Monday, July 29, 2013

Russia-US rivalry in Syria and Kurdish autonomy

Last year, Russia and China vetoed a UN security council resolution to impose economic sanctions on Syria because it failed to yield to peace plans. The US ambassador Susan E. Rice called it a “dark day” because “we have missed yet another critical opportunity to work together”. The United States was a very keen on removing Mr. Assad and the resolution included some severe punishments including sanctioning on the Syrian government under the UN's Chapter Seven which allows for external military intervention in the country to enforce Security Council demands.

Russia saw the sanctions as opening the door for military intervention and therefore could not accept it. The United States saw this reality and therefore in August that year, according to a Reuters report, US President Barack Obama signed a “secret” order to support Syrian rebels bring Assad down. According to the report, the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey in Adana city, about 60 miles from the Syrian border.

Now that the fighting between the Assad regime and rebels is in it third year, the US has abandoned its plans for a sanction under UN Charter's Chapter 7 which allow for direct military intervention knowing that such a UN resolution will not easily be accepted by Russia to whom Bashar Assad has been a long time ally and Russian weapons buyer. But almost a year after it first authorized secret support for Syrian rebels, it officially announced support alongside 10 other countries including Saudi Arabia, for the Syrian rebels taking the Russian-US one step up. Russia on the other hand announced support for Syria's Kurds who are currently in a severe fight with the Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – both of these groups are al Qaeda affiliates -, and the al-Faruk Brigade, which is part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but joined hands with the other two groups to fight the Kurdish forces called the YPG (Poeple's Defense Units) supported by the PYD (Democratic Union Party) that's believed to be an off-shoot of the Leninist-Marxist PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). The YPG is trying to impose Kurdish control over the Kurdish territories in Syria as the preliminary stage for autonomy or self-administration which the US opposes.

The past week witnessed, and continues to see more, intensified fighting between JN/ISIS on the one hand and the YPG and the Jabhat Akrad one the other. Jahat Akrad was part of the FSA but defected to fight on the YPG side against the JN/ISIS after the Kurds reported attacks by the JB/ISIS on the Kurdish residents.

US and Russian rhetoric on the clashes between the two sides is already polarized with Russia condemning the attacks by the JN/ISIS and showing support for the Kurds, while the US State Department said it watched the developments and was concerned that the violence could spill over to some of the neighboring countries in the region. The US State Department also voiced concern over plans by the PYD to establish a Kurdish administration in the Kurdish areas until the war in the country is over.

According to reports, dozens have been killed in the clashes, mostly from the JN/ISIS, and the Kurdish YPG forces have made swift advances in the mostly Kurdish populated areas around Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ain) city and Gre Spi (Tal Abyad).

Russia directly showed support for the Kurdish people and the YPG fight against the al-Qaeda affiliates. The Russian foreign Ministry was also very specific in describing the actions of the JN/ISIS who “ started to kill innocent people by cutting off their heads,”a statement by the foreign ministry said, “Kurds had to free Abu Musab in exchange for an agreement to release hostages.”

"Moscow strongly condemns the atrocities of international terrorists in northeastern Syria and the excesses and abuses perpetrated by extremists against a peaceful Kurdish population which is not involved in the ongoing political and military conflict in Syria,"

According to Koshan Zamani, a Kurdish political activist and observer, the reason for Russia's support for the Kurds is obvious: “[The existence of] al-Qaeda has never served, and never will serve, Russia. They have a history of conflict and war. Besides, the Kurds were a neutral force in Syria and this served the extension of Bashar Assad's regime, and by extension the supremacy of Russia in the area.”

Russia is also trying to enlist Kurds for the Geneva II peace conference. On June 2, a delegation from the Supreme Kurdish Council (SKC), a body that unites Kurdish parties from Syria,went on an official visit to Syria to meet Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in Moscow (source) in order to get help from Russia for a place for Syrian Kurds in the peace conference.

Alan Semo, a PYD member has told al-Monitor that Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has promised them that “without you [the Kurds], there will not be any meeting in Geneva,”

Acording to Ahmed Suleiman, a spokesman of the Supreme Kurdish Council, “Russia respects the Kurdish people in Syria and recognizes that the Kurds are following a legitimate struggle. The existence of the Kurdish people is denied and in the new Syrian constitution, the rights of Kurds must be recognized.”

The United States, Turkey's long time ally on the other hand does not support a Kurdish autonomy in Syria and is not happy about Kurdish control in northeast of Syria along the Turkish border and YPG gains on the JN/ISIS despite their knowledge of al-Qaeda fighters being among the ranks of the Jihadi Islamist groups. Al-Nusra and ISIS are publicly affiliated with the al-Qaeda.

In a statement posted on the US State Department website, US State Dept spokesperson Jen Psaki said "We’re very concerned by press reports indicating that the Kurdish Democratic Union might declare an independent Kurdish region in Syria. Such a declaration is highly provocative, as it will certainly exasperate tensions between Arabs and Kurds and give excuse for extremists to exploit the situation. So we’re also watching that and we’re concerned about that as well."

But she had nothing to say about the ISIS (technically al-Qaeda) and Kurdish clashes other than "We continue to follow reports that Syrian Kurds are fighting ISIS in the Raqqah province. We’ve been very clear about our concerns over the regional instability calls by the crisis in Syria and the propensity for spillover violence. We’re obviously watching events on the ground all across Syria very closely."

Zamani told Kurdish Observer the United States does not support Kurds in Syria because the US is more interested in the “bigger interests”. “No matter how much bloodshed there is in Syria, they [US] still prefer one [unified] country to a Kurdish opposition group who are a minority in the country as compared to the Sunni and Alevite Arabs. Therefore, the US is not ready to support Kurds. The US has long been in disagreement with the Kurdish interests because Kurds are a minority in the Middle East. The US wants to see a stable Middle East, any claims of human rights and any such things are merely slogans and will not see US support if they are not in he interest of the United States”

According to Zamani, Syria has long been the ground for Russian-US rivalry. Russia is represented by the Bashar Assad regime, and the United States is represented by the rebel groups. But why has the United States not taken military action to resolve the issue? Is it because it fears that Russia will back Mr Assad even in a US-Syria conflict? Koshan Zamani says “no”

The thing is United States is not sure about the future of Syria. Chances are the Islamists will accede to power and the US is not ready to leave Syria for Islamists... if the US wants to remove Assad militarily, they can do it easily and Russia will hand it over to them. But the change in regime will not benefit the US and Israel”