Vladimir Putin’s strategy of generating frozen conflicts is now well-understood. From Georgia to Ukraine, Putin supports insurgencies which flare up and wind down but never go away, ensuring long-term influence. By dialing up and down the violence with precision, Putin turns the insurgencies into tools for gaining leverage over his neighbors and the international system more broadly.
His recent diplomacy in Syria suggests that he may be preparing to use the aspiration of the Syrian Kurds in a comparable manner—in order to achieve permanent influence over Ankara, and to drive a wedge between Turkey and NATO to the detriment to US strategic posture.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s top priority in Syria is to weaken the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Erdogan sees the YPG, correctly, as a direct extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which he is battling inside Turkey. Due to the strong ethnic and linguistic ties between the Kurds of Syria and Turkey, Erdogan fears the YPG’s dominant aspiration, namely, establishing an independent Kurdish statelet in Syria, which it calls Rojava. If Rojava stands up, he assumes, it will excite the imagination of Turkish Kurds, while providing the PKK with strategic depth, a base from which to launch cross border raids into Turkey.
By 2016, the YPG was well on the way to creating a contiguous area of political control along Turkey’s southern border, when the Turkish military acted. Its intervention in Syria, dubbed Euphrates Shield, cut the emerging Kurdish region in two. Meanwhile, Turkey has been very vocal in demanding from the United States not to work with the YPG. The Americans, however, have largely turned a deaf ear. The YPG offered Washington a means of destroying the Islamic State in Raqqa without having to deploy large amount of American ‘boots on the ground’.
But the Americans have not been entirely unsympathetic to Erdogan’s concerns. They promised Erdogan that their collaboration with YPG would be only transactional and temporary, not lasting beyond the campaign against ISIS. The short-term relationship, they assured him, posed no threat to the long-lasting alliance with Turkey through NATO. As if to make good on that promise, Trump recently signaled to Erdogan that, now that Raqqa had fallen, the United States was preparing to scale down its military cooperation with the Syrian Kurds.
If Trump indeed follows through, he may soothe relations with Erdogan, but he will also offer new opportunities for Putin. For several years now, Moscow has been reaching out to Turkey and the YPG simultaneously, hoping to establish itself, in the wake of an American withdrawal, as the primary arbiter between the Syrian Kurds and Ankara. Indeed, firm support for Syrian Kurdish aspirations has been a little-noticed but significant aspect of Putin’s policy. The YPG’s political arm, PYD, has an office in Moscow, its sole international presence. Moreover, Russia has worked to provide it with a seat at the negotiation table in the talks about Syria’s future—this, despite staunch opposition of Ankara. Expectedly, Russia will pull this off in Sochi for a National Dialogue on Syria slated for February where Syrian Kurds will be included through a larger grouping to make it palatable for Turkey.
This strategy is for Russia to become the political arbiter of the status of Kurdish autonomy inside Syria which will make the regime in Damascus as well as Ankara dependent on Russian intervention to dial down these aspirations. In line with that strategy, Russia recently penned their own draft constitution for Syria with large-scale autonomy for the Kurds included.
To prevent such an outcome, Erdogan will have no choice but to allow Putin to mediate between him and the PYD. He may seek to improve the military balance by further invading Syria. No matter what, however, he cannot make the Syrian Kurdish problem go away. Any use of force will simply push the PYD further into the arms of the Russians, which will seek to exploit the new relationship accordingly.
President Obama believed that Russia’s military intervention in Syria would end in a quagmire. Instead, it has led to success on multiple fronts. Significant players in the Trump administration are showing similar signs of misreading Putin. They assume that he has achieved his key goals in Syria, and is now looking for a graceful exit. They fail to realize that the chaos in Syria is still providing him with many new and exciting options. The real end goal is to show the impotence of Washington and make Russia great again in the Middle East and beyond.
By far the greatest of these is an opportunity to weaken NATO. Russia’s recent overtures to Turkey, including the possible sale of air defense systems incompatible with Turkey’s NATO obligations, are a sign of things to come. In return for containing the aspirations of Syria’s Kurds, Putin will insist that Turkey reduce its reliance on the Western alliance. Recent polls in Turkey show that he may soon be pushing on an open door. Turks who see strategic cooperation with Russia as preferable to EU membership now represent 27.6% percent of the population. While this number is still low, it represents a dramatic increase over last year’s 14.8 . Similarly, the perception of Russia as a threat has dropped from 34.9 in 2016 to 18.5% this year
Right now, the Trump administration is wrestling with these questions while reviewing its Syria strategy. What can then be done to counter Putin and such outcomes? Paradoxically, the US should double down on maintaining relations with the Syrian Kurds. The relationship will be a continued irritant to the Turks, however, if handled deftly, the Americans could demonstrate to Ankara that having them as a mediator is far preferable to Putin. The key, of course, is to placate the Turks while still working with the Kurds. How might this be achieved? As a first step, the US should foster the conditions for bottom-up governance in Raqqa and other nearby IS-liberated areas, so that resident Sunni Arabs with their majority can gradually take control of the city and environs, thus reducing the geographical expanse of Kurdish-controlled territory. In addition, it would prevent the PYD from using the future status of Raqqa as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the Assad regime (and Russia).
At the same time, the United States should demand from the PYD that it sever links with PKK, and that it engage in direct talks with Ankara over confidence building measures. In the short-term, this will be a tall order indeed, but if American pressure is applied firmly and consistently over time, and if the alternative is a Turkish invasion of Syria, one might see surprising results. The relatively warm relations between the Turks and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq demonstrate that Kurdish-Turkish enmity is not set in stone.
If the Americans recede from the scene, the Syrian Kurds will immediately fall into the arms of Putin, who, overnight, will become the primary arbiter of the Turkish-Kurdish relationship. If he is permitted to adopt this role, it will spell strategic disaster for the West. Europe has sufficient of Russia-style frozen conflicts. There is no reason to create the conditions for a new one, especially when it would likely result in the severe weakening of NATO.