The long history of Russian ties with the Kurdish community in Syria, Iraq and Turkey might give Moscow leverage in its currently troubled relationship with Ankara. Will the Kremlin use it?

A photo of gunsmith Bahktiyar Sadr-Aldeen (center), an Iraqi Kurd, hung on a wall at his repair shop, in Irbil, northern Iraq. Photo: AP

The downing of a Russian Sukhoi-24 plane by Turkey led to considerable tension in Russian-Turkish relations. Russian President Vladimir Putin called Ankara’s actions a “stab in the back” by the “accomplices of terrorists.” Russian protestors pelted the Turkish embassy in Moscow with eggs, tomatoes and stones. Moscow has since restricted tourism and visa-free travel to Turkey and has imposed economic sanctions on Ankara. The Russians also produced proof of Turkish involvement in the illicit oil trade with ISIS.  

For his part, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shot back, accusing Moscow of slander and demanding an apology. In light of these recent developments, there has been speculation that Moscow might increase its support for the Kurds in Syria and Iraq and might even lend support to the Kurds in Turkey. To what extent is such a scenario possible and what might the implications be?

A brief history of the Russians and the Kurds

Any understanding of the Kurds is incomplete without an understanding of their diversity. Although united by common aspirations for basic civil rights and self-determination, the Kurds do not form a single monolithic bloc. 28 million strong, they straddle the mountainous frontier territories of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. They comprise various tribes and speak an array of different dialects and languages, including Kurmanji, Sorani, Pehlewani, Zazaki, and Gorani, although Kurmanji is the most widely spoken. There are also Muslim Kurds (both Sunni and Shia) as well as Yazidi Kurds.

The Russians and the Kurds have a long relationship that dates back centuries. In the 19th century, Kurdish tribes in the Ottoman Empire were used by the government against Russian troops in Russian-Turkish conflicts. They were also used by the Ottomans to persecute Christian minorities, especially the Armenians and Assyrians. Today, the Kurds, especially the Kurds in Turkey, have come to terms with this tragic past, and have been at the forefront of reconciliation efforts with Armenians and Assyrians.

“Those shaped by the Kurdish movement in Turkey have acknowledged the role of their ancestors in the genocide of Armenians and Assyrians,” said Ara Sarafian, the director of the London-based Gomidas Institute, which promotes Armenian-Kurdish dialogue. “They have apologized for it with no qualifications and have done much to rehabilitate the name of Armenians and Assyrians, and to some extent what remains of their communities. In Diyarbakir, they have supported the renovation of the Sourp Giragos church and have compensated the church for the loss of its former properties with land outside of the city.”

The Russian Empire had better relations with the Kurds within its own borders. These Kurds were primarily concentrated in Russian Transcaucasia and were both of the Muslim and Yazidi faith. A distinct religious community, the Yazidis were (and unfortunately still are) often wrongly accused of being “devil-worshippers,” a label found to be totally erroneous by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

After the Sovietization of Transcaucasia, the Kurds of the region were accorded significant cultural and political rights as part of the Soviet korenizatsiya (indigenization) policy for nationalities. During the era of the Leninist New Economic Policy (NEP), Kurdish language, literature, and publishing were promoted, especially in Soviet Armenia and Georgia. This provided a marked contrast to the treatment of Kurds in neighboring countries, especially Turkey. The famed Soviet Armenian filmmaker, Amo Bek-Nazaryan, even directed a film about the Yazidi Kurds, Zare (1927), now regarded as a classic of early Caucasus cinema.

An autonomous Kurdistan District (“Red Kurdistan”) was also created in Soviet Azerbaijan, in an area sandwiched between Soviet Armenia and the now-disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Unfortunately, with the rise of Stalin, this autonomous Red Kurdistan was abolished. Kurdish newspapers were also abolished and many Soviet Kurds were deported from Transcaucasia to Soviet Central Asia in 1937 and 1944.

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Stalin cynically manipulated the Kurdish issue for his own geopolitical purposes. During World War II, the Soviets and the British invaded Iran and deposed Reza Shah in order to secure Allied supply lines. The two Great Powers were concerned about the Shah’s pro-Axis sympathies. For the duration of the war, the Soviets occupied the northern portion of the country and the British occupied the southern portion. After the war, the Soviets remained in occupation of Northern Iran. A pro-Soviet Kurdish Republic was established at Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan. Qazi Mohammad served as its President. Its commander was Mullah Mustafa Barzani, father of the President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani, who had fled Iraq.

However, the experience of the nascent Mahabad Republic would prove short-lived. After securing important oil concessions, the Soviets withdrew support. Tehran swiftly moved to regain control of the region and executed the republic’s leaders. For their part, Barzani and his associates fled north, across the Araks River, into the Soviet Union where they were granted asylum and hosted until their departure in 1958. After the death of Stalin, Barzani met with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev who was reportedly impressed with the Kurdish leader. In turn, the Barzanis were grateful for Soviet assistance.

During the era of the Khrushchev Thaw, Soviet Kurds saw a significant, albeit limited, cultural revival. The Soviet Kurdish newspaper Riya Taze [New Path] reappeared and Kurdish cultural institutions were revived in Yerevan as well as in Tbilisi, Moscow, and Leningrad. Most importantly, Soviet Kurdish-language radio broadcasts began in Yerevan. These broadcasts could be picked up in Kurdish communities in neighboring countries such as Turkey where the Kurdish language was heavily repressed. Many Turkish Kurds believed that broadcasting in Kurdish was impossible until they heard the Soviet broadcasts. As such, these radio transmissions had a major impact on the ethnic self-awareness of the Kurds in the broader region.

The Soviet Kurdish broadcasts also had an impact on Kurdish ideological self-awareness. Messages of “Leninist internationalism” and “equality of peoples” found great appeal among the Kurdish communities, particularly in Turkey. “Socialism, or anti-imperialism,” noted Sarafian, “was a ready ideology that addressed the class-based concerns of ordinary Kurds against conservative Kurdish aghas, or landowners, as well as against the Turkish state, a member of NATO, supported by Western powers.”

Russia and the Kurds today

Today, Russia cooperates with the Kurds in its operations against ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups in Syria. ISIS is the main enemy of the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. The Syrian Kurds have also both clashed and cooperated with the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels and maintain an ambiguous relationship with the Assad government.

The Syrian Kurds have praised Russia’s airstrikes in Syria. In turn, Russia, in particular President Putin, acknowledged the crucial role of the Kurds in the fight against ISIS. “The YPG [Syrian Kurdish forces] initially welcomed the Russian airstrikes,” said Alexander Titov, lecturer in Modern European History at the Queen’s University in Belfast. “They can hope for more support from the Russians if the current breakdown in Russia’s relations with Turkey continues.”

However, Titov noted, the Syrian Kurds’ ambiguous relationship with Assad and their close cooperation with Washington “puts limits on possible cooperation with Russia and the YPG.” At the same time, the Kurds could also potentially play a role in bringing Russia and the U.S. together in a common front against ISIS.

“The Kurds are acceptable allies against ISIS to both U.S. and Russia and this certainly gives them an advantage,” said Titov. “The Turkish attitude is the complicating factor here; but, as far as U.S. and Russia are concerned, boosting the capacity of the Kurds to fight ISIS is certainly one of the few things Russia and U.S. can agree upon in Syria.

In light of the tension in Russian-Turkish relations, there have also been calls from some politicians and commentators in Russia to support the Turkish Kurds. For instance, Sergey Markov, a political analyst close to the Kremlin, expressed such a position in an interview with the radio station Echo of Moscow. However, actual support from the Kremlin to the Turkish Kurds is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

“There have been calls in Russia to actively use the Kurdish question as a pressure point and even revenge against Turkey,” said Titov. “However, this would lead to a considerable escalation of the conflict with Turkey without any apparent gain. It will likely fan anti-Russian feelings instead of promoting a rapprochement, which Moscow and Ankara will ultimately want in the long term.”

Additionally, there is also concern that Russian support for the Turkish Kurds may lead to Turkish support for the Crimean Tatars and the various Muslim nationalities of Russia’s politically volatile North Caucasus. “We remember that the militants who operated in the North Caucasus in the 1990s and 2000s found refuge and received moral and material assistance in Turkey,” said Putin in his Address to the Federal Assembly. “We still find them there.”

“Given these factors,” said Titov. “I think it’s reasonable to assume that the Kremlin won’t play the Kurdish card unless there is a complete breakdown in relations with Turkey, from which we are very far and hopefully will never reach.”