If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan thought last November that by downing a Russian Su-24 bomber near the Turkish-Syrian border he could contain Vladimir Putin’s Middle Eastern ambitions, he is certainly regretting that now. An incensed Vladimir Putin vowed that Turkey would come to rue its actions. He warned that Russia would not settle its accounts with Turkey with mere economic sanctions, adding, “ We know what we need to do .”
What Putin meant is becoming clear. Earlier this month, in what can only be described as a menacing signal to Ankara, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (or PYD) formally opened a representative office in Moscow, its first in a foreign country. Meanwhile, inside Syria, the PYD’s armed wing has been using Russian arms and Russian air support to aggressively expand the amount of territory it controls along the Syrian-Turkish border. Ankara is alarmed, and rightly so. Despite possessing its own acronym, the PYD is a subsidiary of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party ( Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane ), or PKK, which is currently intensifying the insurgency it is waging in Turkey’s southeast. There, PKK activists have declared Kurdish self-rule and PKK fighters are holing up in cities, digging trenches and taking on Turkish security forces with everything from snipers and rocket propelled grenades to improvised explosive devices.
Erdoğan has declared his determination to crush the PKK, but no one should hold their breath: the Turkish Republic has been trying to vanquish the PKK for over three decades. Yet the PKK has perhaps never been so robust and well positioned, militarily and diplomatically, as it is now. Exploiting the collapse of central state control in Iraq and Syria, the PKK built its headquarters in the secure Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq a decade and a half ago. More recently, it established, via the PYD, the de facto autonomous governorate of Rojava in northern Syria. Now it is again waging a burgeoning insurgency inside Turkey’s southeast.
Perhaps most significant is that the PKK’s contribution to the fight against ISIS has won it unprecedented international legitimacy. Whereas in 1997 Washington formally declared the PKK a terrorist organization, and was followed in this designation by the European Parliament, today, U.S. Special Forces are training and arming the PPK’s subsidiary inside Syria. Washington justifies such collaboration with the fiction that the PYD is separate from the PKK, but efforts are under way in both the United States and Europe to remove the terrorist label. If those efforts succeed, they will yield a major boon to the PKK.
But the PKK may not need the assistance or goodwill of the West in order to realize its ambition of an independent Kurdistan. The PKK’s role in the war with ISIS also rekindled its relations with the oldest Great Power patron of the Kurds, Russia. The goals of the PKK and Russia possess a devilish synergy. The two now share common enemies in ISIS and Turkey. By working with the Kurds, Moscow can prosecute the war against ISIS, punish Turkey, outmaneuver the United States in Syria and provoke a rift in Turkish-U.S. relations, thereby weakening NATO.
Russia: the Kurds’ Oldest Great-Power Patron
The first thing observers need to understand is that today’s alliance between Russia and the PKK is hardly new or unusual. The Russian-Kurdish nexus has been a recurring feature of Middle Eastern geopolitics for more than two hundred years, since Catherine the Great commissioned the publication of a Kurdish grammar in 1787. Catherine’s interest in the Kurds was not purely academic. Kurdish tribes, tsarist officials recognized, were important actors along Russia’s southern frontiers. From 1804 forward, Kurds played important roles in Russia’s wars with Qajar Persia and Ottoman Turkey . As the century wore on, the Russian army made increasing use of Kurdish units to fight the Persians and Turks.
Kurdish motives for fighting alongside tsarist forces varied, but most often involved resentment at Qajar and Ottoman interference in tribal affairs or sheer opportunism. But by the dawn of the twentieth century, a number of Kurds began to see Russia as their best hope, not just to throw off external interference, but also to transform the Kurds from an overwhelmingly nomadic, tribal and illiterate society into a modern one that could compete in the information age dawning in the twentieth century. The most famous of these was Abdurrezzak Bedirhan , a scion of the last independent Kurdish emir of Cizre (Cizre, not coincidentally, has been the site of some of the most intense fighting inside Turkey today). Deprived of his patrimony and placed in the Ottoman foreign service, Abdurrezzak’s stint in the St. Petersburg embassy in the 1890s converted him into a true Russophile. In 1910, he crossed over to the Russian side and with Russian backing—arms, money and intelligence—began organizing Kurdish tribal chiefs and inciting a series of rebellions against Ottoman rule across Eastern Anatolia.