Kurds caught in Russo-Turkish game… again

While the world media cheer the taking of Ramadi in Iraq—supposedly by government troops, but in fact spearheaded by sectarian Shi'ite militias—comparatively little note is made of advances against ISIS by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). An alliance of revolutionary Kurds and secular Arab militias, the SDF continues to take ground from ISIS in Syria's north. On Dec. 27, the SDF announced the taking of the strategic Tishreen Dam, which had been held by ISIS for over a year, and generates electricity for much of Syria's north. Its taking will ease electricity and water shortages in Kobani, the Kurdish town where the tide was first turned against ISIS in the region a year ago. SDF officer Rami Abdel Rahman told the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that the eastern Euphrates Valley is now cleared of ISIS and "the battles are now on the western bank of the river." (Rudaw, Dec. 27)

Evidence meanwhile continues to mount of Turkish connivance with ISIS. Attacks by the jihadists on activists in Syria's civil resistance have now spread to Turkish territory. On Dec. 27, a Syrian journalist and filmmaker who documented ISIS atrocities in his homeland was assassinated in Gaziantep, a Turkish town near the Syrian border. The killing of the journalist, Naji Jerf, came one day before he and his family were scheduled to fly to France, where they were seeking asylum. He had recently posted to YouTube a documentary he had produced on the killing of activists by ISIS in areas under its control in Aleppo. An ISIS supporter boatsed on social media of killing the "heretic" Jerf. This is not the first time presumed ISIS agents have carried out an assassination in Turkish territory. In October, Ibrahim Abdel Qader—like Jerf, a co-founder of the Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently wbesite, which has documented ISIS rights abuses—was killed in southeastern Turkey, along with fellow activist Fares Hammadi. (NYT, Dec. 29; The Independent, Dec. 27)

The situation in Turkey's east continues to escalate towards open war, with Kurdish rebels returning to insurgency following the breakdown of a long ceasefire earlier this year. On Dec. 28, at least three Turkish soldiers were killed and two others wounded in an attack by guerillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on an army convoy in the Kurdish town of Cizre in Turkey's southeastern province of ┼×─▒rnak. Last week, the Turkish army shelled residential neighborhoods, schools and infrastructure in Cizre, causing the displacement of thousands of civilians. (ARA News Dec. 28)

A hardline breakaway faction of the PKK claimed responsibility for a Dec. 23 explosion near a plane at Istanbul's second international airport, which killed a cleaning woman. "We…claim the attack carried out by mortar bombs at Istanbul's Sabiha Gokcen airport," the Freedom Falcons of Kurdistan (TAK) said in a communique. (AFP, Dec. 26)

The violence comes amid growing calls for resistance from leading Kurdish and left-wing dissidents in Turkey. Esteemed Turkish historian Ay┼če Hür, an expert on the genocide of the Armenians during World War I, warned that her country could be heading towards another such episode—this time targeting the Kurds. "The developments unrolling today [in Turkey] are similar to the 1915 Armenian Genocide," Hür said. "In 1915, the Armenians also were in a political awakening and were making political demands, which ended with the deportation and genocide." (News.am, Dec. 26)

Complicating all this is that Russia is making overtures to the Kurds as a part of its power game with Turkey in the Syrian proxy war. Selahattin Demirta┼č, head of Turkey's Kurdish-led People's Democratic Party (HDP), visited Moscow on Dec. 24 to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Demirta┼č reportedly expressed a desire to open an HDP party office in the Russian capital during his visit. (Today's Zaman, Dec. 23; Eurasianet, Dec. 21)

This development comes following accusations that Kurdish forces in the SDF are receiving aid from Russian air-drops (as they have been from the US for a year now). The problem with accepting Russian aid is that Moscow's forces are accused of war crimes in Syria.

Amnesty International last week charged Russia with possible war crimes in Syria, citing air-strikes destroying hospitals and resulting in massive civilian casualties. These charges were vigorously denied by Viktor Bondarev, commander of Russia's Aerospace Forces, who insisted his pilots "have never missed their targets." (Daily Star, Dec. 27) 

But Amnesty is hardly alone in making such charges. Last month, the New England Journal of Medicine ran a report on the findings of Physicians for Human Rights that the Bashar Assad regime (now being backed by Russian air power) has been systematically targeting civilians throughout the course of the war:

Media coverage of Syria has focused on the exodus of refugees fleeing the sectarian warfare and the atrocities committed by the Islamic State. Less attention is paid to the Syrian government's destruction of hundreds of hospitals and clinics in opposition-controlled areas and deaths of doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel. Since the conflict began in 2011, PHR has documented the killings of 679 medical personnel, 95% of them perpetrated by government forces. Some personnel were killed in bombings of their hospitals or clinics; some were shot dead; at least 157 were executed or tortured to death.

Moscow is a dubious ally for the Kurds. Surely the Kurds are in a desperate situation, and are seeking allies where they can find them—in Washington and Moscow alike. But if the Kurdish leadership take the Russian bait, it could reverse the progress that has been made towards building an alliance between Syria's Kurds and Arab anti-Assad rebels—and deal a blow to the struggle against ISIS.

Ironically, both Turkey and Russia are playing a divide-and-rule card to shatter the nascent Arab-Kurdish alliance. Can cross-ethnic solidarity prevail over Great Power intrigues?