Imperial Interventions, Withdrawal from Syria and Self-Determination

Trump’s sudden announcement to withdraw US troops from Syria is a good development that should be welcomed by everyone who proclaims to care about what the US does in their name around the world. American interference in that country starting in 2011 was never authorized by the UN according to international law and therefore has been illegitimate from the start. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be serious debate about how that withdrawal should be carried out.

The Kurdish Question

One of the most pressing questions that arise is about the quasi-autonomous, Kurdish-majority region of Rojava in Northern Syria. After the civil war started, infrastructure quickly collapsed and Assad lost control of large chunks of the country. That was seen by the Kurds of Syria as the perfect opportunity to try and build a Kurdistan along the lines of what Kurdish activist and political prisoner Adbullah Öcalan calls Democratic Confederalism and Democratic Autonomy. These models involve communal ownership of the means of production, equal rights for women and a progressive view on ecology and sustainability, and the people of Northern Syria (mostly Kurds, but also Arabs, Armenians, Syriacs and other minority groups) have been trying to implement them in Rojava against all odds. They have struggled with the lack of resources stemming from economic embargos from Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey at the same time that they have had to fight an ISIS that was being given free passage into Turkish territory, from where they could launch attacks with impunity [1][2].

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is openly hostile to the Kurds, who he considers terrorists, and has recently stated that an offensive on Rojava is imminent [3]. In fact, he has already attacked the canton of Afrin, one of the three units that compose Rojava, on January of this year, causing hundreds of casualties [4] and forcing around 167,000 people to flee for their lives [5]. The reason why casualties weren’t worse back then presumably being because the YPG, which is the army branch of the PKK (Kurdistan’s Workers party), had already at that time secured an alliance with Washington, thus forcing Ankara to exercise some restraint lest it anger its main NATO ally.

Now with the US about to withdraw, what will happen to the people of that region should be of serious concern to anyone with a conscience. If history is any indication, the US empire has no qualms in abandoning their Kurdish allies to their fates [6]. As a matter of fact, it seems possible that Erdogan himself played a part in Trump’s decision to remove his troops [7], meaning that a new betrayal has possibly already happened. Washington seems to be delivering the YPG to Ankara, and with them, thousands of innocent civilians.

If you listen to what a certain segment of the left has to say, Assad is the only legitimate leader of an undivided Syria and therefore the Kurds should be seen as terrorist separatists who should either surrender or be crushed. The fact that they are an oppressed people with a right to self-determination and who are trying to implement leftist ideals on the ground instead of only talking about them on the internet seems to matter little to them. Their logic seems to be: the US invaded Assad’s Syria; Assad has a right to defend himself and his country; the YPG allied itself with the US; the YPG is the enemy. This is a kind of knee jerk anti-imperialism that casts aside any sense of human decency, and presumably also of irony, in that they want to defend the oppressed by opposing the Empire that right now is the only thing standing between the oppressed and carnage. They seem to participating in a who’s more anti-imperialist game where anyone who doesn’t immediately oppose US presence anywhere automatically loses their leftist credentials.

That is not say the US should stay there forever. Of course it shouldn’t. As I said above, the US never had any right to intervene in Syria in the first place. But since Washington got itself in a position where it can prevent massacres, they should provide protection until the situation can be solved diplomatically.

There is no contradiction between supporting withdrawal and at the same time advocating that some amount of US troops stay temporarily in Northern Syria. There is no reason why it would be impossible to arrange a negotiation between Turkey, the Rojava administration and Syria. US troops could then be replaced with UN forces with a very specific mandate to keep the peace. None of this is outside the realm of possibility and therefore the left ought to fight for such an outcome.

If the Trump doesn’t take the initiative, however, then Rojava’s only hope lies in some sort of agreement with Assad, which, while possible, is unlikely to result in continuation of its socialist experiment. Rojava would join the Paris Commune and the Spanish anarchists in the hall of movements that had enormous potential but an antagonist federal government in a position to crush them.

The Russian Question

I have also seen some debate over whether to oppose Russian presence now the US is on its way out. My own opinion on the matter is pretty simple: Russia was invited into Syria by president Bashar Al-Assad to help fight the civil war which erupted during the so-called Arab Spring. So unlike the US, it has legitimate reasons for being there, but only for as long as they are welcome there.

Now, it needs to be said that Russia was invited not by popular will, but because Assad had very little choice but to ask for help before his country convulsed into one or several failed states. But the now the situation is different. ISIS has been almost completely crushed, the Arab Spring ended in disaster everywhere but in Tunisia, and large sections of the country are starting to pick up the pieces as Syrians try to resume their daily lives. Not that the war is over yet –wars in the Middle East have a tendency to reignite when you least expect it-, but the fact is that Syrians are in a position to speak for themselves, if not right now then very soon. So it should not be up to Assad, who in true Mediterranean tradition was “elected” with more than 90% of the vote, to decide when Russia goes; that choice should be made by Syrians (in the same way, they should be allowed to organize free and fair elections in order to choose their post-war government, regardless of whether that results in them legitimizing Assad or getting rid of the man once and for all).

Just like in Rojava, the moral position should be to support the notion that it is the people who should be deciding who stays or who goes, who rules and who is ruled.

L.H. Sartori is a Brazilian citizen concerned about the current state of the planet.


[1] Michael Knapp, Anja Flach, Ayboga Ercan, Revolution in Rojava(Pluto Press, 2016).

[2] Patrick Cockburn War against Isis: US air strategy in tatters as militants march on, The Independent, October 13, 2014, Specifically the following passage: “Of the countries supposedly uniting against Isis, by the far most important is Turkey because it shares a 510-mile border with Syria across which rebels of all sorts, including Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, have previously passed with ease.”See also:

[3] The Guardian, Turkey primed to start offensive against US-backed Kurds in Syria, December 12, 2018,

[4] The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 23, 2018,

[5] United Nations, Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, March 22, 2018,

[6] See the excellent article by Phil Gasper, published by the International Socialist Review, called The Betrayal of the Kurds, 2003, at

[7] Reuters, Haaretz and Noa Landau, U.S. Starts Withdrawing Troops From Syria but Campaign Not Over, White House Says, December 19, 2018, “The decision came after a phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan on Friday. “Everything that has followed is implementing the agreement that was made in that call,” the official said.”