ISTANBUL - Russia is to host a pan-Kurdish conference Wednesday, and among those invited to attend are members of the Syrian Kurdish group the PYD.
Syria's neighbor, Turkey, calls the PYD terrorists, alleging they are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which is fighting the Turkish state. Turkey accuses the PYD of being an extension of the PKK, and claims the PYD is seeking to carve out an independent state along its border.
Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov invited the PYD to Moscow for a briefing on January's meeting in Kazakhstan about ending the civil war in Syria. Ankara blocked the PYD's participation in that meeting and in United Nations-backed Syria peace talks in Geneva.
“If Russia is seen by Ankara as having decided to fully invest with the PYD, that certainly has the potential to very much undermine the overall outlook toward Moscow,” said visiting scholar Sinan Ulgen of Carnegie Europe in Brussels.
Turkey keeps quiet
Turkey has so far voiced little public criticism of Russia. Some experts suggest the reason could be that Lavrov's invitation to the PYD may have been in exchange for Moscow acquiescing to Ankara's demand for the PYD to be excluded from the Kazakhstan talks.
Last week, a PYD affiliate opened a bureau in the Russian capital, in a move that analysts say is likely to add to Ankara's angst. Moscow also is pushing for a decentralized state in a future Syrian settlement, a stance strongly opposed by Ankara, which fears an autonomous Kurdish state on its border would lead to similar demands from its restive Kurds.
There have been recent rapprochement efforts between Moscow and Ankara after a Turkish jet downed a Russian fighter operating from Syria in November 2015.
Experts, however, are increasingly questioning the dynamics of those efforts. “My view of the rapprochement is, basically, Turkey approaching and the Russians accepting this, so long as it serves its interests," said international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University. “It is not a relationship of equals.”
Waiting game for Russia
Turkish leaders are normally vocal on any move by another country deemed supportive of the PYD.
Russia and Turkey are cooperating on a cease-fire in Syria, efforts perceived in Ankara as enhancing its regional standing. Analysts say Moscow values Ankara's influence over Syrian rebels being a main supply route as well as supporter. Experts say Turkey also sees its deepening relations with Russia as providing leverage over Turkey's Western allies.
Moscow chose to continue its rapprochement despite the December assassination of its ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, in Ankara.
Regional experts say Moscow could be biding its time.
“Russia has long memories. It will never forget the downing of its fighter plane or even the shooting of its ambassador at the very center of its capital,” said political consultant Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. He says Moscow has few illusions about its dealings with Ankara, adding, “What Russia realizes is Turkey is the antidote to its ambitions in the Middle East.”
Moscow sent its own investigators to liaise with their Turkish counterparts in the probe over Karlov's assassination. Skepticism continues to surround Ankara's explanation that the killer was connected to followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for a failed coup last July.
Turkish political instability will likely add to questions in Moscow over Ankara. “They [Moscow] are aware of the difficulties faced by Turkey,” notes Haldun Solmazturk, head of the Ankara-based research group 21st Century Turkey Institute. “They are aware of the priority given by the Turkish government to domestic political needs. Moscow doesn't trust Turkey.”
Turkish-Russian relations were dealt another setback Thursday when a Russian airstrike killed three Turkish soldiers in what Ankara accepted as a friendly fire incident in fighting Islamic State for control of the Syrian town of al-Bab. IS extremists seized control of al-Bab in 2014 as part of a large offensive in northern Syria and neighboring Iraq aimed at establishing an Islamic caliphate.
Turkey's pro-government media showed rare restraint, offering little criticism of the incident.
Turkey-Russia are not equals
Ankara for now appears ready to continue its courtship of Moscow.
Analysts warn that the Russian stance toward the Syrian Kurds underscores the fact that the Turkey-Russia relationship is increasingly not one of equals and that Turkey may be making a series of missteps.
“Certainly these guys may think they are geniuses by playing Russia against the United States and vice versa, but the results show they are singularly incapable of doing that,” said analyst Ozel. " My question is, is it because they are incompetent or is it because they are over-invested in the idea of Turkey's indispensability and they think the margin of maneuver for Turkey is almost limitless. I doubt that it was and I still do.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to visit Russia next month.