Betrayal in the Levant

Photograph Source: Kurdishstruggle – Kurdish YPG Fighters – CC BY 2.0

Confusion reigns in certain left-leaning and anarchist circles. Pat Robertson tells Trump he will lose his mandate of heaven if he really does pull the US troops occupying northern Syria from their positions. Democrats, Republicans, neocons and neoliberals join the Pentagon and the mainstream US media to decry this possible troop redeployment.  Turkey assembles its military forces and moves into northern Syria.  Some of its politicians tell their supporters that they will bury the Kurds in ditches along the roadside.  US anarchist Noam Chomsky supports the US troops remaining in the area. What the hell is going on?

What the Kurds in Rojava are attempting to do is a noble, if incredibly utopian attempt to create what their major theorist Abdullah Ocalan calls democratic confederalism. In his 2017 text The Political Thought of Abdullah Ocalan, he describes this theory as a “non-state social paradigm…not controlled by a state.”  Decrying nationalism and nation-states as creations and essential elements of capitalism, he calls instead for democratic autonomy. This situation is “one that does not rely on separatism and violence” and does not desire either the maximum power or capitalist economy that modern nation states require to exist. The text itself is a concise summary of Ocalan’s political thought and its development, the history of the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party)—the organization he previously led, and the history of the Kurdish people.

One key to this concept of democratic confederalism is that it rejects the duplication of existing hierarchies, whether those structures are of the state or the economy. Consequently, it rejects capitalism, nationalism in its currently understood sense, and the domination of the military.  The implementation of this approach to governance is, as Ocalan writes, “predicated on finding a compromise with (existing) nation states.” One assumes this is the arrangement that exist(ed) in northern Syria with both the Syrian government and the US military.  It is this understanding that most of the rest of the world either ignores or rejects.  That misunderstanding causes Pat Robertson, Lindsey Graham, most Democrat and Republican legislators, and the Pentagon to see Trump’s calls to move the US troops out of the area as some kind of surrender to the desires of the government in Ankara.  In actuality, it seems like Trump and the trumpists believe others can take care of whatever business their vision of the US needs to take care of in the region. Most likely, those others will be led by Israel and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, US forces will remain throughout the rest of the region; it’s not like they are packing up, going home and destroying their weapons. Unfortunately, they can always be back to their dirty business in a moment’s notice.

As for the idea floated by some who consider this troop reassignment (if it actually occurs, that is) to be a victory against imperialism, if only it were so. All that is required to reject this notion is to widen one’s lens and look at the greater picture. Right now, a US Navy strike group is stationed in the Persian Gulf, at least a hundred US Air Force warplanes are in the immediate region, and several thousand US troops are bivouacked in different countries nearby. If one pulls that lens even further back, they would see that thousands of troops, sailors and Marines are within a few hours or days from Syria and any other part of the Middle East. Considering this, it seems difficult to see this minor reassignment as a victory.  However, that doesn’t mean those US forces should remain there.  In fact, it still means all US forces should be pulled from the Middle East. Their presence is the cause of much of the current violence and human dislocation that defines the lives of way too many residents of the region. The other primary cause is the ongoing attempts of Israel to expand its borders and Washington’s support of those attempts. While Trump has done little to convince mainstream pundits that he and his coterie of trumpist advisers have an actual policy plan, anyone seeing this as an antiwar move must look at the big picture first.

I wrote a piece back in 2004 titled “Are the Kurds in the Way?”  I am reprinting some of it here.

During the last week of January 2004, Paul Bremer (Colonial Overseer in Iraq), gave notice to another group of Kurds that the United States would begin military operations against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), a formerly Marxist-Leninist organization dedicated to armed struggle in the name of Kurdish independence. In terms of the public mission of the US military in Iraq, there is no real reason for this move. Instead, this decision by the US reflects a deal that Washington worked out with the government of Turkey, which has fought this organization and Kurdish independence since time immemorial.

For those who are not familiar with the PKK, let me briefly surmise their history and political philosophy. In their over quarter century of existence, this group has waged a consistent struggle for a Kurdish homeland. Unlike the other two Kurdish parties, they are not on the CIA payroll and consider Turkey to be as great of an enemy of the Kurds as Iraq. Consequently, their primary struggle has been against the Turkish government—a government which until recently forbid the teaching of the Kurdish language in predominantly Kurdish schools and has fostered an ultimately racist attitude on the part of the Turkish people against the Kurds. Originally of a Marxist-Leninist economic and philosophical nature, the PKK has modified its approach towards Kurdish liberation over the years. It continues to proclaim its desire for a just and democratic Kurdish land—either via some type of autonomous arrangement with other governments or through a true independent nation.

As noted previously, the Kurds being discussed in this piece are the political descendants of the PKK.  The US was presumably aware of this history and the potential issues involved when it made the deal with the Kurds in northern Syria.  Like Turkey (albeit on a different and lesser scale), Washington has no lasting interest in the survival of an autonomous independent and anti-capitalist district in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world. Likewise, the Rojava rebels must have understood this when they agreed to the arrangement, they made with the US forces occupying northern Syria.  Like many marriages of convenience, neither party could have honestly thought it would be forever.  Any organization born in struggle enters any agreement with greater powers knowing that wariness is a key element in its implementation.

Given this, the projected removal of US troops from northern Syria is not the end of the Kurdish struggle.  It is a betrayal, but is no different from any other betrayal in Washington’s long history of betrayal.  Why do you think the line “White man speak with forked tongue” –supposedly said in relation to another broken treaty between Washington and a betrayed indigenous nation–exists?  Whether or not this was ever spoken by the Native American it was attributed to, the fact that it is part of the common parlance makes it clear that Washington’s policy has always included betrayal.  Furthermore, those who demand that the troops remain, demand a no-fly zone or some other type of military intervention are not only supporting US imperial policy, they are ultimately denying the Kurds their own agency and, by portraying them as victims who need US support, they are diminishing their struggle.  To be blunt, it reeks of arrogance and paternalism.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: