Russia has promised to protect Kurdish fighters in Syria in case of a ground offensive by Turkey, a move that would lead to a “big war,” the Syrian group’s envoy to Moscow said in an interview on Wednesday.
“We take this threat very seriously because the ruling party in Turkey is a party of war,” Rodi Osman, head of the Syrian Kurds’ newly-opened representative office said in Kurdish via a Russian interpreter. “Russia will respond if there is an invasion. This isn’t only about the Kurds, they will defend the territorial sovereignty of Syria.”
Conflicting interests in Syria have created a dangerous new phase in the country’s five-year war, even as world powers struggle to implement a truce agreement. Turkey fears Kurdish gains along its border will morph into an autonomous state and inspire similar ambitions among its own Kurdish minority. But a ground intervention risks conflict with Russia, which backs the Kurds militarily, and would anger the U.S., which sees the group as a major ally in the fight against Islamic State.
Turkey has been shelling Syrian Kurdish forces since the weekend, and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed them for a bombing in Ankara that killed 28 people on Wednesday.
“We are continuing to liberate our territory and it would go faster if it wasn’t for Turkey,” Osman said. Russian warplanes are providing support for the Kurdish offensive, which is aimed at securing full control of the Turkish border, while Russia has also promised to support the Syrian Kurds’ goal of federal status, he said.
Russia has said it is helping the Syrian Kurds militarily and Nikolai Kovalyov, a former head of the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet KGB, said that Russian jets would bomb Turkish troops if they enter Syria.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said any foreign incursion into Syria would be “illegal” and the Russian response would depend on the situation. Russian airstrikes in northern Syria are succeeding in driving out Turkish-backed rebels, she told a weekly briefing in Moscow on Thursday.
The Syrian Kurds are trying to create a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria by uniting two territories separated by about 100 kilometers of land controlled by Islamist rebels, according to Anton Lavrov, an independent Russian military analyst.
“That is the Syrian Kurds’ dream and the Turks’ worst nightmare,” Lavrov said by phone.
In Ankara, Davutoglu said the attack on a military bus was carried out by the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, in coordination with separatist rebels of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Sky News Arabia cited the head of the PYD, Salih Muslim, as saying the group was not involved in the bombing. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast.
Recent attacks in Turkey, including the twin bombs that killed 102 people in the capital in October, have been blamed on Islamic State, while the targeting of army personnel is a strategy adopted in the past by the PKK.
Turkish leaders regard the PYD as the Syrian wing of the PKK, which Turkey and its U.S. and European Union allies consider a terrorist organization. But the U.S. disagrees with Turkey about the Syrian Kurds, viewing them as a reliable ally against Islamic State.
Davutoglu said on Thursday that Turkey “can’t excuse any NATO ally, including the U.S.” of having “links with a terrorist organization that strikes us in the heart of Turkey.”
Turkish attacks on the Syrian Kurds are also further ratcheting up tensions with Russia, which forged a military alliance with the group after Turkey downed a Russian warplane in November on the border with Syria.
Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria since September has reversed the tide of the five-year war, allowing President Bashar al-Assad to fight back both against rebels supported by the U.S. and regional powers including Turkey, as well as against Islamic State.
In addition to providing air support, Russia is supplying ammunition to the Syrian Kurds, according to Syria’s former Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, a Kurd who is now an opposition leader based in Moscow and is in close contact with the Russian government and the PYD. Syrian government forces are working in tandem with the Syrian Kurds to flush out Islamic State and rebels from the country’s north, he said in an interview.