Russia′s game of wedge politics in Syria | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 22.02.2016
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Russia's game of wedge politics in Syria

What is really going on under the cover of Russian fire in Syria? Are the Syrian Kurds merely pawns in a Russian game of wedge politics? Fiona Clark takes a look.

America may have jumped the gun on accusing Russia of war crimes by bombing a MSF hospital in northern Syria last week killing 25 people, as it seems the doctor's charity did not provide either the Russians or the Syrian government with its GPS coordinates. It feared it would be a target, but the failure to provide those coordinates means what could have been a war crime has now become a regrettable and possibly avoidable tragedy. No doubt the decision not to disclose that information will be hotly debated at MSF headquarters in Geneva.

That said, it still begs the question of what exactly did Russia (or whoever it was that dropped those bombs, because Russia denies it was their bombs) actually think they were targeting? IS isn't active in the area, so it can only be concluded that whoever was bombing was furthering the fortunes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in helping him taking back ground held by so-called "moderate opposition groups" that are anti-Assad.

Destruction and rubble at an MSF-supported hospital in Idlib province in northern Syria, largely destroyed in an attack on early 15 February 2016 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/S.Taylor)

MSF's hospital in Idlib was largely destroyed by an airstrike on February 15

At last week's EU summit in Brussels, leaders drafted a statement that "calls for an immediate cessation of aerial bombardments in civilian areas."

But will Russia and Assad take any notice? Assad has vowed he'll take back his country and it seems Russia is happy to oblige, pushing on with its mantra that Assad is democratically elected, that only Syrians can decide their own future, and it will be much easier to make that choice once peace is restored. And that means quashing the opposition.

Wedge politics

Russia certainly has a strategic interest in keeping Assad in office as it has a military base there and it's been working hard to be an important regional force as a counter to the US - but in doing that it's playing some serious politics games that seem to clearly be aimed at undermining Turkey's role in the region and its place in NATO.

Earlier this month, Syrian Kurds opened a 'representative office' in Moscow. While it has not been recognized as an embassy by the Russians and will function as an NGO pushing for Kurdish rights, its presence sends a strong message - one bound to further antagonize Turkey.

Spotted among the guests was a controversial figure - Alexander Borodai, the former leader of the Russian-backed separatist group, the Donetsk People's Republic in Ukraine. He said he attended because he respected the Kurds' struggle for autonomy and considered them "allies in a struggle against a common world enemy," according to The Daily Telegraph.

Not surprisingly eyebrows were raised at his presence and social media buzzed with people wondering what he was up to and who sent him?

"This is the first time we've been in contact," he said, claiming there was no formal cooperation between east Ukrainian separatists and the Syrian Kurds and also denying any knowledge of pro-Russian separatist fighters moving from Ukraine to fight in Syria.

Important allies - or a threat?

But fighting there has been, a plenty. The Syrian Kurds are an important ally of the western forces in the fight against IS and are supported by the US. To the Turks, however, they are a threat.

The Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK, has strong links to the Syrian Kurds' movement, the YPG, who by all reports have done a great job in fighting IS in northern Syria, but have also according to Turkey used the cover of Russian airstrikes to expand their territory and potentially cut of Turkish links to those areas. To the Turks this is a scenario that threatens to spill over its border and see the two groups unite in their push for a united Kurdistan.

Syrian Turkmen brigade with handles believed to be part of a parachute of the downed Russian warplane near the northern Syrian village of Yamadi, near the Turkish-Syrian border (photo: REUTERS/Stringer)

Members of the Syrian Turkmen brigade with handles believed to be part of a parachute of the downed Russian pilot

The Turks have been accused of supporting their close allies in the area, the Turkmen, who have attacked the Syrian Kurds. The Turkmen are the ones seen yelling "Allah Akbar" while shooting the Russian pilots as they parachuted out of the plane that was shot down after it violated Turkish airspace last November. The Turkmen are fighting against Assad's forces, with al Nusra and other Islamic groups including al Qaeda, but are also against IS, who have labeled them apostates and want to see them annihilated.

Acts of terrorism and an ultimatum

Turkey says the YPG and PKK were responsible for last week's terrorist bombing in Ankara that killed 28 and, according to Al Jazeera, the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has called on the US and other allies to their end cooperation with the YPG in Syria and list it as a terrorist group.

Turkey, believing its sovereignty is under threat, is making a demand that will be difficult for its alliance members to agree to when they need the YPG on the ground. Solid proof of involvement may not be enough when there are bigger issues at stake, but the spotlight will be on America's handling of this delicate situation.

Pawns or players

Are the Kurds really going to gain from this or are they merely pawns in a Russian game of wedge politics? In 2014, analysts in the Middle East said the rise of IS was a green light for Kurds to seek reunification and bring an end to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and their gaining of ground shows some progress towards that end.

External symbols of support are important, but is Russia's any more than skin-deep? The Syrian Kurds seem to be taking it seriously. Speaking at the opening of the Moscow office, Merab Shamoyev, chairman of the International Union of Kurdish Public Associations, said it was "a historical moment for the Kurdish people."

"Russia is a great power and an important player in the Middle East. It is in fact not only an actor, but also it writes the script," Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper reported him as saying.

But as with any good script, the ending may not be exactly what the reader was expecting.

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