Post ISIS, Will the U.S. Soon abandon Its Kurdish Allies?
On October 17, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced the liberation of Raqqa from the reactionary forces of the Islamic State after the so-called ‘Great Battle’ in which over 600 of their comrades lost their lives. The freeing of the city from the region’s most brutal fascistic group was a great moment of jubilation for the forces of the SDF, both in its Arab militias and the predominately Kurdish-forces of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).
In particular, the role of the YPJ militants served as a staunch reminder that this was a battle that was as much about liberating women from the bondage of slavery as it was to free the city as a whole from the brutality it had endured since 2014. The images of women clad in military fatigues chanting ‘Jin Jiyan Azadi’ (Woman, Life, Freedom) after taking the central square in Raqqa, along with their compatriots from the Sinjar Women’s Units who had joined the battle to avenge the 2014 massacre of their Yazidi sisters in Sinjar, was powerful beyond measure. After all, this is where the fascists of Islamic State (ISIS) had not long ago committed public executions and showcased the severed heads of their victims. It was impossible to imagine a more radically different juxtaposition of imagery.
Yet, it wasn’t just the socialist, feminist forces of the Kurdish-led movement who claimed Raqqa as their victory. The city had been reduced to rubble by the airstrikes of the U.S.-led coalition, who aided the SDF’s onslaught on the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital from the sky. For the United States, it was an opportunity to gloat about their role in fighting ‘terrorism’, much as they attempted to claim responsibility for saving Kobane in January 2015 when the coordination between the YPG/YPJ and U.S. first began. ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ was a major success in their book.
The Basis of the U.S.-SDF Alliance
For many socialists across the world, the alliance between the SDF and the United States has caused a great deal of confusion and alienation. I’ve previously written about the western left’s inability to understand the dynamics at play in the Syrian war in my article ‘YPG & YPJ: Revolutionists or Pawns of the Empire?’, a critique that was as much about my previous lack of understanding as it was about it as a general problem for self-professed revolutionaries and leftists across the world.
To be sure, the cooperation that has existed between forces who share the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan as their ideological leader and the world’s foremost imperialist power is a highly unusual and unique situation. The record of the U.S. abroad has generally been one of supporting and arming the most reactionary forces to engage in its conquest of geo-politically significant parts of the world. A cursory look at U.S.-backed coups, interventions, and wars around the world gives us a clear indication that the Pentagon is not in the business of generally siding with genuine liberation movements. Any number of examples show us the true nature of the U.S. war machine, from the ‘Forgotten War’ on the Korean Peninsula from 1950-53, the brutal attempt to suffocate the Vietnamese liberation struggle a decade later, the support for the fascist coup in Chile in 1973, arming of the Contra forces Nicaragua throughout the 1980s, and more recently the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know very well what the forces of the U.S. empire are.
That being said, perhaps nobody should be able to comprehend just what the intentions and motivations of the United States are better than the Kurdish Freedom Movement itself. After all, it was the United States under the aegis of President Bill Clinton and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that played a key role in facilitating the international plot against Ocalan in 1999 that led to his capture in Kenya and imprisonment in Turkey that continues to this day. Even while U.S. weapons have flowed to the forces of the YPG and YPJ and the U.S. has engaged in airstrikes in tandem with them, the U.S. is coordinating intelligence and airstrikes with Turkey against PKK cadres in Turkey and Iraq.
The hypocrisy is staggering. If the U.S. was really invested in its partnership with the Kurdish revolutionary movement, it would de-list the PKK as a terrorist organization, refuse to back Turkey’s genocidal ambitions in its Kurdish region, and demand the YPG and YPJ-led forces’ political wing, the Democratic Union Party, have a seat at the negotiating table at Geneva Talks that will determine the future of Syria. Yet, this is ultimately not in their interests. The promotion of a socialist-oriented political model in the west Asia ultimately runs contrary to the economic requirements of the monopolies, Wall Street, and the decision-makers in Washington. The PYD and Kurdish Freedom Movement grouped around the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK) realize this. It is why they have continuously referred to the alliance with the United States as ‘tactical’, and as a contradiction that will ultimately be irreconcilable.
In an interview with ANF English in early November, KCK Executive Committee member Riza Altun commented on the alliance with the United States, pointing out that “the relationship between the US-led coalition and YPG was seen as legitimate and necessary as the alliance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union against Hitler’s fascism at the time of the World War II. Both sides needed that kind of relationship like the U.S. and the Soviets needed back then. Thus a tactical relationship was developed with the U.S. against ISIS.” In other words, mutual and overlapping interests led both sides to cooperate with each other, even though their ideological perspectives are considerably different, much in the same way as the USSR and western powers united against the threat of Nazi Germany despite the capitalist and socialist systems being ultimately incompatible.
Altun also points out the KCK is aware that, true to the nature of the United States in all the aforementioned interventions across the globe, Washington also had a role in the spread of the Salafist groups such as al-Nusra and Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. After all, the regime-change fixation of the U.S. as it regards Syria has been well documented for decades. Even if the Syrian Ba’ath government has participated to a degree in the U.S.-backed ‘war on terror’ and has moved in the direction of neoliberal reforms in the era of Bashar al-Assad, the U.S. establishment has still viewed Syria as an example of independence and economic nationalism. This is as unacceptable to the Pentagon as the nationalist governments of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Libya under Muammar Gaddafi were. Altun is aware that the U.S. nurtured reactionary forces in this quest, stating that when the battle for Kobane started, support for Salafist groups was not only coming from Turkey, but also that “other powers, particularly the U.S. and Israel were also supporting these groups.’ He says that it was only due to the major international pressure that ultimately the U.S. decided to intervene and assist the YPG and YPJ in pushing back Islamic State from reaching the Turkish border in Kobane.
To those who had watched as the Obama administration had almost intervened in Syria in September 2013 to bomb Syrian government positions, only to be bombarded by protests both in the streets and in Congress from those wanting to know if this amounted to support for al-Nusra and Islamic State, the intervention of the U.S. in Syria in a ‘war on terror’ capacity in late 2014 reeked of hypocrisy.
Unfortunately, much of the left that had supported the Kurdish resistance in Kobane now couldn’t bring itself to continue its solidarity with the YPG and YPJ. The resistance was no longer ‘pure’but was tainted an association with the forces of empire. To the droves of keyboard warriors in the comfort of their western coffee shops, the ‘Red Kurds’ now changed into proxies for the balkanization of Syria and the region. There was no distinction to be made between the YPG and the reactionary Barzani clan in northern Iraq – they were both parts of an imperialist onslaught backed by Zionism, even if the YPG had no intention on fighting the Syrian state forces despite occasional skirmishes with the Syrian Arab Army.
U.S. Fury over Raqqa Victory’s Dedication to Ocalan
As the jubilation over the Raqqa victory continued in the days after the declaration of its liberation, the YPG and YPJ announced that this historic accomplishment would be dedicated to their leader Abdullah Ocalan. The media arms of both organizations produced videos in which militants spoke at great length and with passion about how important ‘Serok Apo’(Leader Ocalan) was to the inspiration to achieve victory not on in Raqqa, but in battles over the previous years across northern Syria. The sight of a huge banner in the city’s central square was seen by some Arab nationalists as evidence of ‘Kurdish colonialism’, despite the fact that Ocalan’s writings and the Rojava project have moved away from nationalist discourse in favour of advocating a multi-ethnic society in which cooperation between Kurds, Arab, Assyrians, Turkmen and other nations is paramount.
The campaign to hold up Ocalan as a symbol of the movement and Raqqa victory for the world to see was strategically significant. It was as much about letting the United States know that the convictions of the movement will never be compromised. Days later, U.S. Department of Defense spokesperson Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway told The Global Post “We condemn the display of PKK leader and founder Abdullah Ocalan during the liberation of Raqqa. The United States continues to support our NATO Ally Turkey in its multi-decade struggle against the PKK and recognizes the loss of life Turkey has suffered in that conflict.”
This again reveals the deep level of tensions involved in the tentative alliance and the fact that despite Turkey’s objections to the U.S. arming of the SDF, the Americans were never interested in making a clean break with the second largest army in NATO. While the U.S. and Turkey remain fundamentally on the same team, the differences between the Pentagon and the Kurdish Freedom Movement are far too significant to make for long-term cooperation.
KCK member Altun expounded on these tensions in his ANF English interview, saying “The freedom struggle of the Kurds in Rojava is based on freedom and equality on a socialist basis. It is the expression of a political path which was developed basing on the brotherhood and unity of peoples. On the other side, the imperialists are fighting to impose their hegemony over the Middle East… This is not a relationship in which the parties support each other but are in constant conflict.’’ These hardly sound the words of the leader of a proxy force blindly following the orders of its puppet master and willing to fulfil the needs of its historical mission while rejecting its own.
Altun also referenced once more the example of the western-Soviet cooperation during the Second World War, saying “The alliance that was developed during the World War II was an anti-fascist stance which emerged from the intersection of homeland defence of the Soviet Union under intense attacks and the interests of other anti-fascist powers. This agreement remained in force as long as the fascist attacks continued. But once the fascism was defeated, all parties returned to their own political positions and moved on in accordance with their respective ideological-political path.”
However long the cooperation between the Kurdish Freedom Movement and the United States does still exist, there’s no question that the YPG and YPJ will never relinquish their ideological convictions. It would be the makings of a spectacular fantasy and a monumental delusion for Washington to think that the basic views of a 40-year liberation movement written in the blood of tens of thousands of martyrs can be undone due to the requests of American imperial arrogance. Speaking to the Aspen Institute in July, Raymond “Tony” Thomas, Commander, US Special Operations Command condescendingly told the Kurds fighting in Syria, “you cannot hold onto Ocalan.” Perhaps WikiLeaks’ own Julian Assange said it best when he responded by saying, “Who is #Ocalan that the US military says the Kurds cannot hold onto? He's their Mandela. US has more chance of giving up George Washington.”
Is The Writing on the Wall?
The Kurds have a saying that their only friends are the mountains. They have been used and marginalized by occupying and colonizing powers for decades, indeed for centuries. The division of their historic homeland into four nation-states almost one hundred years ago is only the most recent version of a history of subjugation. It would be wrong to assume that the movement has not understood that at some point after the defeat of Islamic State, this situation of being ‘friendless’ could again be a very real prospect.
The writing for a shift in U.S. policy towards the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – or at least the YPG and YPJ – could already be on the wall. On November 13, almost a month after the liberation of Raqqa had been declared and long after the Americans had already reacted angrily to its dedication to Ocalan, the BBC published an alleged expose called ‘Raqqa’s Dirty Secret’. The story itself was far from dirty, far from a secret. It fundamental premise was that there was an agreement between the SDF and Islamic State to see the evacuation of hundreds of these fascistic militants from the city. This had already been published by dozens of English-language news outlets in the days after it was announced publicly by the SDF. Could the re-packaging of an old story as a ground-breaking ‘investigation’ to make the SDF look ‘dirty’ have cynical motivations?
YPJ internationalist Kimmie Taylor, who has taken part in multiple campaigns with her Kurdish comrades including the Great Battle for Raqqa, said of the report that it lacked credibility, as it consisted of “interviews with drivers and smugglers only concerned with money. In other news, thousands and thousands of YPG and SDF fighters have been alone over the course of six years, dying in order to save humanity from ISIS. Funny how now, after we have effectively defeated ISIS, do the media and west begin to turn against us. Think about that for a minute.”
No matter what happens next, the Kurdish movement will continue to fight for the same principles of socialism, gender equality, multi-ethnic unity, and an ecological society. It held these positions long before the U.S. decided to offer its half-hearted support, and it will continue to hold them long after this military aid has ended. The global left owes it to its own movements to understand the nature of this relationship, and to realize that modern revolutionaries such as Mehmet Aksoy whose blood is now nourishing the soil in Raqqa died for a brighter future for all of the humanity, not for the interests of imperialism.