Young activists are coming out in support of Kurdish independence in Syria. They see themselves of ‘subjects’ of an inexorable empire and look for ways to accomplish some good. Of course we elders don’t want to see ourselves as ‘subjects of empire’ but the current youth didn’t grow up with the same illusions that those of us who were teenagers in the postwar WWII US of the fifties and sixties. Most of us were clueless about the horrors visited on the world by our country until the Vietnam war interrupted our lives due to the draft. Even then, we felt empowered within our own country. Our personal lives weren’t constrained by it the way theirs are. Today’s young people are hemmed in by empire on all sides and they don’t see any easy way out. So, they adapt. It they can’t be empowered against the empire, maybe they can use it to further a positive objective. That’s the slippery slope but it’s real and understandable..
We older folks avoid the reality even when our best writers say over and over again what a brutal power our country is on the world scene. Although the youth seem too ready to adapt (in my opinion) many of us older folks don’t even now recognize the truth of what the US is. We have been right where the youth stand today. We supported the creation of, and growth of Israel. We opposed Mao’s China and the Soviet Union and didn’t much notice all the awful things the US was doing in the global south at the time. We in the US have a very hard time letting other peoples develop at their own rate, make their own mistakes and grow in their own way from their own roots. Our sense of our own benevolence and power lures us into the same mistakes as previous generations have made.
An immediate problem is the concept that we need to use the power of empire in a benevolent way and support this or that movement. As soon as we do that we cede all power to the empire and Syria is one more case where that ideology has been used against the people of the region over and over. The fate of the Kurds in Iraq is dismissed but they were openly attacked by the Iraqi government during the Iran/Iraq war during the 80s. Even so, in 2009, many Kurdish young people told me they were Iraqi citizens. They were ready to try again. But the old leadership was not with them.
Today, the Kurds in Iraq aren’t doing so well. They were great during the war because the war wasn’t happening there. But, now, as a US protectorate, they are paying their dues. Jalal Talabani, who was President of Iraq for a long time, whose party used to balance the local Kurdish government of Masoud Barzani so it looked like a democracy, is gone. In it’s place is a ‘Change’ party that was educated on Democracy through USAID trips to European parliaments, and which claims the mantle of ‘democracy’ for itself alone. The ‘Change; party, which was formed in a hostile break from Talabani’s PUK while he was still in power in Baghdad, has no roots, neither local nor national roots. Now Kurdistan is an emerging dictatorship run by a tribal chieftain who has outlasted his one significant opponent but not changed his ethos,
The leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan have unrealistic goals. They talk about democracy and freedom but they have never dealt realistically with the issues of poverty and diversity. And now, the opportunity is waning. They got better deals from the US and Turkey so the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) refused to pay their dues to the federal government of Iraq. Now they are dumping their oil in Turkey on the cheap through the same channel ISIS uses and they can’t get their allowance from the federal government of Iraq. What goes round comes round, as they say. The Kurds have US forces using their country as a base, like Kosovo, South Korea, the Philippines, Honduras, Djibouti and many other countries around the world. And the Peshmerga function as an extension of the imperial forces. But what are they really getting back?
Turkey, an important NATO (imperial) ally is bombing Iraqi Kudistan on a daily basis just as it was in 2009. They say they are attacking PKK camps, but they have killed many civilians and destroyed much of the productive farmland in Kurdistan and poisoned the hills where the water comes from. The Iraqi Kurds want to do everything in Kurdish but there are few books written in Kurdish so they have traded Arabic for English as the contextual language through which they interact with the wide world. When I was there they were talking about uniting with the Rojava Kurds, and giving up writing their language in Arabic script. The western Kurds use the Turkish alphabet. But Turkey and the wars have taken this opportunity off the table for the time being.
The Kurdish middle class which was rising on a huge wave of hope when I was there in 2009, is losing their mentors and their resources and the connections that supported their aspirations. They are inundated with refugees from larger Iraq, threatened by ISIS and running out of money. Yet their government is still pushing to take more territory from Iraq for their Kurdish nation. But they can’t take care of or be appropriately responsive to the population they are already responsible for.
It was a terrible shame that the Kurds lost their opportunity to have their own country on the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. But the United States had a hand in that decision as well. The decision was made to empower Attaturk, a European born General of the Ottoman Empire who planned to ‘modernize’ (read ‘westernize’) Turkey. That time has passed and circumstances are changed. The countries that currently exist in the Middle East may or may not survive but for us here to decide their fates is a continuation of a gross imperial violation of the rights of the people of that region. When will we learn?
We can’t decide which force in these war torn regions is really the one that will be best for the people there based on our assumptions about their reality. That is why we have to withdraw from the field rather than attempt to determine what is best for the people and manage events so it will happen. We can’t control the empire. We can only resist it’s drive. For us to decide what is best for the people there is like religious people who think they can apprehend God and God’s will in a particular way. Our imaginations aren’t big enough to encompass God. We can’t play god and make decisions for these regions where imperial decision makers have bee wreaking havoc for two centuries.
Rojava is an interesting example of this phenomenon. The campaign for a free Kurdistan/Rojava was created by empire from the dreams of a lost empire. The leaders of the Rojava movement are Turkish Kurdish immigrants whose families came to Syria a few decades ago to escape Turkish pogroms against Kurds. The are not Syrian Kurds. They are not the majority in the region they covet control over. There are many Syrian Christians of different stripes living there and other Arabs along with the Syrian Kurds who have established communities there that have existed there for millennia, and have been part of Syria since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
The YPG are good fighters and advised by the Turkish PKK because they are an extension of the PKK. To this day, the majority of Kurdish people and Kurdish lands are in Turkey. Kurdish oppression in Turkey needs to end, but no one is even addressing that issue. Kurds in Turkey are currently being slaughtered with impunity, sacrificed to President Erdogan’s paranoid grasp on power there. Even so, the possibility of independence has been ceded and there is an understanding that somehow the Kurds must become a respected part of Turkish society.
Independent Rojava has a minority of people in Northern Syria supporting it and the YPG were allied with the Syrian government until the Americans came and convinced them, that they might have their own country just as they convinced the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist factions in Syria that if only they would fight the US would a) make sure they won and b) hand them power over the country as allies of the US, Turkey, Israel, the Gulf Emirs etc. The leaked conversation between Secretary of State John Kerry and representatives of the Syrian ‘opposition’ on the sidelines of a conference last year makes this very clear. The Turkish reaction to the Kurdish expansion during the war is proof that an independent Rojava is a non-starter on the international chessboard.
The Rojava Kurds talk about democracy in freedom but, presenting themselves as Marxists, and have been taking land from the people who have long lived there and dividing it among the poor, themselves. Many of the old Kurdish families are represented among the middle and upper middle class in Damascus. The Kurdish refugees in Syria have not lived in any kind of unique poverty. Syria has always been a friendly space for refugees. The reason the Turkish Kurds didn’t receive Syrian citizenship until shortly after the war began is related to the fact that none of the many refugees who settled in Syria since the first waves of Palestinians arrived more than 50 years ago have citizenship.
I agree this is a problem, but in the region it has not been the top priority with the people or the government – except the Kurds who came to northern Syria in the 80s. That is because, for a century, the the Turkish government of their native homeland has refused them full citizenship. At the same time, refugees in Syria have lived well, participated in Syrian society, received ungrudging benefits from the state including education and medical care, and the right to participate in the economy without the particular limitations that exist in many neighboring countries. Most of the Kurds who had immigrated into northern Syria from Turkey were given Syrian citizenship in 2012 under the initiative taken then to bring the country together and meet the demands of dissident forces that were being drawn into the war against their own country at that time.
Now the Americans want to give them their own country in a region that is neither their traditional homeland nor ours to give. The talk about Democracy and Freedom is a great aspiration and they can work on it in a reunited Syria within their own communities if Syria can survive this war without being torn apart.. It is not ours to decide whether or not this should happen any more than it is our right to decide whether the Syrian government should enlist international allies to aid their resistance to an international war of aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.
We cannot control evolution! To think we can is to merely embrace another flavor of empire and colonial outreach that feels better to us than the imperial alternatives we understand. It may feel empowering to believe that we can utilize the forces of empire for some perceived good, but there will always be unintended consequences. Allowing the people of the region to make their own internal decisions gives them the freedom to express their aspirations in a local context and to deal with their own unintended consequences; to relate to the world around them freely rather than be used by the powerful for the ends of the powerful.