The Kurds, Aleppo, Russia, and the USA

Submitted by Matthew on 9 March, 2016 - 11:02 Author: Simon Nelson

Michael Karadjis of the Australian Socialist Alliance has written a long and informative analysis of what he reckons to have been a U-turn by the Kurdish nationalist movement in Syria, the PYD, under the title "The Kurdish PYD’s alliance with Russia against Free Aleppo: Evidence and analysis of a disaster" .

He criticises PYD clashes with other rebel groups in Syria, and the PYD's project of a reunification of Rojava (the Kurdish-claimed area of northern Syria) against the wishes of Arabs and Turkmen and other minorities within its declared borders. Several reports indicate that the PYD, and its US-backed alliance with some small non-Kurdish groups, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have moved well beyond defensive measures against Daesh and have directly attacked other anti-Assad rebels. They have begun cooperation with Assad’s military and pro-Assad militias, and benefited from targeted Russian bombing campaigns.

“It is difficult to call this turn of events anything other than an outright betrayal of the revolution by the YPG leadership…Right now, the YPG is a direct participant in the catastrophe of the Arabic peoples of the Aleppo region and their revolution, in direct partnership with the Russian Blitzkrieg and therefore indirect (to be charitable) partnership with the fascist regime and its Iranian-led global sectarian invaders.”

“Tomorrow, this betrayal may also be catastrophic for the Kurdish civilians and their own revolution as well.”

Karadjis writes that a nationalist movement is always likely to make concessions based on its own perceived narrow national interests, but the move by the PYD not to challenge Assad, or indirectly even to collaborate with Assad, will eventually see the Kurds lose out as well. That is true. What skews Karadjis's argument, I think, is his exaggerated belief that "the Syrian revolution" was still alive and relatively healthy before "the Russian blitzkrieg"; an underestimate of the hostility of some of the Syrian rebel forces to Kurdish rights; and maybe a failure to see that the PYD has done before essentially the same sort of thing as it has done around Aleppo.

Other writers go so far as to say that the PYD is now a firm ally of Assad and a main beneficiary of Russian bombing. This argument clashes head-on with the idea, also widespread on the left, that the PYD, the PKK, ahd their other affiliates had abandoned Kurdish nationalism and guerrilla Stalinism and embraced "democratic confederalism", a theory of autonomous governance gleaned from the late anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin.

A social contract has been drawn up in Rojava, three cantons of Syria that the PYD has been attempting to unite. Formally the social contract guarantees trade union freedom, political rights, and equalities. The contract does not, however, defend the right to set up alternative parties to the PYD. Local councils exist, and there are ministers and elected officials in these areas; but the PYD continues to control all military resources in Rojava and to maintain political hegemony. PYD rule in the areas it controls may be popular, but there is no solid evidence that it is radically different from the regime militant Stalinist movements have sometimes run in areas where they have mass support.

Criticism of the PYD on grounds of narrow nationalism and excessive readiness to deals with Assad is not new. In the immediate aftermath of the democratic mass protests against Assad in 2011 which then mutated into the Syrian civil war, the YPG were bolstered by an influx of PKK fighters from Turkey. The PYD and PKK have both made statements suggesting that Assad could be a reformer with whom the PYD could do business in a newly-governed Syria, and made overtures to rebel groups and highlighted the historic Kurdish struggle against Assad. Assad had both given protection to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and, later, expelled him so that he ended up in a Turkish prison.

Turkey has continued to portray the PYD as no better than Daesh; benefited from supply chains established by the anti-Assad rebels it funds; and attacked Kurds in Syria as well as in Turkey. Turkey has been a longstanding ally of the increasingly fractured Free Syrian Army (FSA). At its inception the FSA largely took a largely Arab chauvinist line which excluded the PYD and some other Kurdish groups. On the one hand, there are reports of anti-Arab actions by the PYD, and statements from Salih Muslim and other PYD leaders which implied anti-Arab chauvinism; on the other, many of the Syrian Arab rebel groups have no interest in making any alliances with any Kurds. Islamists see the Kurdish forces as unacceptably secular.

The PYD cannot be condemned out of hand for clashing with rebel groups which are as hostile to legitimate Kurdish demands as Assad is, or more so. It is not a socialistic liberation force. It is a nationalist movement of an oppressed people, deserving solidarity so far as it fights for national rights, but always likely to make alliances and deals which internationalists will condemn.

Karadjis also writes: "The PYD appears to be relying on the idea that its current US and Russian sponsors will save it some autonomy due to their own interests, even if it means Assad, or an ‘Assad regime without Assad’ won’t be able to fully carry out the threat to 'unify' the country.”

Karadjis believes this would lead to a “US-Russia-backed police force guarding a brutal occupation of land seen as occupied by the Sunni Arab majority there”.

The PYD would indeed be foolish to rely on this option, or to seek to include Arab-majority territory in its "Kurdish" region. Assad's main backer, the Iranian regime, is hostile to Kurdish self-determination and is responsible for sectarian massacres and suppression of the Kurdish minority in Iran. The Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq is deeply hostile to the PYD and the political influence of the PKK. The PYD has now banned the KRG-based Rudaw media network from the territory. Turkey, too, would be highly likely to destabilise a Kurdish region in Syria.

Karadjis argues that the Kurds' "initial cooperation with the US, when the US airforce came in to bomb ISIS away from Kobani in late 2014, was undoubtedly necessary, when defence against the threat of ISIS subjugation and terror in Kobani was a question of survival.”

“However, the US-YPG arrangement then turned into a long-term alliance… Much as the Islamic State is a monstrously reactionary state that needs to be overthrown, it is questionable that this can be achieved via the military actions of a nationalist Kurdish militia on the ground, completely reliant on US air strikes, where the Islamic State is based among Arabs.”

It is true that the US has now established an airbase in Kurdish controlled territory, but I doubt that the US really thinks that the Kurdish forces plus airstrikes can clear Daesh from the large stretches of Arab-majority territory which it controls. The PYD itself has been fairly single minded in its aim: to fight for Kurdish self-determination and to unify the three Rojavan cantons. We should have no illusions about the PYD/PKK or its tactics, but neither should we see the struggle for Kurdish self-determination as being a capitulation to US or Russian imperialism.