when an insurgent movement is more cohesive and focused on undermining the central government, groups are more likely to seek support from the COIN state’s allies. Because these actors are crucial supporters of the central government, groups know they hold unique leverage over the COIN state’s decision-making. Because Moscow, not Washington, has the most leverage and influence over Damascus in any post-conflict settlement, the Syrian Kurds may be maneuvering for their best chance at settlement.

Although the broader insurgent system in Syria is fragmented, the PYD now dominates the Syrian Kurdish movement. Although the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria and other groups may have rivaled the PYD in the past, the PYD now has a monopoly on coercive power in region. Furthermore, the PYD has muscled back both the Islamic State and the Free Syrian Army from its primary region of operations, sidelining rivals within its controlled territory.

As the PYD nears the consolidation of its territorial goals and no longer fears intra-insurgent competition, it is becoming free to focus its diplomatic attention on securing the best autonomy deal possible. These dynamics can help explain why nearly four months ago, the PYD increased its diplomatic attention to Moscow. Putin is without a doubt Assad’s greatest international ally and thus has the most leverage to help secure Syrian Kurdish demands. Even the moderate opposition understands this. The PYD probably hopes to cozy up with the Moscow in the pursuit of favorable settlement.

It is possible that the PYD is using its escalation of engagement with the Russians as a way to bait the United States back toward unconditional support. However, from a Syrian Kurdish perspective, one thing is clear: The road to settlement with Assad and potential autonomy for Syria’s Kurds more likely runs through Moscow and not Washington.

Morgan Kaplan is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Chicago and a predoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University.