Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, reacted “positively” to the idea of working with some rebel groups in the region against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), particularly the Kurds.
Putin said he specifically asked Assad during his trip to Moscow Wednesday whether he would cooperate with “an armed opposition force that was genuinely ready” to fight the Islamic State terror group, which has usurped large swaths of the country for its “Caliphate” terror project.
“We are contemplating this and will try to implement it,” he said of cooperation with other militias on the ground, calling for the Kurdish forces, in particular, to work with Assad. Putin added that Russia was also close to preparing on-the-ground data to share with Western powers, to further expand Russia’s role in the war on ISIS in the Middle East.
Putin has made previous positive statements regarding both the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces. Before the United Nations General Assembly in September, Putin urged the audience to “finally acknowledge that Assad and the Kurds are valiantly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.”
“It is going to be a big mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian armed forces,” he warned then, the day before Russia began conducting airstrikes against Syrian rebels. While Russian officials claim their airstrikes are targeting the Islamic State, the most recent studies show that up to 80 percent of their efforts are targeting anti-Assad groups like the Free Syrian Army, not ISIS.
More recently, Sergey Ivanov, the head of the Kremlin administration, was quoted in Russian media urging a union of Syrian forces and the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (the YPG and YPJ). The war against ISIS, he said, “should be done by the Syrian army, Kurdish militias, and everything depends on the degree of interaction. Because no success is possible without an operation on the ground, no matter how many airstrikes are made.”
Putin’s most recent remarks follow Assad’s first trip outside of Syria since 2011, when that nation’s civil war began. Assad traveled to Moscow Wednesday to personally express “huge gratitude” to Russia for its continued airstrikes on anti-Assad targets, asserting, “If it was not for your actions and your decisions the terrorism which is spreading in the region would have swallowed up a much greater area and spread over an even greater territory.”
In an apparent swipe at the U.S. coalition fighting in Syria, which includes neighboring Turkey, Putin claimed the Syrian government was “almost single-handedly” fighting ISIS in the country.
The White House condemned Putin’s “red carpet welcome” of Assad in Moscow, with a spokesman reiterating that Assad “has used chemical weapons against his own people.” The Obama administration had staunchly denied that a solution to the Syrian civil war is possible without Assad’s removal from power.
Both Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish powers appear open to cooperation with Russia and Assad. In an interview in September, Syrian PYD leader Salih Muslim said in an interview that the overthrow of Assad would result in “disaster for everyone,” that, while he supported the removal of Assad from power, “we would not feel safe in our home so long as there is one Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] left alive,” and giving ISIS a power vacuum to fill would be “dangerous.”
On Friday, reports surfaced indicating that the Syrian Kurdish government is looking to establish a diplomatic mission in Moscow, along with the Turkish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a Kurd-friendly opposition party. “We hail Russian airstrikes on terrorists and need to unite sound forces inside Syria as well as international forces to confront the main threat,” said Syrian Kurdish leader Aysa Abdullah.
While the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq has made it clear it neither trusts Syrian Kurdish groups nor the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist terrorist organization with ties to the PYD, its leaders appear ready to work with Russia. “It’s important that there is an agreement. Not to have two fronts: one with Assad and one against Assad. We want to have one,” KRG Foreign Affairs Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir told US News & World Report in September. Unlike the Syrian Kurds, who oppose the majority government of Turkey, Bakir said he “welcomed” Turkish airstrikes in Syria, even if they target the PKK as well as ISIS. “We have to see Turkish full participation in this anti-ISIL coalition, especially allowing for the air bases to be used,” he said. “This means that there would be more cooperation between Turkey and the coalition in terms of controlling the borders and controlling the access of the foreign fighters.”
The KRG has previously demanded the PKK remove itself entirely from Iraq.