Washington and Moscow compete for Syria's Kurds

Washington and Moscow compete for Syria's Kurds
Analysis: Both the US and Russia are attempting to entice Kurdish fighters - proven to be an effective force against IS in Syria - to join their 'side'.
4 min read
20 October, 2015
Kurdish fighters are seen as the most effective opposition fighting force in Syria [Getty]

Since the start of Russia's military intervention in Syria at the close of September, the country has been making efforts to win over Syria's Kurds and block US overtures towards them, according to Kurdish sources.

A Syrian-Kurdish politician told al-Araby al-Jadeed that Washington had promised Kurdish politicians a 100-tonne shipment of US-made ammunition to the Democratic Union Party's Kurdish fighters in Syria.

These ammunition drops seem to have started with the announcement on Monday of the formation of a coalition named The Syrian Democratic Forces, including Kurdish and Arab tribal fighters whose main objective appears to be to attack the Islamic State group stronghold of Raqqa.

US overtures

According to the same Kurdish source, this is not the first time the US has provided Kurdish fighters with weapons, though previous arms transfers were made through the Kurdistan Regional Government.

     After the Russian intervention in Syria, Washington believes it needs to neutralise the Kurds and prevent them from being used by Russia

"Washington wants to build closer relations with Syria's Kurds, which is why it provides weapons and aerial support to their military operations against IS. The US also wants to utilise them as an effective force on the ground to strike IS and drive it out of the areas it controls," said the Syrian-Kurdish politician.

"However, after the Russian intervention in Syria, Washington believes it needs to neutralise the Kurds and prevent them from being used by Russia to strike forces that oppose Bashar al-Assad," he added.

Prior to the announcement on Monday of the formation of the Syrian Democratic Forces, The New York Times reported on 5 October that the international coalition against IS had opened a new front in northeast Syria - mainly using Kurdish fighters - to apply extra pressure on Raqqa.

The paper quoted US officials saying that President Barack Obama had taken steps to prepare an attack on Raqqa, ordering the Pentagon to provide weapons to Kurdish and Arab opposition fighters.

According to the paper, the US aims to enable 3,000 to 5,000 Arab fighters - in addition to 20,000 Kurdish fighters - to launch a group offensive on the IS stronghold, with aerial support from coalition aircraft.

Brett McGurk, the US deputy special presidential envoy to the international coalition against IS, met with the leader of the Democratic Union Party, Salih Muslim, along with the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, in Erbil in September to coordinate the three-fronted efforts against IS.

Russian courtship

Meanwhile, the Russians have also started efforts to entice Syrian and Iraqi Kurds to join their own coalition - which includes Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that the Kurds in Syria, along with Assad's forces, are the main groups fighting "extremists" in the country.

     Russian manoeuvres aim to draw Syria's Kurds away from their alliance with the US

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later announced that his country had sent weapons to Kurdish Peshmerga forces - with Baghdad's knowledge.

The Peshmerga, however, have denied receiving any Russian weapons.

Sihanok Dibo, a Democratic Union Party official, recently stated that Russia had encouraged the party - which ostensibly autonomously governs large areas of northern Syria - to open a diplomatic mission in Moscow. The Kremlin reportedly promised to recognise the legitimacy of their representation.

These Russian manoeuvres aim to draw Syria's Kurds away from their alliance with the US, which had previously provided Kurdish fighters with aerial support in operations against IS, notably in Kobane.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the most dominant political and military force in Syria's Kurdish areas and has strong ties with both Damascus and Tehran due to its relations with to the anti-Ankara Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

It has also attempted to establish good relations with Washington.

"The PYD can be considered to be part of the Russian-Iranian coalition, which is due to a central PYD decision, however the party continues to communicate and coordinate with the American led coalition," said the Syrian-Kurdish politician.

The politician said the PYD knew the Russian intervention might not achieve its objectives, which is why the party was pragmatically keeping options open by staying in contact with the United States.