Syrian Kurds accuse Putin of failing them as US role fades

By HENRY MEYER | Bloomberg | Published: May 23, 2019

A senior Kurdish official said Russia has let Syrian Kurds down by failing to support their autonomy and by negotiating a behind-the-scenes deal with Turkey.

"Our hopes from the Russians were different," Saleh Muslim, head of foreign relations for the Syrian Kurdish PYD party, said by phone Wednesday from Qamishli, Syria. "When they came into Syria, we were expecting them to put some pressure on the regime to accept a political solution."

An alliance with the U.S. to defeat Islamic State left the Kurds in northeastern Syria holding the largest region outside of government control, an area that also contains most of the war-shattered country's oil reserves. Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who intervened in the Syrian civil war on President Bashar Assad's side in 2015, has become a key power broker after the Trump administration announced that it plans to withdraw most U.S. forces from Syria.

Putin is encouraging Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to restore ties with the Assad regime that Ankara opposes, in order to resolve tensions over Turkey's demand for a buffer zone inside Syria to bar the Kurds from its border. Turkey regards the PYD and its YPG armed wing as affiliated with a Kurdish separatist group on its own territory, something the organization denies. The U.S. backed a YPG-led militia against Islamic State, but with no long-term guarantees of an American military presence, the Syrian Kurds are left exposed.

"At least for one or two years, they will stay," Muslim said. "If there are Americans or the international alliance, it means it will be more safe. They prevent attacks or air strikes by Turkey."

Russia, which opposes the buffer zone, has been trying to broker a settlement between the Kurds and the Syrian government in Damascus that would restore central authority and allay Turkish concerns about border security. Assad's regime has rejected giving autonomy to the Syrian Kurds, saying it would effectively recognize the partition of the country. The two sides have held no talks since November after previous rounds ended in deadlock.

The Syrian Kurds delivered proposals for a decentralized political system in Syria to Russia in December, but despite promises from Moscow to discuss the idea with Damascus, there's been no response from Assad's side, said Muslim.

Russia's efforts to mediate between Syria and Turkey "are not helping" ease Kurdish concerns, Muslim said. "They are working closely with Turkey and trying to satisfy Turkey," he said.

Putin is pushing Erdogan to allow a full-scale military assault against jihadists who control Syria's northwestern Idlib province, the last big rebel holdout. Turkey, which in the past has backed armed groups in Idlib and has military observers in the area, fears major fighting would provoke a massive new refugee exodus toward its borders. It has criticized a recent upsurge in fighting and air strikes in Idlib.

"Moscow is really counting on cooperation from Turkey" on Idlib, said Elena Suponina, a Moscow-based Middle East expert. "The ideal from Russia's point of view is for the Kurds to reach an agreement with the Turks and the Syrian government but we are still very far from that."

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