Syria, the Kurds, Turkey and the U.S.: Why Progressives Should Not Support a New Imperial Partition in the Middle East

Photograph Source: Qasioun News Agency – CC BY 3.0

In the face of Turkey’s renewed invasion of Syria, it seems we are hearing across the entire span of elite opinion in the US, from Liberals to extreme Conservatives, the cry “Don’t abandon our allies the Kurds!” Even on what passes for the Left in our country, many progressives have joined the chorus.

Certainly, the new invasion of Syria – partnered with Syrian extremists who have become, in effect, Turkish mercenaries – should be condemned by decent world opinion.  Sanctions against Turkish military moves in Syria are long overdue and should be furthered at the UN and other international bodies.  Protecting the safety of Syrian civilians should be the priority. Meaningful steps in the US Congress against our erstwhile NATO ally are also worth promoting.

But Progressives should have no illusions that the expressed outrage in Washington has anything to do with promoting the welfare of Syrians, including the Kurds. From the US elites it is clear that these are crocodile tears. No such voices were raised against the earlier Turkish invasion and ethnic cleansing of Kurds in Syria’s northwest. And of course, establishment opinion was supportive of US, Turkish, Saudi and Qatari interventions to arm sectarian extremists in Syria and enable the passage of foreign jihadists into the country in the years following the start of the war.

The war aims of these extremists was anything but an inclusive democracy in Syria.  The Kurds, along with other ethnic-religious minorities in Syria, suffered repeated atrocities at the hands of the foreign-supported armed groups ranging from ISIS and al-Qaeda to the supposed moderate US-backed Free Syrian Army. This process began, we should constantly remind ourselves, under Obama not Trump.

Trump, for all his deranged, erratic and racist politics, campaigned on ending the US wars in the Middle East and he has intermittently and haltingly promoted this policy.  For this he was roundly condemned by establishment opinion – except when he was praised for acting “Presidential” in launching air attacks against Syrian targets in 2017 and 2018. Trump’s instinct to withdraw US forces from Syria was initially thwarted by military-political dissenters within his own administration. Now that he has renewed his determination to (possibly) withdraw US troops, there is almost a frenzy of bipartisan outrage.  This is particularly evident from Israel and its amen corner in Washington, whose prime concern is clearly to maintain US military entanglement in the region in opposition to Iran and in defense of the Zionist state.

Keeping US troops in Syria and weakening the country with de facto partition are clearly the real motivation for this outrage, not the protection of the Kurds.

Leftists may be less overtly cynical in their support for Kurdish separatism, but they are equally misguided. Certainly, there is much that is attractive about the Kurdish national movement in Syria — local democracy and support for women’s rights not the least. And it is true that the European imperial powers walked back their tepid support for a Kurdish state in the post-World War I Middle East when, after the military successes of the Turkish national movement, it became clear that such an entity would have to come at the expense of their own colonial spheres of influence.

But the original colonial sin in the Middle East was not principally the thwarting of Kurdish national aims but the imperial partition of a single geographic unit – Bilad as-Sham. — in the Levant.  The people of the Arabian North from Sinai to the Turkish borderlands, united by a common language and Islamic-majority culture, were divided by colonial borders into what became Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Palestine – later Israel. Another chunk of Syrian Arab territory along the Levant was handed over by the French to Turkish rule in the interwar period.

Imperial powers have always manipulated ethnic rivalries and discontents in the Middle East and elsewhere in the service of their own power.  “DIVIDE AND RULE” has been the method of empire since Roman times. The colonial regimes in the Middle East made every effort to divide and pit against each other: Muslims and Christians, Sunni and Shi’a, Druze and Alawites, indigenous Jews and Arabs Kurds and Armenians.  Today, this is still the keystone of Israeli international relations.

In this sordid history, Kurds have been both victims and perpetrators. During the first World War, the Ottomans mobilized Kurds to massacre and expel Armenians and Syriac Christians; the Kurds were alternately supported by the US, then themselves suffered repression in US-allied Iran and Iraq during the 1970s and 80s. When the Iraqi Kurds were being targeted with poison gas by Saddam Hussein – then allied with the US against revolutionary Iran – the US Reagan administration shielded him from accountability at the UN.

It is true that the Kurds have legitimate historic grievances in modern Syria.  For many years, the central government did not recognize the legitimate residency and citizenship of Kurds in the eastern part of the country on the basis that they had migrated into the country across permeable borders during colonial and post-colonial times.  But this does not justify the partition of Syria. The injustice was rectified early in the crisis that began after 2011 when the Kurds were recognized as full Syrian citizens.

We must bear in mind that there are no ethnically pure regions in the Middle East. A historic geographic mosaic of ethnic, linguistic and religious communities exists across a region which cannot be easily separated into homogeneous national states without violence and ethnic cleansing. Even in the supposed “Kurdish” area of Syria, the Kurds are a bare majority in only a small territory in the far northeast Hasakah province. In the entire zone east of the Euphrates, controlled jointly by the Kurds and US occupiers, ethnic Arab Muslims and Christians are the majority, and many of them have been chafing under Kurdish rule.

The reality of ethnic diversity has not stopped imperial thinkers or Zionist apologists from proposing new maps and new partitions in the Middle East. But a modern version of Sykes-Picot is no answer to the region’s problems.

Progressives should not play this imperial game, even if it seems superficially to fit the model of “self-determination.”  We tend to accept as a given that ethnically homogenous nation states are the norm. But in fact, this idea – partly mythical and still incomplete – has developed quite recently, and even in Europe it was the outcome of centuries of wars, ethnic displacement, repression, forced cultural assimilation. This is not a process we should want to see duplicated in the Middle East.

It is pure illusion to imagine pure ethnic nation states the context of the modern Middle East.  In fact, the only current example in the region is modern Israel, a European colonial import.

Modern Arab nationalism has historically been inclusive and non-sectarian.  That is why the US allied itself during the Cold War with Saudi Wahhabi fundamentalist Islam as a counterweight to Arab unity and secularism.

A progressive future for the Middle East – as for the rest of the world, including Europe and the Americas – will start with democratic, secular states that overcome narrow nationalism while recognizing and supporting religious, ethnic and cultural diversity. Ironically, Syria — for all its authoritarian politics and despite its long mistreatment of the Kurdish minority — has been, socially at least, a relatively positive example. Syrian cities are all multi-ethnic and multi-confessional. This is precisely what has been under attack by the intervention of the US and its allies.  We can only hope and support a united post-war Syria that evolves toward democracy as well as secularism. This is what a genuine Syrian progressive opposition advocates.

Eventually, we should look for a peaceful evolution toward more porous borders and transnational unity. Progressives support this development in the US and Europe, recognizing the dangers of racialized nationalism and militarist exclusion as the dangerous threats that they are. But we should not fall victim to an orientalist exceptionalism in the Middle East by idealizing ethnic particularism and the fragmentation of post-colonial states. Other forms of conflict and repression are the inevitable result.

Jeff Klein is a writer and speaker on Middle East issues who travels frequently to the region.  An earlier version of this piece, with illustrations, can be found in his occasional blog: “At a Slight Angle to the Universe.” He can be reached at