A recent NPR report suggested that Russia is not exclusively supporting forces loyal to Assad. During Putin’s annual conference with the press. In a speech to top military commanders, it was revealed that Russia was assisting “some factions” of the Free Syrian Army.
The report did not specify which branches of the Army were being supported, but the recent spat with Turkey implies that it could be the Arab/Kurdish alliance in the north that goes by the name of “Syrian Democratic Forces” or SDF.
The SDF is a recent player in the civil war. A large portion of their fighters are Kurds who are members of the smaller People’s Protection Units, known by their Kurdish initials YPG. The YPG is opposed in theory to the Assad regime, but has compromised with Assad’s forces in the northeastern cities of Hasakah and Qamishli, where some still patrol. The YPG has also placed priority on defeating Da’esh rather than fighting Assad’s forces, which, barring a couple of very small exceptions that have opted to cease fire with the YPG, are not trying to claim the same land.
The YPG’s ultimate goal in Syria is to establish an autonomous “democratic confederalist” region along the Syrian border with Turkey called Rojava, or Western Kurdistan.
The YPG made a name for themselves when they drove the Islamists out of Kobane after an excruciating siege that destroyed most of the city and are advancing west in hopes to take control of the entire border with Syria.
If these are the “moderate rebels” the Kremlin wishes to support (despite the consistent complaining about the United States doing similar), it may be a preferable path to follow. The Kurds have suffered immensely at the hands of the governments of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and to a lesser extent Iran. Supporting them, provided that support lasts could establish a rare consensus between Europe, the United States, and Moscow.
While it may further aggravate the relationship with Ankara and President Erdogan, the Turkish government has often been maligned for its nationalistic attitude towards its Kurdish minority-until recently Kurds in Turkey were known as “Mountain Turks”. International pressure could even swing towards Ankara to fully and comprehensively address the festering wound that has been aggravated by both the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Turkish government. If the Kremlin can find a way to swing international interest towards the Turkey-PKK conflict and contribute to working out some consensus, it would considerably help the region’s stability.
The Kurds in Iraq and Syria find themselves at an interesting crossroads. Kurdish forces in Iraq managed to keep Islamic State away from most of their territory and have even gained control over territory they didn’t have before, including Kirkuk, a large city considered a centre of Kurdish culture. Arab Iraqi forces from Baghdad recently recaptured the large city of Ramadi.
This is a huge victory that will likely mean a march on Mosul in the north will be coming in the next months. The Iraqi Kurdish government has expressed interest in a referendum on full independence and Russian recognition of the region should it go forward with a possible referendum would establish a considerable precedent in the region. An autonomous Syrian Kurdistan could also establish relations with Russia and give Moscow a secular, democratic ally in the region.
The Kremlin’s explicit support of Bashar Al-Assad is still condemnable considering the regime’s use of chemical weapons, brutal suppression of protests against his rule, and the horrific treatment of prisoners of war captured by Assad’s forces. And there’s no question Syria would probably be better off for the future without Assad in power. But a considerably weakened Assad in a power of a decentralized and more closely monitored Syria is not the worst scenario considering the alternatives. The Free Syrian Army would likely find it more difficult to rebuild the country as it is not as centralized and united as the forces loyal to Assad-if they were to strike some agreement with the SDF, however, their voice may stand a greater chance of being heard as well.