Michael Rubin: Why Have the Kurds Got Into Bed With Putin?

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Russian Navy amphibious landing vessel Caesar Kunikov, left, leaves the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol, on June 19, 2012. The vessel, together with the Russian amphibious ship "Nikolai Filchenkov," sailed to the Syrian port of Tartus, joining the Russian-flagged bulk cargo vessel professor Katsman docked in Tartus. Michael Rubin writes that before the Syrian civil war began, Russia maintained its only military base outside the confines of the former Soviet Union at Tartus naval base. After a deal with the Syrian Kurds, the Afrin base is poised to become Russia’s third military installation inside Syria. Stringer/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Moscow has reportedly struck a deal with the Syrian Kurds to establish a Russian base in Afrin, one of the cantons which Syrian Kurds now govern. If that deal comes to fruition, Russia benefits tremendously.

Before the Syrian civil war began, Russia maintained its only military base outside the confines of the former Soviet Union at Tartus naval base.

When Russia—with Secretary of State John Kerry’s acquiescence—entered the Syrian civil war more formally, it took over the Hmeimim Air Base near Latakia and, despite press reports (and Obama administration surrogate Philip Gordon’s statements to the contrary), it never left.

The Afrin base, therefore, is poised to become Russia’s third military installation inside Syria.

But aren’t the Kurds supposed to be pro-American? Generally, they are, even if the sentiment in practice is less genuine among the Iraqi Kurdish leadership than among the Kurdish people.

In Syria, after years of State Department foot-dragging, the Syrian Kurds entered into a military partnership with the U.S. military which has borne fruit. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), already the most lethal fighting force against Syrian Islamist radicals, has augmented effectiveness with the assistance of U.S. Special Forces.

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The reason for the Kurds’ tilt toward Russia is solely the result of bungled U.S. diplomacy. Salih Muslim, the political leader of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), has repeatedly sought to acquire a U.S. visa in order to travel to Washington both for official consultations and to speak to the broader U.S. audience about the war in Syria.

Repeatedly, the State Department has refused to grant the visa without explanation. Secretary of State John Kerry did not hesitate to bring Muslim Brotherhood activists to Washington, but he could not be bothered to bring the political representative of the chief group fighting ISIS.

The last time I spoke with Salih Muslim this past November, the policy was still in place. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has apparently continued that policy, however.

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Russia’s relations throughout the Middle East are strictly transactional. They are willing to peel allies away from the United States, but the Russian brand will never be as strong as what America has to offer, if only the United States would offer it.

Alas, the United States has become the stuck-up girl before the prom who rejects all offers only to find herself without a date on the big night. If Democrats and Republicans are serious about restoring America’s influence and checking the expansion of Russia in the Middle East, it’s time to value our friends and stop pushing them toward Moscow as a friend of last resort.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.