Thursday, April 21, 2016

Russia Pursues Ties With Kurds to Keep Foothold in Region - WSJ

Russia Pursues Ties With Kurds to Keep Foothold in Region

The Russian government says it has sent troops to fight alongside Kurdish units in northwestern Syria and is providing weapons to Iraqi Kurds, in a tactic that could upstage a long-standing U.S. alliance with the stateless ethnic group and increase Moscow’s influence in the region.

Russian and Kurdish officials say the Kremlin intends to keep a foothold in the area by cultivating ties with some Kurdish groups through weapons, ammunition and oil deals, building on its presence established through its relationship with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The effort comes amid U.S. concerns that Russia is redeploying troops and weapons in Syria in preparation for a return to full-scale fighting in the near future.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last week said Russian soldiers have been fighting alongside Syrian Kurds around the strategic battleground of Aleppo, though American intelligence officials questioned whether those troops were on the front lines.
The U.S. relies on Kurdish militants in Syria as one of its most effective allies in the fight against Islamic State, but the intelligence officials said the Russians were supporting a Kurdish faction that has never had U.S. support.
The American officials said Mr. Putin’s announcement was likely a provocation against the U.S. and Turkey, which worries that foreign support for Kurds empowers the Kurdish independence movement at home.
Russia maintains two bases in Syria, and an unknown number of troops and aircraft, and officials say the country’s forces still provide some air support and targeting information on the ground to allies there.
Russian officials have also disclosed in recent weeks that they are supplying more weapons to Iraqi Kurds as that group gets ready to step up its fight against Islamic State and help in the eventual battle for Mosul.
The Pentagon announced Monday it would be increasing its presence in Iraq and providing an additional $415 million in aid to the Iraqi Kurdish fighters, known as Peshmerga. The U.S. currently has an advising and training mission with the Peshmerga and occasionally partners with them on special operations missions, according to Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the Pentagon in Iraq.
But Col. Warren said the Pentagon remains unruffled by Russian overtures to the Kurds in Iraq and isn’t scrambling to counter them. “The Russians have been selling arms to various players in Iraq for 50 years,” Col. Warren said.
Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University who focuses on Russian foreign policy affairs, said, however, that Moscow’s move might goad the Americans into stepping up the arms supply game to prevent Russians from gaining the upper hand
“Even if the U.S. hasn’t been forthcoming,” Mr. Katz said, “maybe a little competition from Russia can get the U.S. to do so.”
Russian outreach to the Kurds follows friction with Turkey. After Turkey downed a Russian Su-24 warplane late last year, Russia quickly pressed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to demand Kurdish participation in Syrian peace talks, a move seen as a direct swipe at Ankara.
Turkey is embroiled in a multi-front battle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the outlawed group classified as a terrorist organization by Ankara, Washington and European capitals. Ankara has watched with alarm as the U.S. and the Syrian affiliate of the PKK have deepened their ties.
Before Russia’s intervention, the Kurds had no champion and no substantial claim to be part of the peace talks. Last month, Mr. Erdogan warned Russia it was risking its own security by aligning itself with the Syrian Kurds.
In political circles, Russia’s outreach to Kurds in Iraq is raising concern about more tension between Moscow and Washington, which wants to keep Iraq a unitary state.
“Russia will take on any opportunity it can to undermine U.S. interests globally, but they don’t always think through the consequences,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D., Mass.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “We’re concerned about the long-term stability of Iraq and I don’t think they are.”
Russian officials say their most recent arms package to the Iraqi Kurds, mostly small arms, arrived in mid-March; a delegation from Kurdistan visited Moscow this month to discuss the matter. A Kurdish delegation will also travel to St. Petersburg in June, according to the Russian ambassador to Iraq.
Authorities in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, said they are expecting another delivery of more advanced weapons in May.
The arms deliveries are a potential sensitive point for the Iraqi government. The Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil enjoys a high degree of autonomy, but controlling arms distribution has been a key way for Baghdad to keep the Kurds tied to the federal government.
Other weapons shipments may not have to be agreed to with Baghdad, said two officials, one with knowledge of Russia’s diplomatic efforts with the Kurds and another one with close to the Russian Defense Ministry.
“There are several levels of arms deliveries,” said the official close to the Defense Ministry. “On one level, we deliver weapons only through the capital, but with an order from the president we can also bypass the capitals involved or deliver through more covert means, like a special operation.”
The Iraqi ministry of defense didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
Last month , during a conference in the Kurdish town of Sulaymaniyah, Staff Gen. Araz Abdul Qadir, a Peshmerga brigade commander, said the Kurds support bypassing Baghdad to get arms. “It’s a long way from Baghdad,” he said. “Make it shorter, we have an airport in Erbil.”
At the same conference, Amb. Ilya Margonov, Russia’s ambassador to Iraq, said in an interview that Moscow continues to honor its agreement to send all Kurdish armaments through the central government, but that he expected top Kurdish officials for direct talks in Moscow over the summer. He also said Moscow will likely be willing to supply weapons that require advanced training.
“If the Kurds express some desire to receive more advanced weapons we will discuss that with Baghdad,” he said.
For decades Russia, has walked a delicate balance between supporting the Kurds, and the governments of the countries they live in: Iran, Syria, Turkey and Iraq.
During the Soviet era, Moscow hosted Kurds fleeing violence in the region, notably hosting a young Masoud Barzani, Iraqi Kurdistan’s current president, after his father escaped the fall of a Soviet-backed Kurdish republic in Iran in 1946.
Kurdish fighters’ well-publicized successes against Islamic State, and a perception in the region that Americans haven’t given full-bore support, have given Moscow new reason to boost ties with a group likely to play a strong role in a new Syria.
“There is no doubt that the Kurdish factors will be one of the most important factors in the Middle East transformation in years to come,“ said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of a Kremlin advisory body known as Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.