Battling IS, Kurdish Fighters Court Russia And US to Forge New Future

Kurdish commanders in northern Syria said this week Russia is building a military base there, and will help train its fighters. Moscow disputed the claims, but analysts say it is a sign of the Kurds’ growing role in the region.

Across the border, Iraq faces a potential watershed moment as the battle for Mosul nears its end, with speculation growing that Kurds in the autonomous north could make a renewed push for independence.

Despite the claims by Kurdish YPG fighters, Moscow denied it has plans to open any new bases. But Russia remains the game-changer, analyst Zeynep Kaya, of LSE Middle East Center, said.

“They can talk to the Kurds, they can talk to Assad, they can broker deals,” Kaya said.

US support

The United States is also backing Kurdish YPG forces battling Islamic State further east.

The Kurds’ ability to secure support from Washington and Moscow leaves Turkey looking increasingly isolated. Ankara views the YPG as a terror group allied to the PKK, which has been fighting a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

The head of the U.S. Central Command was questioned about that at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington.

U.S. Senator John McCain said, “I think there’s a possibility of an impending conflict between Turkey and the Kurds as opposed to us all working together to try to defeat ISIS and remove them from Raqqa. Do you see that as a scenario that we should be concerned about?”

General Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, answered, “I do. I do, Mr. Chairman, and to that end we are trying to take actions to prevent that from occurring.”

Kurdish fighters are also playing a central role alongside Iraqi government forces and Shi’ite militias in the battle to retake Mosul from Islamic State.

Kaya, of the LSE Middle East Center, said, “Multiple parties are going to be there and will take part in the liberation of the area, so they will want to claim some stake in shaping the future of the region. And then we will see the political battle.”

Potential conflicts

The Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq has already warned of potential future conflicts.

Lahur Talabany, a Kurdistan counterterror official, said, “We could clash with the (Shi’ite) militias in the future if there is no dialogue with Baghdad. Shi’ite militias, so, we need to be really careful.”

Speculation is mounting that the Kurds in Iraq will make a renewed push for independence.

“It is not entirely clear whether they are really pushing for real independence or if this is just to mobilize Kurdish nationalist sentiments around a really malfunctioning administration,” Kamran Matin of the University of Sussex said.

Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump hosted the Iraqi Prime Minister in Washington.

Analysts say the United States is likely to view any Kurdish push for independence from Iraq as adding to the chaos, in a region torn apart by conflict.

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