In a recent interview, the leader of one of the main Kurdish factions in Syria indicated his tacit backing for the current rounds of Russian airstrikes, which are ostensibly aimed against the Islamic State, but appear to have also targeted other Syrian rebel factions.
"We will fight alongside whoever fights [the Islamic State]," said Salih Muslim, co-chair of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, a leading Syrian Kurdish political organization. "We will stand alongside whoever battles the [Islamic State] mentality."
Muslim was speaking to Istanbul-based journalist Amberin Zaman, who was reporting for Al-Monitor.
Over the past year and a half, Syrian Kurdish militias have been on the frontline in the battle against the Islamic State, most famously seen in their bitter clashes over the city of Kobane, along the Turkish border. Those efforts also came with the support of U.S. airstrikes.
The gains made by Syrian Kurds — who are stitching together a de facto state of their own in parts of northern Syria — have alarmed Turkey, which is wrestling with its own Kurdish insurgency and sees the PYD as an extension of the PKK, an outlawed Kurdish separatist group.
Earlier this summer, Syrian Kurds expressed opposition to Turkey's ramped-up involvement in the Syrian conflict, which they believed was aimed at turning back Kurdish advances. Judging from Muslim's interview with Al-Monitor, the Russian intervention has in some respects eased their concerns. "Turkey’s Syrian policy is totally bankrupt," Muslim said.
The Syrian Kurdish leader also didn't seem to mind suggestions that the Russian airstrikes were hitting other rebel factions who weren't the Islamic State. These include Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist militia linked to al-Qaeda.
I don’t believe that America will object because [Jabhat] al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham are no different than [the Islamic State]. They are all terrorist organizations and share the same radical mentality. [Jabhat] al-Nusra is on the US [State Department’s] list of terrorist organizations. ... But if they were to be pushed out, the remaining opposition groups — which are very weak, including those that are fighting alongside us, that are attached to the Free Syrian Army — will be strengthened.
Critics of the Russian action argue that it actually only strengthens Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a staunch Moscow ally. The Russians have made no secret of their intentions to buttress the Assad regime, which has lost control of vast tracts of the country and has at times appeared on the verge of collapse.
A joint statement from a handful of governments, including the United States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, was published on the Web site of the Turkish foreign ministry. It warned that the Russian escalation constituted "a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalization."
Muslim and the Kurds clearly do not have those concerns. But they are also adamant that the Assad regime must go.
"We have had relations with Russia for the past three years. We go back and forth to Russia, to Moscow," said Muslim. "But the regime cannot remain as is nor can we turn back the clock. The Kurds are a reality. And we are capable of defending ourselves against the regime and others."