By ERWIN FREED and MICHAEL SCHREIBER
On Oct. 9, Trump declared a withdrawal of U.S. forces from a strip of the formerly Kurdish-held area of northeastern Syria that U.S. and Turkish troops had been jointly patrolling since August. That same day, after receiving an approving phone call from Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan ordered air attacks on towns in the border region. That was quickly followed by a coalition of armed groups directed by the Turkish state crossing into Syrian territory and undertaking military action against the Kurds. Since then, as Kurdish militias have fallen back, over 100,000 people have been displaced, and one more portion of Syria is openly being occupied by its northern neighbor.
The Kurdish political organization, the Movement of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its military arm, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), allied with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, have entered into an alliance with Bashar Assad’s government in Syria and its Russian imperialist supporters. The situation that has developed over the last few weeks is an example of the shifting contours of world imperialism.
Virtually every bourgeois news source is pointing out, with some accuracy, that the U.S. has largely lost control of the situation and the power of the day has shifted starkly to Putin’s Russia. As of Oct. 23, both Turkish and Russian troops have been monitoring the border area within Syria.
Background in the Syrian conflict
Until very recently, U.S. diplomats were assuring their Kurdish partners that they would keep Turkish forces at bay. From very early on in the Syrian conflict, the Kurdish groups that formed the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were allied with U.S. imperialists.
While the Kurdish PYD, greatly influenced by socialist and anarchist ideas, undertook significant social reforms in the autonomous region known as Rojava, it was lax in offering support to the early nationwide rebellion against Assad’s authoritarian regime. The main goal of the Kurdish militias was to protect their own communities from the sectarian forces that rose with the collapse of stability in Syria and Iraq. Accordingly, the Kurds and Assad forged an agreement not to enter into conflict with each other. Within Rojava, some municipal officials even continued in their jobs while still on the Damascus payroll.
The U.S. gave the Kurdish forces the major role in the land war against ISIS, which allowed the U.S. to avoid having to drastically expand the numbers of its own forces stationed in Syria—a move that would have been unpopular at home. However, bombing runs by U.S. aircraft, most notably in the attack on Raqqa, was responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians.
The reasons that the United States allied with the Kurds are multi-sided, but the most important dimensions were to strengthen their puppet regime in Iraq by crushing ISIS, using the Syrian Kurds as a tactical pawn in their diplomatic relations with Turkey, control Syrian oil fields, and to have a foothold in Syria in order to shape the eventual resolution of the conflict.
The only aspect of these three axes of reasoning that seems to have been a relative success was defeating ISIS militarily. However, the real challenge to U.S. proxy rule in Iraq was never that of a small military clique but the ability of Iraqi workers and farmers to mobilize in the streets and workplaces. Inspiring examples of a continuous uprising against Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s government have more potential to defeat U.S. imperialism in Iraq than ISIS or any other military group possibly could.
Turkey stands by its word
Turkish President Erdogan has consistently laid out a vision of what is now being realized in action as “Operation Peace Spring” for around a year. That plan is to disarm and pacify the Kurdish militias and create a “buffer zone” around the Turkey/Syria border, thus dividing the Kurdish nation and separating the PYD from the allied PKK in Turkey itself. The new Turkish protectorate would necessarily employ a policy of ethnic cleansing, replacing the majority Kurdish population with as many as 2 million repatriated Syrian refugees out of the millions who have fled to Turkey.
Erdogan’s move against the Kurds comes during a general economic crisis in his country, with high unemployment as one of its features. The president is attempting to syphon off rising discontent at the economic situation and his growingly authoritarian policies by directing it towards refugees and ethnic minorities, even blaming the refugees for the unemployment. In the eyes of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), Kurdish liberation groups are terrorists that need to be smashed.
Turkish-aligned Islamist militias, mostly within the so-called Syrian National Army, have begun carrying out the initial stages of Operation Peace Spring through clearing out border towns like Ras al-Ayn, along the way to reaching the “buffer zone’s” proposed final destination of the M4 highway around 20 miles into Syria from the Turkish border. The SNA reached the highway on Oct. 14. The fact that Erdogan had to lean on Syrian militias suggests that Turkish soldiers might not be completely reliable to undertake the ugly task of ethnic cleansing.
Russia at the table
Negotiations over who will administer Rojava show just how much the balance of power between different imperialisms is shifting in the Middle East. While the United States initially gave the green-light to a limited incursion by Turkey into the area, Congress immediately sanctioned the country for taking a heavy hand against the people of the region and especially the Kurds. The two countries came to a negotiated cease-fire on Oct. 18, to which neither Turkey nor the Kurdish militants adhered. Instead, the real diplomatic meeting to decide Turkey’s future role in Syria was between Erdogan and Putin on Oct. 22
At that meeting, Russia agreed to allow Turkish-backed troops and military to remain in the territory they already occupied, as well as creating joint military patrols with Turkish and Russian forces to police about 20 miles of the Turkish/Syrian border. CNN reports also that “over the next 150 hours, [Russian and Syrian troops] are to remove the YPG and their weapons, back to 30 km (about 18 miles) from the border.”
While Putin and Turkey say they will leave the “territorial integrity” of Syria intact, the fact of Turkish troops in Syria with Russia’s blessing and Erdogan’s posturing about Turkish “conquest” in the country draw a big question mark on what exactly that would mean. Assad, for his part, has said that Syria will continue to fight against the occupation, but the amount of say he has in that discussion seems to be lessening by the day.
Syrian Kurds have maintained a complicated political relationship with the Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafiz. In the 1980s and ’90s, the more militant Kurdish political parties were allowed a partial refuge to plan operations in Turkey within the Syrian border. As a compromise for allowing people like Abdullah Öcalan to function, political meetings, technically illegal but tolerated nonetheless, were watched by secret police, and those leaders that went too far in advocating for independence regularly arrested and tortured.
In 1998 the political tides turned, with Syria and Turkey coming closer together. The two countries came to what is called the Adana pact, which led to a shift in Syria’s relationship with their native Kurds. Bashar al-Assad tightened the screws of repression on the main Kurdish parties and increased tortures and political assassinations against their most militant members.
The inability of these older parties to lead a real fightback in Syria led to the creation in 2004 of the Kurdish Youth Movement in Syria (Tevgera Ciwanên Kurd, TCK), which called for Kurdish statehood and “ was the first Kurdish grouping in the history of Syria that did not only explicitly call for an armed struggle on Syrian territory, but that also actually executed it” (Rojava: Revolution, War, and the Future of Syria’s Kurds by Thomas Schmidinger, page 76). Both the PKK and Assad worked to undermine independent youth mobilizations, and the group’s members were routinely arrested and tortured.
The component of the Syrian conflict beginning with the Arab Spring in 2011 saw mass demonstrations in Kurdish regions of the country against the regime in Damascus. At the same time, Assad was looking for political allies and came to an agreement first to give “stateless” Kurds citizenship and then to remove most Syrian Arab Army troops from the region now known as Rojava.
Leaving Kurdish forces as the main fighters in Rojava meant opening the possibility for the Kurdish-U.S. alliance against ISIS and other regional militia groups. At the same time, the longstanding policy of the PKK/PYD and other main Kurdish parties to look primarily for alliances with regional capitalist governments rather than striving to become an integral part of the mass movement for democracy and economic rights made the turn towards U.S. imperialism even more unavoidable.
There is little doubt that the Kurdish groups’ current alliance with Putin and Assad is also leading to a betrayal of their right to self-determination. Everything from a constitutional commission without serious Kurdish representation to Russian-Turkish negotiations to disarm the YPG has come to pass in the span of around two weeks.
While the Kurds have every right to call on imperialist aid in the struggle to defend their independent existence, such alliances always will have a price that must be paid in the end. The real allies of oppressed nations that are fighting for self-determination are the workers and poor farmers of the region who are struggling for their own democratic rights and economic wellbeing. An important task is to build a coalition of those forces throughout Syria and the greater Middle East—including in Turkey—which could effectively fight against imperialist intervention as well against as the corrupt and oppressive policies of the region’s capitalist class and their ruling pro-capitalist parties.
At the same time, the situation requires the construction of a mass-based party with a revolutionary program, which could lead and coordinate the struggle and carry it forward toward socialist revolution.
U.S. betrayals in Kurdistan
Washington never intended to carry out a real defense of Kurdish self-determination. Instead, the U.S. opportunistically used an opening in the Syrian conflict to be able to turn the Kurds into a bargaining chip further down the line—which now has been placed on the table as the Trump administration tilts toward an accord with Russia and Turkey.
An indication of just how little either the U.S. or the Russians care about what the Kurds actually want is the 2017 secret agreement between the U.S. and Russia that designated the SDF above the Euphrates as a U.S. ally and the SDF below the Euphrates as within the sphere of Russia. Neither country did anything substantial to stop the 2018 Turkish offensive against Afrîn, which resulted in the forced displacement of some 150,000 people, most of them Kurds.
Trump has now cynically ordered the remaining U.S. troops in Syria (according to U.S. officials, 1000 or more soldiers) to continue to patrol in the vicinity of Syria’s eastern oil fields—vividly demonstrating the most important objectives of U.S. imperialism in the region. It is necessary to demand that all U.S. troops get out of Syria now!