Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria was met with mixed reactions on the American Left. CODE Pink issued a statement applauding the decision. Most antiwar activists agreed. Rojava solidarity activists — supporters of the Kurdish experiment in democratic autonomy in northeastern Syria — have responded very differently, seeing Trump’s decision as a gift to the Turkish state and an abandonment of the Kurds. The Emergency Committee for Rojava took issue with CODE Pink. Sharp exchanges ensued.
There are contending positions within DSA itself. In the process of assembling a statement on the troop withdrawal, we discovered that there are divisions even among members of DSA’s International Committee, which debated the issue at length. While there is considerable common ground among us, there are also real differences. It became clear that a unified statement on the issue was not workable. Instead, we decided to present two distinct perspectives from IC members here in DSA Weekly.
It’s important to air these differences among democratic socialists in a spirit of comradely debate, especially on a complex and tricky issue like this, one which presents real dilemmas: opposing US militarism and supporting the Kurdish struggle are both important causes that democratic socialists should all embrace. What do we do when two important causes come into conflict with one another? We hope DSA members find these dueling perspectives from IC members helpful in making sense of this difficult issue.
Danny Postel, for the DSA International Committee
For Socialist Solidarity with the Kurdish Resistance
Donald Trump now claims he will withdraw U.S. military forces from Syria, including pulling out the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops stationed there and ending military support for the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD), 20,000 members of which have been killed fighting Islamic State. As Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post reports, U.S. units that once conducted joint patrols with units of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are now “working with Turkish proxies.” This decision has elicited divided responses on the broad left, which reflect differences in political orientation but also the complexity and ambiguity of U.S. foreign policy in Syria since the 2011 uprising. Even among socialists there are divergent perspectives. There are no easy answers to the dilemma this situation presents. Yet there are core matters of principle involved that demand internationalism and solidarity from democratic socialists.
The Kurds of the semi-autonomous provinces of northeastern Syria – the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, also known as Rojava – see the U.S. withdrawal as a green light to Turkey to invade and crush their experiment in Zapatista-style self-government (or “democratic confederalism”) and will leave the Kurds vulnerable to renewed attacks from Islamic State, which they have thus far been successful in resisting. Rojava solidarity activists in the U.S. who have been inspired by this experiment in radical democracy and autonomy for one of the world’s largest stateless groups are mobilizing: the Emergency Committee for Rojava has issued an urgent appeal to defend the Syrian Kurds that criticizes Trump’s decision. The immediate threat to the Kurds from Turkey, Islamic State, and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is one piece of the larger effort underway in Syria to eliminate all progressive and oppositional forces to the mass-murdering Assad regime.
On the other hand, many anti-war organizations and activists have welcomed the move as a step in the direction of demilitarization. The U.S. intervention against Islamic State, which started under Obama and intensified after Trump’s election, has had devastating consequences. As estimated by Airwars, the U.S. coalition against Islamic State has conducted over 15,000 airstrikes in East Syria, killed at least 6,575 civilians and displaced tens of thousands more, and left many of the “liberated” cites as bombed-out, hollow shells of their former selves, with few habitable areas. Furthermore, the U.S. intervention has freed Assad’s hand to reconquer the rest of Syria via his intensive backing from Iran and Russia.
While the alliance of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) with the U.S. was pursued as a policy of realpolitik, it was never clear that the Kurds would gain much from it beyond short-term survival. The YPG’s alliance with the U.S. was never a perfect match of ideologies or goals. Though Washington sought the help of the YPG in the fight against Islamic State in northeastern Syria, the U.S. never had any long-term interest in investing the resources necessary for realizing the YPG’s long-term goal of a Kurdish autonomous region or nation-state. A Kurdish region, were it to be established, would be a landlocked area surrounded on all sides by Turkey, Iraq, and Syria – all countries which have dedicated enormous amounts of military and political resources to suppressing their own Kurdish minorities for decades. Its survival, barring a major short term geo-political change in the region, would be difficult to achieve without long-term external military backing. For this reason, it is unsurprising that the U.S. support for the SDF was given on the condition of fighting Islamic State but not the Assad regime. Now, to quote peace activist Stanley Heller, Trump is “giving Turkey and Russia a free hand to conquer and slaughter,” as Turkish President Erdoğan plans to annihilate the Kurds in what is left of Rojava and is reinforcing his military’s positions on both sides of Turkey’s border with Syria. (It’s no coincidence that Trump would like to sell 140 Patriot surface-to-air missile variants and equipment worth $3.5 billion to Turkey.)
Beyond this, there have been persistent tensions between Rojava’s ideals as an experiment in radical democracy and a rejection of the ethnic chauvinism of the Syrian regime and the PYD/YPG’s actions after taking power. During their military alliances with both the U.S. and Russia, the PYD/YPG invaded and occupied Arab towns in northern Aleppo province, with the apparent aim of changing demographics and linking up the cantons into a territorially contiguous area around which to draw a border. Now they have invited the Syrian regime’s soldiers into the city of Manbij, near the Turkish border, despite the fact that Assad is as opposed to Kurdish rights as Erdoğan is. The Assad regime has historically denied citizenship rights for hundreds of thousands of Kurds, and has engaged in violent crackdowns on Kurdish cultural celebrations and political organizing for Kurdish minority rights. The Kurds are now likely to end up under the control of Damascus once again.
In short, since 2014, the U.S. military intervention in Eastern Syria always contained immense contradictions which have simmered for the last four years and have now come to a boil. U.S. intervention has yielded the predictable results of destruction and disappointments for those who it used as allies of convenience. Far more surprisingly, it allowed for the flourishing of a unique political experiment which now risks being crushed. The U.S. left, viewing this conflict, seems to face two irreducible options – calling for some sort of extension of the U.S. military intervention to support Rojava, or a withdrawal of all U.S. military presence as soon as possible.
Yet there are still options outside of this impasse, some ways for mitigating some of the worst possible outcomes of this situation. Diplomatic pressure, including the withholding of military and financial support, should be placed upon Turkey unless it agrees to an international ceasefire, with the possibility of long-term negotiations in place to preserve gains for autonomy won by Syrian Kurds, and material support for Rojava should continue to be sent by grassroots solidarity groups.
We should also note that Rojava’s quandary exists at the same time as a rapprochement is underway between key Arab states and the Assad regime. This exemplifies a geopolitical space where multiple anti-revolutionary powers are at work, with their own overlapping yet contradictory interests and aims. As Australian Marxist Michael Karadjis explains: “what we’re dealing with here are not even clashes of ‘rival empires.’ As always, imperial rivalries do explain some of what is going on… But even this is essentially a sideshow compared to the principal dynamic, the alliance of counterrevolutionary powers, for counterrevolution, the burial of the Syrian revolution symbolising the burial of the Arab Spring.”
DSA must stand with groups such as the Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists in expressing solidarity with Kurdish resistance to the Turkish military invasion and share its “opposition to Assad’s despotic regime, religious fundamentalist forces and the interventions of all foreign states in Syria, which are all acting against the initial objectives of the Syrian uprising which was for democracy, social justice and equality, and against sectarianism and racism.” For multi-ethnic working-class solidarity across borders! Down with all tyrants – including Donald Trump!
For an End to U.S. Intervention in Syria
We call on the US government to immediately withdraw all US military personnel and bases from Syria and to end US intervention in Syria’s civil war, which has become in large part a struggle among world and regional powers for domination. We also call on the other foreign forces, i.e. those of Russia, Iran and Turkey, to withdraw from Syria; however, we recognize that as citizens of the US, our primary obligation is to end the illegal and unjust military actions of our own government.
The Syrian conflict has its origins in the rise of a democratic movement inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings. The brutal repression of that movement by the Assad regime, with the assistance of its Russian and Iranian allies, has turned Syria into a killing field in which over 500,000 Syrians have died, while several million Syrians have been forced to emigrate.
While the main responsibility for the Syrian conflict lies with the Assad regime, the entrance into the conflict by foreign powers has converted the civil war into a counter-revolutionary free-for-all in which the Syrian people of all religions and ethnicities are being sacrificed. The Syrian conflict and the weakness of the neighboring Iraqi regime resulting from the failed US invasion and occupation also opened space for the growth of the reactionary forces of ISIS, aided covertly by the Turkish Erdogan regime and armed with US weapons seized from the Iraqi armed forces. The rapid growth of ISIS in northern Syria and Iraq was then used by the US to justify intervention in both countries, sending troops to support the Iraqi government in the assault on Mosul, and arming and advising Kurdish YPG fighters and the other elements of the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) in northern Syria.
The Turkish incursion into northwestern Syria in 2017, and their ambition to expand into northeastern Syria and replace the US as the dominant power in all of northern Syria, is aimed at repressing the YPG, which Turkey considers a threat and a “terrorist organization”. President Erdogan of Turkey has made clear this intention in a January 7, 2019 op-ed in the New York Times. For our part, we see the YPG as part of a legitimate national liberation struggle by the oppressed Kurdish minority in Syria. We support this struggle, as we support the struggle of the Kurdish national minorities in Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
The decision to withdraw US forces from Syria in thirty days, announced by Trump after a phone call with Erdogan, was roundly criticized by the bipartisan foreign policy and military establishment. Only a very few progressive voices were heard in support of the withdrawal, and even they were critical of the way it was announced and concerned about the impact on the Syrian Kurds and other democratic forces. After only one week, the decision was apparently reversed, first extended to four months and days later to an indefinite future, “months, if not years” away. But then on January 10 it was announced that the withdrawal had already begun.
Regardless of how this murky situation is resolved, what is clear is that the United States has once again become bogged down in an undeclared and illegal war. The terms for complete withdrawal have apparently expanded from defeating ISIS to “defending Israel and our friends in the region” (which means ensuring that Iranian forces and proxies are driven out of Syria) and “guaranteeing the safety of the allies that have fought at our side” (i.e. the Kurds). The probability of the US achieving these three goals in the foreseeable future is zero. It is also unlikely that the Kurdish YPG will agree to be disarmed by the US forces as part of the withdrawal.
We recognize the danger a US withdrawal will pose for the Kurds and the YPG, with Turkey poised to invade and Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies eager to retake control of the region. However, the US presence will not protect the Kurds in the long run, and given Trump’s chaotic decisions, they may find themselves abandoned at any moment. According to recent reports, the YPG is taking steps to reach an accommodation with the Assad regime, in which the regime forces take control of the border crossings and the urban center of Manbij, preventing a Turkish invasion and leaving the YPG in de facto control of most of the northeast. We should not underestimate the ability of the YPG to utilize the divisions among their many enemies to carve out space for themselves, nor ignore their ability to resist the Turkish military.
For our part, we demand the immediate withdrawal of US forces from Syria, and an end to the de facto strategy of “endless war” of the foreign policy and military establishment.
Photo: YPG fighters in 2016. Via BijiKurdistan , at Wikimedia Commons.