Russia promotes Kurdish self-determination but with caveats

Only recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin had berated the Bolshevik leadership of Vladimir Lenin for conceding the principle of self-determination to resolve what Marxists call the ‘national question’ in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Officials take part in the opening ceremony of a representative office of Syrian Kurdistan in Moscow Feb. 10

Officials take part in the opening ceremony of a representative office of Syrian Kurdistan in Moscow

Therefore, eyebrows will be raised over the news that a representative office of Syrian Kurds has been opened in Moscow on Thursday with much media publicity.

A Russian foreign ministry official reportedly made the cheeky remark to the state news agency TASS that a full-fledged embassy of Syrian Kurds in Moscow is not envisaged at the moment.

Unsurprisingly, Damascus chose not to raise dust over this development. The Syrian embassy in Moscow put a straight face and insisted it came to know about the development from the media and “some other sources”  but did not “know anything about its tasks or the number of employees”.

It is improbable, though, that Moscow kept Damascus in the dark. The dealings involving the Alawaite-dominated Syrian regime with the Kurdish minority – and between Moscow and the “mountain Kurds” – have always remained ambivalent.

Moscow’s motives in making this strange move need to be understood. It is difficult to believe that in a new-found spirit of ‘exceptionalism’, Moscow is following American footsteps to promote self-determination in foreign countries (which has been a cardinal Wilsonian principle dating back to World War I.)

However, Russia probably finds it useful to selectively promote the right of self-determination in the multipolar world. There is a precedent already – Crimea in 2014. (Russia will in turn cite the precedent of Kosovo, of course.) A top Kremlin pundit, Vitaly Naumkin at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, recently hinted that Syria could be a ripe case for promoting self-determination. Naumkin wrote,

  • Kurds are close to achieving their main strategic goal of establishing an extended control line along the Syrian-Turkish border — which, in Moscow’s opinion, is helping to bring closer the positions of the government forces and the Syrian Kurds.
  • However, to rule out any relapse of animosity between them, Moscow will need to convince Damascus to accept Kurdish self-determination. Indeed, devising a concept of decentralization for a future Syria that would be acceptable to all is the most important task in any plan for a Syrian resolution.
  • Military analysts expect that the Kurds may soon launch an offensive in the 60-mile section of the Jarabulus corridor between Turkey and IS (Islamic State), which is like waiving a red flag in front of Ankara. But will Turkey risk an open intervention in Syria in that case? What response would come from Washington, which supports the Kurds militarily (as does Russia)? That consideration might be what recently prompted Moscow to considerably strengthen its air contingent in Latakia by deploying multipurpose Sukhoi-35S fighter planes and upgrading Syrian MiG29s and MiG29CMTs.
  • Turkey finds it unacceptable to have Kurds lined up along its border with Syria and has repeatedly threatened to intervene militarily if a Kurdish-controlled corridor is established. While rebutting Russia’s accusations that it is preparing a ground intervention, Turkey is at the same time stepping up its anti-Russian rhetoric.

Naumkin presents here a rare opportunity to peep into the complicated Russian calculus. Simply put, Russia finds it a tactical necessity to promote Syrian Kurds on the battlefield for the reasons that:

  • It weakens Turkey’s capacity to support the rebel groups in Syria;
  • Syrian Kurds’ military victories work to the advantage of the regime in Damascus;
  • There is a need to demoralize Turkey and keep its leadership off-balnce – something like the soulful breaking of a little wild horse on the prairie ;
  • Moscow needs to balance Washington’s enduring links with Syrian Kurds; and,
  • Syrian Kurds themselves could prove to be a blue poker chip of high value when the game begins in Geneva.

Of course, the ceremonial opening of the office of Syrian Kurds in Moscow on Thursday comes within forty-eight hours of the brash threat held out by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that Ankara will do an ‘Afghanistan’ to Russia in the Middle East. A furious reaction by Moscow became almost mandatory, since such harsh invocations of the Afghan jihad of the eighties upset the Russian public.

The Turks will get the message alright that fueling insugency is a game Russia can also play, if left with no other option.

However, the salience of what Naumkin, a noted ‘Orientalist’, wrote lies somewhere else. He underscored that “devising a concept of decentralization for a future Syria that would be acceptable to all is the most important task in any plan for a Syrian resolution”.

Now, can it be that Moscow and Washington have a silent convergence here on how to hold together Syria? Conceivably, the two great powers would generally agree that the territorial boundaries drawn up a century ago in the Middle East settlement by two other great powers in modern history in a bygone era following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire cannot be easily redrawn.

But on the other hand, Syria cannot continue to remain a highly centralized unitary state, either. (This is also the root problem in Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Yemen.)

The answer could well lie in a “concept of decentralization” that allows Alawaites, Kurds, Christians, Sunnis and sundry others in Syria to cohabitate under a roof that is high enough to accommodate them.

The time has come to address the national question involving Kurds. A nationality that exceeds 30 million in population can legitimately stake claim to nationhood. But, on the other hand, the principle of self-determination if applied universally can have stunning results. Even Russia, China or India as they appear on the world map may have to give way to successor states.

What is needed, therefore, is a bit of doctoring of the principle of self-determination (which was also, ironically, what Lenin attempted and Stalin forcefully practised.)

Redrawing national boundaries brings miseries and leaves a trail of bitterness all around that linger on for generations. Pakistan is yet to forget (or forgive) India’s controversial role in the creation of Bangaldesh almost half a century ago.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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