Turkey’s invasion of north-eastern Syria (Rojava) must be opposed with practical international solidarity, not with calls for the US to continue its War on Terror.
The Turkish invasion of north-eastern Syria (Rojava) must be opposed. Following a call between Donald Trump and Turkish president Recep Erdoğan on Sunday 6 October, the Turkish state has been given the green light to expand its racist war on the Kurds into north-eastern Syria. Already they have launched a barrage of airstrikes.
The US has washed its hands of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), its partners in its war on ISIS, and their withdrawal will likely lead to ethnic cleansing of Kurds, Armenians, Yazidis and Assyrians that populate the area and it is also clearly an attempt to crush the revolutionary process in the Kurdish-majority regions of Syria.
People around the world have been enormously inspired by the achievements of the Kurdish-led movement in Rojava, in particular, the gains in women’s liberation, LGBTQ liberation struggles, experiments in direct democracy and campaigns for ecological justice.
This is notwithstanding criticisms of the ways in which the Kurdish PYD-YPG has suppressed other political groups among Syrian Kurds, making seemingly limited attempts at meaningful power-sharing in Arab-majority territory under its control, and its record of collaboration with both US and Russian military imperialism in Syria.
Now, as Rojava faces an onslaught from the Turkish state, international solidarity will be crucial, and should be unconditional, even when critical.
Partition and counter-revolution
Trump’s decision to allow the Turkish invasion needs to be understood as the latest stage in the counter-revolution and imperialist partitioning of Syria as a whole.
The US and the UK’s policy in Syria has been inconsistent and has been characterised by splits at the top in both cases. Senior Republicans and figures in the US military are briefing that Trump went ‘off script’ in his latest move. US and UK imperialism has had to confront the consequences of defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, declining power relative to other imperial states, and hardening opposition to military intervention among the American and British people. This has produced confusion and division at the top.
But it is a mistake to think that this has primarily been a story of US non-intervention, or half-hearted intervention.
The Turkish government is now attempting to complete an imperialist carve-up that has been many years in the making. US state managers would no doubt have preferred not to see Bashar al-Assad’s regime-held areas of Syria turned into a Russian/Iranian protectorate, just as they would prefer not to see northern Syria turned into a Turkish protectorate. However, it seems they are ultimately prepared to accept both outcomes as the price for containing the democratic revolutionary process in both parts of Syria.
In 2011, Arabs and Kurds across Syria engaged in some of the largest mass democratic protests in the country’s history. In doing so, they were part of a wave of revolutionary movements that swept across the Middle East and North Africa. Even now, almost a decade on, the aspirations of those movements have not disappeared, as can be seen in the recent mass demonstrations in Iraq and Egypt.
These movements not only threatened the corrupt regimes they wanted to overthrow. They also threatened the imperial bureaucracies and global corporations that depend upon those regimes to maintain the rule of fossil capital, preserve border regimes and contain popular uprisings. In Syria, the response of both the regime and the imperial powers has been to unleash a terrifying war on the civilian population, and to work to foster sectarian and ethnic division.
For years, many who would describe themselves as anti-imperialists have argued that the US wanted regime change in Syria. This has even led some to support Assad and to deny the murderous war on the Syrian people by Assad, Russia and Iran. Meanwhile, some supporters of the Syrian revolution (like some supporters of Rojava now) have called on the US and the UK to impose No-Fly Zones to defend civilians from aerial bombardment.
However, Assadist conspiracy theories that the revolution is a US plot and arguments for a US-imposed No-Fly Zone are equally mistaken. The US has acted again and again to prevent the fall of the Assad regime. Assad himself has boasted that the US and other Western states were covertly aiding him in his ‘counter-terrorist’ operations. More fundamentally, no revolutionary movement can succeed as long as it relies on the US’s beneficence.
War on Terror
The language of ‘counter-terrorism’ has been key to the propaganda of the Assad regime and all the imperial powers that have intervened in Syria. The US and UK invoked the old ‘War on Terror’ as they expanded their military intervention against ISIS from Iraq into Syria, just as Russia and Iran claimed to be fighting the ‘War on Terror’ as they obliterated opposition-held cities in Syria. Turkey is using the same justification for its war in northern Syria, claiming that its aim is to prevent a ‘terror corridor’.
Unfortunately, the war against ISIS also entailed a sustained and lethal collaboration of the Kurdish YPG with US and Russian military imperialism in Syria. YPG forces undoubtedly played a crucial role in the military operation against ISIS, and in particular in the liberation of the Yazidi people in the Sinjar mountains. However, they have also entered into objective military collusion with the Assad regime on key occasions, such as in the siege of Aleppo. They actively solicited US and Russian airstrikes, including during the battle of Raqqa, where US airpower destroyed 80-90% of the city and killed an estimated 2,000 of its inhabitants, overwhelmingly civilians.
The YPG has also used counter-terror language to describe the Syrian refugees in Turkey, and in relation to the detention centres in northern Syria. A resurgence of ISIS would be a disaster for all the inhabitants of the region. However, the conflation of ‘ISIS fighters’ with civilian detainees in the description, for instance, of the 70,000 prisoners at al-Hol camp should be a cause for concern.
None of this lessens the need for solidarity with Rojava now, in the face of an onslaught from Turkey. However, it does highlight the need for caution about arguments that emphasise the renewed threat of ISIS as the reason to oppose the Turkish occupation. Appeals to the US or the UK to continue their War on Terror only provide justification for a continuation of precisely the policies that led ISIS to flourish in the first place, and have led to the carpet-bombing of cities, and the partitioning of Syria.
If not No-Fly Zones, then what?
There are plenty of demands that we can make in solidarity with Rojava without supporting further military intervention by the US or British governments.
The EU has condemned the Turkish invasion as an ‘occupation’, and Erdoğan has responded by threatening to ‘open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way’. In Britain and the rest of Europe, we should be saying: open the borders! The EU currently relies on the Turkish state to act as a holding pen for migrants hoping to reach Europe. Now, Erdoğan intends to resettle refugees from regime-controlled areas of Syria in Rojava. Refugees should be allowed to settle where they wish, not be used as pawns in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. We should demand an immediate end to, and participate in practical efforts against British arms sales to Turkey, and that the EU ends its subsidies to the Turkish state.
Turkey justifies its war on the Kurds in terms of ‘counter-terrorism’. We should demand the de-criminalisation of the PKK in the UK. We should also demand an end to the ‘War on Terror’ both in the form of Islamophobic state surveillance such as Prevent at home and in the UK’s continued participation in military interventions in the Middle East.
We should demand the abolition of NATO. Turkey is a member of NATO, along with the US, the UK and many other European states. Through joint participation in this reactionary military alliance, all members of NATO are implicated in Turkey’s occupation of Rojava. They also see this as a way of preventing Turkey from developing a closer relationship with Russia.
We also encourage all socialists to express their solidarity directly to the Kurdish communities in the UK by joining local demonstrations, visiting community centres and raising awareness of the atrocities committed by Erdoğan’s government.
We stand with Rojava. We want to see a vision of liberation, direct democracy, equality and ecological justice realised around the world. We must demand an end to the War on Terror, and to sectarian divisions, dictatorships and imperialist interventions that work to prevent an alternative world from coming into being.