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The Zero-Sum Game: China and the Kurdish Question; By Prashant Rastogi

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

Image Courtesy: Belt & Road News

Article No. 043/2019


In light of on-going developments and the involvement of many other actors such as Russia and China in the region, the Kurdish question is mired in geo-strategy, accentuating with the pull out of the United States from Northern Syria. As the Kurd question is directly linked to the trajectory of two nations- Syria and Turkey, any policy pursued by Beijing and Moscow would have to balance between the interests of them both. China will have to decide whether to choose the path of alignment to its core interest in gaining influence in the region or alienation by supporting the Kurds, depending on the withdrawal of the United States, and the evolving situation of the Kurds.


Due to their demands of separate statehood, the nations in which the Kurds are disseminated perceive them as a secessionist group and a direct threat to national sovereignty. The Kurds have been supported by the United States in the past but the Trump administration has shifted the US allegiance to getting rid of far-fetched conflicts, thereby increasingly bringing the mandate for Kurdish justice in troubled waters. Being left vulnerable, the Kurds are being attacked by Turkey in the name of constructing zones for the safe return of the Syrian Refugees who left the country during the fierce Syrian Civil War.

The humanitarian emergency of the Kurds has been in a constant flux of victimhood, deliberately being used as an instrument by other nations to pursue their broader interests. Since nation-states deal with other nations and not groups devoid of identity, the victimhood reduces itself to one having a key characteristic of sovereignty. If not, the problems and difficulties of such groups relegate to the background of increasing power tussle between states for influence over each other. This makes the groups other than the state, stocks of expediency.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority recognising themselves as part of the Muslim World. Since the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Kurdish question has been bereft of being addressed by the world community. Being dispersed into four different countries such as Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, they have been mostly regarded as a pariah and have not been rehabilitated. This has led to deep anguish within and the demand for an identity that could only be fulfilled by a separate homeland.

Although being largely marginalised by countries in which they hold refuge, the Kurds are known to have unity and solidarity in their movement. Various organizations are fighting for the broader questions, deeply embedded in the fight for self-determination and creating a nation of their own- Kurdistan.

  1. PKK- The Kurdistan Worker’s Party formed in Turkey in 1978 and initiated uprisings in 1984 and was designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, Australia, and the United States.

  2. YPG- People’s Protection Unit formed in Syria in 2004 and became a significant force after the Syrian Revolution took place in 2011.

  3. HDP- The People’s Democratic Party formed in 2012 to gain political recognition by contesting elections in Turkey. In 2015, they gained a significant share of seats within the Grand National Assembly of Turkey which posed threat to the supremacy of President Erdogan as the party is relevant for its democratic socialist views and support to the LGBT community.

  4. Peshmerga- The oldest group formed in Iraq in the 1920s near Mosul and assisted the US in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Due to the demand of a separate homeland, they are considered to be a threat to the sovereignty of the countries especially Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Gradually, becoming a part of the political process in Ankara, President Erdogan started political and territorial warfare against the Kurds which led to brutal human rights violations and the Kurds were blamed for their involvement in the 2016 coup against the Turkish Presidency.

With the outbreak of Arab Spring in 2011, and the Syrian Civil War thereafter, killing more than 300000 people, the existing contempt ascended against the Assad government because of high unemployment rates, corruption and lack of political freedom, infuriating insurrections which paved way for the Islamic State to emerge. In the aftermath of the surge of ISIS in parts of Syria and Iraq, the suppression of the Kurds became less significant. Like the Kurds, ISIS does not recognise the legitimacy of the Sykes-Picot agreement and has disputed the border between Iraq and Syria as a colonial construct created by France and Britain to reap self-political benefits. The fault-line emerges with the penetration of ISIS militants in the areas under the Kurds and their threat to the sovereignty of adjoining countries. This had established space for reconciliation between Kurds and Turkey-Syrian governments together with the US-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State.

Being able to give a befitting response to the attacks by the Islamic State, the Kurds succeeded to destroy the remnants of the Islamic Caliphate and fought against ISIS with the utmost capacity. Once the Islamic State intimidation receded to the background, the United States assisted the Kurds until 2019, when the Trump administration announced the withdrawal of the limited 1000 troops from the region. This could be seen as tacit approval to President Erdogan’s ambitions of establishing a safe zone in north-eastern Syria. The ‘safe-zone’ is supposed to accommodate the 3.5 million Syrian Refugees spread around the region.

The Geopolitics of Reasoning

Due to the lack of clarity and the dependence on Russia for its policy concerning Turkey and Syria, Beijing has refrained from playing a direct role and is observing the recent developments. China is following a cautious approach and has not criticised Turkey’s invasion of Northern Syria. But the caution is more because of the persisting dilemma within Chinese foreign policy. One of the reasons for the lack of criticism could be the recent developments in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Beijing does not want to be seen supporting the Kurds as it could alienate President Erdogan, who has vociferously criticised India’s abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. Since Ankara has condemned the Indian actions in the Kashmir Valley, aligning closely to the interest of Pakistan, it could act as another corresponding interest brewing between China and Turkey. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s backing of Turkey’s actions against the Kurds highlights the emerging geopolitics of the region. Clearly, President Xi perceives an ally to keep in Turkey. Nevertheless, China is concerned about instability in the Middle East and is willing to arbitrate if asked to do so by Moscow or Turkey.

Beijing’s policy in the Middle East is guided by geostrategic interests as well as being perceived as a responsible power, ready to mediate in the crisis China has gained a considerable amount of strategic depth in its relations with Turkey at the expense of the United States. While Beijing and Ankara were at odds when President Erdogan imperceptibly criticised the plight of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, both nations did not let such rupture decide the trajectory of their bilateral relations. It is noted at this point, that the Chinese dimension cannot be examined without a parallel focus on the Russian factor. With support from Russia, China was able to pave the way for cordial relations with Syria, by vetoing sanctions in the United Nations Security Council against Syria amidst the Syrian Civil War.

Russia too has forwarded ties with Ankara, much to USA’s chagrin. Moscow’s support to the Assad Regime in Syria against the US-led coalition, the threat of the US sanctions on Iran and the policy of CAATSA, the American support to Saudi led coalition in Yemen, critique of Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missiles are factors interlinked which have created binaries in the region, indirectly affecting the US-Turkey relations. Due to the benefit of geography, Turkey has been successful in balancing its dependence on the US by aligning closely with other actors, including China, that are antithetical to American interests.

Turkey could benefit from the attention being drawn by China towards the region, however, at the cost of the Kurds. China’s determination to link the Middle Corridor proposed by Turkey, connecting Europe to Asia – notably the Caucasus, Central Asia, East Asia, and South Asia to its Belt and Road Initiative – could be the central reason behind its appeasement of Ankara. This Middle Corridor is to include the transportation of oil and gas which are seen by China as crucial resources. With Syria and Russia’s support, China might be able to bring Damascus into the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor. If the two proposed policy frameworks, BRI and the Middle Corridor, can fructify, Beijing and Moscow would perhaps then try to shape amicable relations between Syria and Turkey, thereby gaining more leverage over the United States and secure the energy trade. Together with the developments, China and Russia seek to gain influence and trifle the influence of Washington in the region.

Meanwhile, another  area which China is keeping close watch over, involves the two crucial oil and gas pipelines- one backed by the US while linking Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria to Turkey and the other backed by Russia traversing Iran, Iraq and Syria extending till Europe, have been mired in Russia-US rivalry. President Assad has lately tried to create ruptures in the US-backed pipeline, thereby affecting its interests and giving an upper hand to Moscow. These developments could clearly work in Beijing’s favour, as it would lessen US influence in the region, and further the interests of Russia, thus making it easier for China to manoeuvre its interests.

Interestingly, China’s bonhomie with Turkey can work to another advantage- that of Ankara safeguarding the potential Russia-backed pipeline that could be linked to BRI, from perceived Kurdish threats. A similar scenario is already observed in terms of the US-Turkey dimension.  Since the pipelines traverse through Northern Syria rich in natural gas, Ankara is sceptical of the alignment of Kurds with Syria. The withdrawal of the US troops could be analysed as an effort to safeguard the pipelines with support from Turkey. This would mitigate partially the damage in the US-Turkey bilateral relations while preventing the possibility of attacks by the Kurds on the pipelines. Clearly, the Trump administration and China have chosen relations with Turkey to be far more important than the Kurds, thus keeping geo-economic interests over humanitarian assistance.

Dwelling deeper, it is observed that the United States decision is partly due to the lost cause in the Syrian Civil War and the willingness to limit interference and far-fetched wars, especially in the Middle-East region. In the past, the subsequent American administrations have alienated Turkey by staunchly condemning its occupation of Cyprus and not extraditing Fethullah Gulen, who is designated as a terrorist by Ankara, and was involved in the coup de tat against Erdogan in 2016. In the present day context, these past factors could be catalysts for Turkey being drawn closer to China.

But Washington fails to understand the balanced posture of Turkey which reached the pinnacle during the Syrian Civil War. The failure of the Obama administration in not publicly condemning the Assad regime for its usage of chemical weapons reinforced the balanced posture of Turkey as the latter along with Russia rallied support to the perpetrator against the denunciation by the world community. Ankara was involved in the Astana Peace Process (2017) along with Russia and Iran. This had been welcomed by China. Although Turkey supported the US-led alliance in the fight against President Assad, Ankara initiated diplomatic efforts with Syria once the realisation of the former losing the war gained significance.

The United States policy mismanagement in the Middle East has delivered prospects to countries such as China and Russia. The dynamics of Russian presence in the region is crucial to understand China’s approach here. In the past, Russia has asked all foreign military forces who are “illegally present” in the Syrian territory to pull out. Since President Putin share cordial relations with the Assad Regime and has naval and military bases in Syria, the US withdrawal has paved the way for Russian influence in the region. Though not in support of the Turkish invasion, Moscow is keen to play the role of a mediator between Turkey and the Kurdish groups. This might prevent a larger bloodbath but whether Russia can avert the ruthless implications of the invasion is yet to be seen. It would be intriguing to see what stance China adopts on the Russian mediation if it materializes.

The Turkish invasion has already started this week and might create the worst of the humanitarian crises in the history of genocide. The cities of Al-Abiad and Ras-ul-ayn are the ones severely affected with holistic attacks using howitzers, jets and drones while simultaneously military force. President Erdogan recently claimed the town of Ras-ul-ayn is occupied by the Turkish Army which was later rebuffed by the SDF. However, the UN report placed the displacement figure at 100,000 since Wednesday, out of which 70% have escaped towards Hasakah and its eastern districts. Hasakah is already home to 140,000 Internally Displaced People and might not be able to accommodate the influx of refugees.

China may have deep concerns over the (in) stability in the region, as it could have a negative spillover in BRI countries, thus leading to ruptures in its ambitious project.


Meanwhile, the international community is worried that the ongoing developments might lead to the resurgence of the Islamic State, creating more instability and rampant amount of violence in the region. In Northern Syria, Kobane, Qamishli, and Derik are the cities where ISIS prisoners were kept and post-Turkish invasion, 750 people with suspected links to Islamic State have managed to escape. The recent attacks led by the ISIL and its affiliates in the region highlight the growing clout which has accentuated with the withdrawal of the US troops. Kurds have been left with no choice but to defend their community rather than sustain the interests against the captured Islamic State militias.

In a war of words with countries in Europe such as France and Germany and their suspension of weapon sales with Turkey, President Erdogan has threatened the former that he will open the gates for Syrian refugees to enter the European territory. The Arab League has asked for the United Nations Security Council to take action to coerce Turkey’s submission of military offensive and withdrawal from the Syrian Territory. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has offered Iran’s help in sustaining the security architecture by involving in reconciliatory efforts between the Syrian Government, Turkey and the Syrian Kurds.

Until today, the Turkish troops have seized 14 Syrian villages within the anticipated ‘safe zone’ of 32kms. This has led to neutralisation of YPG forces and the killing of hundreds of the fighters, though both the opposing groups dispute the figures. Nonetheless, US troop’s withdrawal from Northern Syria has generated the optimum level of power politics rather than humanitarian concerns. With no other alternative in the basket, the Kurds should realise that they were the convenient rather than the constant confederate.

Amidst the on-going turmoil in Northern Syria, China’s tacit support to Turkey highlights the centrality of power and influence rather than morality in international relations. Like the United States, Beijing has refrained from involving itself in the cause of the Kurds and seeks to gain by growing involvement in the region rather than staying on the fringes. Due to the Turkish invasion of Northern Syria, China has an opportunity to extract benefits from and expand its relations with Ankara.

(Prashant Rastogi is a Research Officer at Chennai Centre for China Studies. He has completed his Masters in Political Science from the University of Hyderabad, Telangana, and Bachelors in Political Science (Hons) from Delhi College of Arts and Commerce, University of Delhi. His areas of interest include Theories of International Relations, Indian Foreign Policy, Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations, Geopolitics, and Security Studies.)

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