Syrian Kurds as pawns in Turko-Russian game?

Moscow's military intervention in Syria took a sobering turn this weekend as Turkey scrambled fighter jets, accusing Russian warplanes of violating its air space. Turkey has summoned the Russian ambassador over the matter, and NATO condemned the incursions as an "extreme danger." (Al Jazeera, CNN, Daily Sabah) Apart from the obvious dangers to world peace (such as it is), this development holds grim implications for the Syrian Kurds—the most effective military force on the ground against ISIS. Turkey, afraid that a Kurdish autonomous zone on its southern border will inspire its own Kurdish population to rise up, has been cynically labelling the anti-ISIS Syrian Kurds as "terrorists," and seeking to establish a military "buffer zone" in Kurdish territory in norther Syria. Since Turkey and Russia are bitter regional rivals, Moscow's intervention risks drawing the Kurds into the geopolitical game.

The independent Kurdish website BasNews reports that the commander of the Syrian Kurdish militia says he is ready to cooperate with Russia against the Islamic State. BasNews tells us that Sipan Hemo, general commander of the People's Protection Units (YPG), told Russian news agency Sputnik: "We want Russian air support against IS. We want weapons. We can work together with Russia against IS."

Idriss Nassan, the foreign minister of Kobani, one of the three self-governing cantons in the Kurdish autonomous zone, made it sound like the YPG is eager for any help it can get: "We have asked for help from several countries in the fight against IS. We want it from Turkey, we want it also from Russia, and we want it from the United States. IS is not just our enemy, but that of all mankind. We are ready to cooperate with anyone who fights against IS. So far, the Syrian government has not helped us in the fight against IS. The coalition forces are only supporting us by air, and we are getting help from the Peshmerga forces. The capital of IS is Raqqa. IS is in many cities, in Manbij, Deir ar-Zour. These places should be attacked. IS in most places in Iraq and Syria should be attacked."

Now Sputnik, an organ of the Russian state, may not be the most reliable source. But if these quotes are not accurate, it is incumbent upon the YPG leadership to urgently clear the air.

Lebanon's NowMedia further reports of claims in the pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar (again, perhaps not the most reliable source) that military-diploimatic links have been established between Moscow and the Syrian Kurds. "A Russian military delegate paid a secret visit to a number of Kurdish military commanders in Hasakeh and inspected areas of confrontation between the YPG and the armed groups," the Al-Akhbar article said.

Contrast the attitude of the Arab-led civil resistance to the Assad regime in Syria. The Local Coordination Committees, networking civil activists across Syria, protests in an Oct. 2 press release that Russia's air-strikes are targeting "cities and towns devoid of Islamic State (ISIS) combatants," but have resulted in at least 40 civilian casualties, including women and children. "These attacks expose Russian allegations that they are targeting ISIS, and confirm that Russia's goal in directly intervening in the conflict is to assure the survival of the Assad regime." The statement also repeats claims that Moscow already has boots on the ground in Syria: "Russian troops are now openly fighting alongside the army of the dictator."

The statement concludes: "Despite international consensus that the attacks have not targeted ISIS positions, we have yet to see any forceful condemnations regarding the killing of civilians, and this leads us to believe that the international community is tacitly approving of these attacks. We believe that any partnership with Russia...will serve only to accelerate the pace of killing and widen the circle of devastation. These conditions will inevitably lead to even more extremism. The Local Coordination Committees in Syria joins Syrians across the country in categorically condemning the Russian intervention in Syria... The LCC calls upon all revolutionary forces and factions to unite by any means and respond to the Russian aggression."

This divergence of viewpoints spells trouble for the uneasy alliance between YPG and the Free Syrian Army, the broad coalition of anti-Assad rebels. While the YPG has also fought Assad's forces, it is suspected by many in the FSA of viewing ISIS as the greater enemy. And indeed, it is ISIS which is menacing the Kurdish autonomous zone, known as Rojava. But the long-term survival of that autonomous zone will depend on the good will of the Kurds' Arab neighbors. Even from the standpoint of the struggle at this moment, looking to Vladimir Putin for support could shatter the alliance the Kurds have built with the FSA—and therefore divide and weaken the resistance against ISIS.

It is easy to be critical from afar of people fighting against desperate odds, but perhaps we can offer the Rojava Kurds a comradely warning: that they should be more concerned with their allies on the ground, the people they are going to have to get along with in the long run, than meddling Great Powers.

After days of claiming to bomb ISIS while actually bombing rebel factions opposed to ISIS, Moscow claims to have finally bombed the ISIS de facto capital Raqqa over the past two days. (CNN) It's a little ironic that Russia has been pretending to bomb ISIS—this is exactly the same game Turkey has played over the months. Turkish warplanes have hit Kurdish anti-ISIS fighters in Iraq, and used tank fire from across the border to hit YPG fighters in Syria. So both bitter rivals Russia and Turkey have hit anti-ISIS fighters under the Orwellian pretext of hitting ISIS. That Russia has hit Arab rebels while Turkey has hit Kurdish forces doesn't alter that fact that both are using a divide-and-rule strategy to pit the Arabs and Kurds against each other. It would be tragic to see the Syrian resistance sucked into this destructive manipulation.

Did Russia really violate Turkish air space?

The Russia Insider website makes some interesting points under the probably misleading headline "Russia 'Violated' Turkish Airspace Because Turkey 'Moved' Its Border." The piece notes an Oct. 4 McClatchy story which states:

Turkey has maintained a buffer zone five miles inside Syria since June 2012, when a Syrian air defense missile shot down a Turkish fighter plane that had strayed into Syrian airspace. Under revised rules of engagement put in effect then, the Turkish air force would evaluate any target coming within five miles of the Turkish border as an enemy and act accordingly.

This actually-existing buffer zone seems to be separate from that which Turkey seeks to establish in Rojava—considerbalty smaller and to the west, along the border with the Assad stronghold of Latakia governorate. Russian warplanes seem to have entered this buffer zone while bombing a rebel-held village in the area. However, the McClatchy account is ambiguous on whether the Russian planes also violated Turkey's actual (internationally recognized) air space. It's a legitimate question, but Russia Insider is dishonestly jumping to its own conclusion.

Russia Insider also claims, still less convincingly, "And as you might expect it was all cooked up by the US." It cites US officials jumping on the claims of Russian incusrions, but the original sources all make clear that the actual claims were first raised by Turkey.