YPJ and YPG members during a military parade in Rojava
Unpacking the Paradox of Tactical Military Cooperation Between the Kurdish Freedom Movement and the United States
"The YPJ", types Becky the Western, "anti-imperialist" feminist "should have chosen a dignified beheading, gang rape and massacres of all women, the Kurds and the peoples of north Syria rather than choose to accept weapons from the filthy imperialists to defend themselves against ISIS!!!". Her finger smashes the exclamation mark button to add emphasis to her point as she takes a delicate sip from her soy milk Strawberries and Crème Frappuccino before commencing retyping on her ipad 7. "I would have definitely supported them then! but certainly not now!" She glares at the Mexican waitress who places her order of Camembert and Mascarpone Blueberry Cheesecake for interrupting her ground breaking political analysis of Syria. Outside the rain pours buckets as she sits cozy and comfortable in a corner in her local Starbucks cafe. She briefly ignores her iphone, which suddenly beeps reminding her to reschedule her hot yoga class so as to not clash with her pet poodle's appointment at the dog salon. She concludes her status, accompanied with a self satisfied smirk, with the line "Even sexual slavery in the streets of Raqqa and Aleppo would have been better than weapons from imperialists! That is the kind of feminism that I support from Brown, Muslim, Black and Indigenous women of the world!" - Kurdish activist Hawzhin Azeez.
It seems like the paradox of all paradoxes. The United States and its western allies are engaged in a ruthless and relentless war against the Syrian government in Damascus, one that has seen the so-called defenders of democracy and freedom support some of the most vile and reactionary terror organisations the world has seen in recent history. President Donald Trump recently intervened militarily for the first time against the government forces with a barrage of cruise missiles that had the effect of aiding groups that ideologically operate in the same vein as al-Qaeda in the country’s northwest. No, it isn’t this that’s the ultimate paradox. After all, U.S. support for groups linked to or in the mould of Salafi and Wahhabi extremism is nothing new at all, lest one forget their support for the so-called Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. What is far more paradoxical is that the U.S. has been providing military support in northern Syria for a group that not only isn’t reactionary, not only claims to be socialist and feminist, but actually has ideological ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the same organisation that has been at war with NATO’s second largest army in Turkey for more than three decades.
The fact that the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed components the People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) are leading a genuine social revolution amidst the chaos in Syria is without question. The month I spent traveling across the areas that are under their control was more than enough time to convince me that this revolutionary experiment that is taking place is truly unique, beyond imaginative, and has a sweeping democratic and socialist character. I was continuously impressed with what I witnessed there, from the commune structures and the cooperatives, to the women’s organisations and the thriving arts and culture academies. I was struck by the way in which the movement was honest and straight forward about the many contradictions that are emerging in the course of the process of radically transforming society. I can also truly say that for the first time in my life, despite all my travels to countries that have been engaged in some level of socialist construction (Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea), I truly felt like I was seeing the kind of vitality and deeply democratic, grassroots society I had always imagined could – and should – come to life.
The greatest contradiction was never far from my mind, though. It often felt perturbing. I couldn’t understand what to make of what the YPG/J calls its ‘tactical military cooperation’ with the U.S. After all, to one who has come of age politically in the school of revolutionary Marxism and anti-imperialism, I was taught to not touch anything that comes even slightly close to the hand of the Pentagon or CIA -- and for good reason. After all, the United States is not exactly in the habit of supporting genuine revolutions anywhere on the face of the planet. Concluding that indeed the so-called Rojava project is a genuine social revolution inside of what I have long viewed as a U.S.-backed regime change operation against a government in Damascus that has refused to play by the rules of global neo-liberalism, I felt the desperate need to have my questions answered on some level: Is it that the YPG and YPJ are merely using the U.S.? On the flipside, is the U.S. merely using the YPG and YPJ? Are these Kurds objectively doing little more than aiding U.S. imperialism when looking at the bigger picture? Is U.S. imperialism, due to the complexities of the war, actually knowingly aiding a socialist revolutionary process? Or is the truth somewhere in between? Are elements contained in every possible answer, or is the answer not even one that can necessarily be made clear yet? Better yet, are my questions even fair, or do they contain in them evidence of western prejudice and privilege?
During and after Kobane
It was in the final stages of the push of the YPG and YPJ in Kobane in early 2015 that the U.S.-led coalition finally – under tremendous international pressure – agreed to support the Kurdish forces with airstrikes to push back the so-called Islamic State. To this day, the U.S. is never shy about asserting how important it views its role as having been in the liberation of Kobane, though my encounters with YPG/J fighters in that city recently taught me they don’t exactly view it the same way. Their overall sentiment expressed to me about the U.S. role was one of anger for not having intervened sooner and turning a blind eye to the suffering of the people at the hands of Daesh. This was enough to convince them that their intervention was only made for their own geostrategic objectives, and not out of genuine support for the YPG/J.
The words of Kurdish activist and academic Dilar Dirik are important to digest. She recently wrote an article in ROAR Magazine entitled ‘Radical Democracy: The Frontline Against Fascism’ that took up the question of the inability of substantial parts of the western left to lend support to the YPG/J, especially in the aftermath of U.S. air support during the siege of Kobane: ‘’The public image of the armed forces of Rojava shifted abruptly in the eyes of sections of the left after the liberation of Kobane. While this was undeniably a historic battle, won by an organized community and the power of free women, the widespread sympathy crumbled the very moment that forces on the ground received aerial support from the US-led coalition. Having long been among the most aggrieved victims of imperialism in the Middle East, the Kurds and their neighbors did not require any further enlightenment about the evils of empire. The genocides and massacres committed against them through collaborations of imperialist forces are still in living memory. Dogmatic, binary worldviews and narrow-minded criticisms do not propose any viable alternatives for people fighting for their lives on the ground. More importantly, they do not save lives.’’
Military support -- but not political
It’s now been well over two years since the fascists were driven from Kobane, and the U.S. continues to support the Kurdish forces and their extended military umbrella known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with the Trump administration giving the green light in early May for these forces to receive heavy weapons. The SDF largely consists of Arab militias who are also fighting for the establishment of democratic structures, inspired by the successes of the poly-ethnic and commune-based administrations set up in northern Syria to date. The U.S. has not only started the process of providing heavy weaponry to the SDF, but there are nearly 1,000 U.S. special forces operating on the ground alongside them in addition to a deployment of Marines. Are these groups within the SDF merely the new counterrevolutionary proxy organisations that the U.S. has hedged its bets on in light of the collapse of the reactionary Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups that Turkey seems hell bent of resuscitating?
It may not provide a full answer to the question, but it’s important to note that while the U.S. militarily supports the SDF’s push on Daesh’s capital Raqqa under the banner of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates, Washington has done everything possible to keep the PYD – the political arm of the the YPG/J – away from the negotiating table at Geneva peace talks. Also, the federal system that has been set up by the PYD and Rojava’s Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) has received no sort of support or hint of consideration from the United States, which has continuously stressed that ‘ad-hoc federalism’ is not something that in encouraged by Washington.
Running often contrary to the stance of the United States on Rojava has been the position of Russia. While Moscow is usually thought of as the military muscle coming to the aid of the Ba’athist government, it is also the Russians who have most recently proposed a new constitution for Syria based at least in part on the federalization advocated by the PYD and reflective of the country’s multi-ethnic character (hence suggesting changing the name of the country from the Syrian Arab Republic to simply Syrian Republic). Russia has also advocated that the PYD be included in the third round of Geneva talks, a proposal that was shot down by the U.S. In addition, the first office of the PYD abroad was opened in Moscow in February 2016, and it has been the Russian state that has facilitated talks between the Syrian government and PYD on what a settlement might look like that would allow for peace between the forces of both sides. Most recently, Russia has joined in the quest to work militarily with the YPG/J, establishing a base to train forces of the Kurdish units and the SDF in Afrin in late March, as well as creating a buffer zone there to prevent Turkish forces from launching attacks on them. Therefore, it appears that perhaps Moscow has hedged its bets on the continued success of not only the military forces of Rojava, but of the success of its political project and its endurance.
The practical and basic necessity of survival is more than enough to explain why the YPG/J would accept military cooperation with the U.S. – what I have heard some western keyboard warriors and armchair activists dismiss in an over simplistic manner as ‘dancing with the devil.’ After all, why would revolutionary socialists otherwise team up with the U.S., unless of course they aren’t really revolutionaries at all? My observations led me to believe that these forces are, in fact, genuine revolutionists. Throughout my trip, I was fascinated to see if I could detect varying opinions within the ranks of the YPG or the political organisations about how to assess this cooperation with the U.S. through its Operation Inherent Resolve, the official name for its anti-Daesh operations. What do these radicals make of the motives of Washington, whether under the administration of Barack Obama or that of Donald Trump, to work side by side with them?
As I alluded to in a previous article on the various trends within Kurdish politics, a YPG commander Cihan Kendal said early this year that ‘America would like to have us as a main ally, but they know that is not possible; militarily we are cooperating at times, but ideologically we are enemies.’ It’s a sentiment that Cihan repeated to me when I met him in northern Syria. As he told me, ‘We are engaged in a democratic revolution, but this revolution is also being led by a socialist party, so of course it is a socialist revolution, too. So naturally, this is something the U.S. would never support.’
Another YPG commander who I meet in Kobane doesn’t hold back, telling me, ‘’There are those who say because we are tactically cooperating with the U.S. that this isn’t a real revolution. But tell me, how are we supposed to defeat ISIS and defend our revolution without heavy weapons? We know that they will give us weapons to take Raqqa, but at the same time they don’t even want us to govern Raqqa our own way. We know that once their strategic objectives are achieved, they will abandon us.’’
On another occasion just days later, I am fortunate enough to meet with yet another impressive ideologue who reveals to me that he and his comrades have a very extensive knowledge of the history of revolutionary movements. On the wall behind him is a portrait of Abdullah Ocalan. Below it hangs one of Vladimir Lenin speaking to the masses in Petrograd in 1917. He points to the portrait of Lenin and says, ‘’here’s a man who one hundred years ago accepted a bulletproof train from the imperialist German state to head home to Russia and wage the Bolshevik revolution. Do we view him today as an agent of German imperialism?’’ Of course, whether or not the comparison is completely apt is a question in and of itself, but the point from the commander isn’t lost. He has told me as clearly as he possibly can: we aren’t some pawns or puppets of the United States. We are revolutionaries first and foremost.
Ultra-leftist opportunists? Or real revolutionaries?
Although the question of how the military cooperation between the world’s most bloodthirsty superpower and the world’s most radical revolutionaries will end up is far from settled at this point, it would be absurd to think that the revolutionaries in the Kurdish freedom movement who have four decades of experience with combating these same imperialists have suddenly forgotten about their sins. Some on the western left may just dismiss the YPG/J are ultra-leftists who are opportunistically joining forces with the empire. After having spent some time in Rojava, I think that assessment doesn’t in the least bit correspond to reality.
It’s necessary to reflect deeper on the words of Dilar Dirk: ‘For the people whose families were being massacred by ISIS, the ease with which Western leftists seemed to advocate for the rejection of military aid in favor of romantic notions of revolutionary purity, were incomprehensible to say the least. Advocacy of unconditional anti-imperialism, detached from real human existence and concrete realities, is a luxury that those far removed from the trauma of war can afford. Well-aware of the dangers of being instrumentalized only to be abandoned by great powers like the US and Russia, but stuck between a rock and a hard place, the priority of the SDF was — and remains — to first of all survive and eliminate the most immediate threats to the existence of hundreds of thousands of people across the vast stretches of territory it controls.’’
Dirik’s writing struck a chord with me upon my return to Europe from Syria. It’s incredibly easy – shamefully so in some ways – to sit in the comfort of our western homes and criticise the ‘sell out’ nature of a movement for ‘collaborating’ with imperialism when the lives of so many are literally on the line. However, once one actually takes the time to investigate the reality on the ground and what the forces of the YPG/J are up against, including being blockaded by Turkey, Daesh and the Kurdish narrow nationalists of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq, a different picture should emerge. Arm chair revolutionism and solidarity contingent only on notions of ‘purity’ is meaningless in the real world. Looking at the region – and the world – as nothing more than a chessboard can easily lead to adopting the politics of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, which is deeply flawed, lazy and can lead to support for extremely reactionary movements while foregoing support for those that actually advance the same kind of politics we would like to see in our own countries.
The words of the second of the YPG commanders I encountered and addressed my concerns about the U.S. to resonated the most with me when traveling home. As he put it, ‘‘It’s of course useful to us that Trump would send us a couple of Humvees. This definitely helps in our fight against Daesh. But let’s remember that one F-16 sold by Trump to Turkey could take out all these vehicles in a second. We know which side the U.S. will ultimately pick if it has to, and it won’t be ours.’’
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