Democracy stabbed in the back in Syria and once again the USA is holding the knife

Trump cannot allow Rojava’s libertarian-socialist dream to continue and Erdoğan wants the Kurds wiped out.  It’s a match made in hell.


For the past seven years the majority Kurdish areas of Northern Syria have tried to fashion a democratic society out of the ashes of the Syrian Civil War.  Limitations and shortcomings persist, of course, but in many respects the egalitarian accomplishments of this libertarian-socialist experiment are impressive – environmentalism, gender equality, and religious and ethnic diversity are all central to the Rojavan ideology and constitution.  They have achieved this all whilst their autonomous armies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have fought and defeated Islamic State (IS) terrorists.

But the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are comprised of a number of different armed units, have faced other foes too.  One of the SDF’s most infamous battles came in March 2018 when Turkish and Turkish-backed forces attacked and captured the city of Afrin, killing, amongst others, the conflict’s first British woman, Anna Campbell.

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Feminism is central to the democratic confederalist ideology and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) have played a crucial role in defeating IS. ©Kurdishstruggle on Flickr

Turkey officially considers groups within the SDF, such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to be terrorist organisations.  They are, they say, a wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a Turkey and Iraq based Kurdish rights/separatist organisation proscribed in NATO and EU countries.  US backing for the SDF, then, has always been tentative.  Indeed, it was US military officials who suggested the creation of the more ‘media friendly’ SDF, therefore allowing them to offer equipment and training for the fight against IS whilst not technically helping a proscribed organisation.

Of course, the idea that the YPG is a terrorist organisation is controversial to say the least – they were established as a purely defensive force, but were drawn into seven years of intense fighting against one of the most barbaric terrorist organisations ever.  It is this that makes Recep Erdoğan’s claim that the purpose of this offensive “is to ‘prevent the creation of a terror corridor across [Turkey’s] southern border, and to bring peace to the area” patently ridiculous.  The YPG has already done this – Turkey is undoing it.

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YPG and YPJ fighters fight alongside each other on equal footing.  ©Kurdishstruggle on Flickr

It’s important to note that the majority of the Kurdish liberation movement, including the PKK, moved away from the idea of seizing state control and establishing an independent Kurdish state many years ago.  Instead, the movement now largely advocates for a system known as democratic confederalism – a “system of popularly elected administrative councils, allowing local communities to exercise autonomous control over their assets, while linking to other communities via a network of confederal councils.”[1]  Democratic confederalism was developed and refined after Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurdish leader and founding member of the PKK, began reading a number of different philosophers and social theorists from his Turkish prison cell, including the American Murray Bookchin.

Rojava is the first area to have put democratic confederalist principles into practice, and with startling success, but this presents a problem for Trump.  Whilst the Kurdish liberation movement may have moved away from seeking direct confrontation with the state, the system it has chosen to implement in Rojava is profoundly anti-capitalist.  This is intolerable to both Trump and Erdoğan.  Regardless of the fact that it is democratic, and considerably more so than either the USA or Turkey, neither president can allow such an experiment to continue, especially if it threatens to be a success.

The truth of the matter is that for all his narcissistic tweeting regarding his own IQ, it is not so much Donald Trump’s intelligence (or lack thereof) that makes him a terrible president, but the fact that he appears to lack any moral fibre whatsoever.  The bloodshed and genocide that is inevitable now that Recep Erdoğan’s forces are pushing into Rojava is, for Trump, at best an unfortunate by-product and at worst an intended consequence.  The fact that Erdoğan has been looking for ways to wipe out Kurdish resistance for years plays into Trump’s hands.  He cannot, after all, allow the libertarian-socialist ideals of Rojava to blossom as they have begun to over the last few years.  That might make people think that there are alternatives to capitalism.  Perish the thought.

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Turkish bombing of Ras al-Ayn on the 10 October 2019. ©Orhan Erkılıç, Wikimedia Commons

Of course, Donald Trump, in his own inimitable fashion, has given mixed messages throughout.  One minute he is threatening to “wipe out” Turkey’s economy if they go “too far” (whatever that means), the next he’s claiming that that Kurds did not help the allies in the Second World War and that this somehow merits allowing their genocide.  Of course, the fact that many Kurds did indeed fight on the side of the allies will be inconsequential to Trump, who has proven once again that he cares not a single bit about any human life other than his own.  Even his claim that Turkey’s invasion is a “bad idea” is not matched by action, with the USA and Russia the only countries to veto a UN security council statement calling on Turkey “to cease the unilateral military action.”  If Trump really does think this is a “bad idea”, an understatement to say the least, he’s got a funny way of showing it.

But Trump is in good company – the USA has a long history of ignoring and even sponsoring violence against left-wing democracies, so whilst his withdrawal of the small US force stationed along the Turkish border has received intense criticism even from his own supporters, in reality it is simply another bullet point in a shameful history.  In spite of its posturing as a beacon of democracy, the USA could not care less whether a country is democratic or not – what it cares about is the preservation of the capitalist system and the oligarchy it upholds.

Some of Trump’s most outspoken supporters have asked why anyone would trust the USA again given that it has just betrayed its allies to Turkey.  The answer to this is fairly simple: because this was only ever a temporary military alliance of convenience – the outworking of the philosophy that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  It was never going to be a long-term alliance and it was never going to be a political alliance.  Now that IS are all but defeated, the USA, Turkey and the other NATO countries can get back to pretending that the PKK and YPG are terrorists whilst the rest of the world looks on with collective exasperation at their hypocrisy.

[1] Paul White, “Democratic Confederalism and the PKK’s Feminist Transformation,” in The PKK: Coming Down from the Mountains (London: Zed Books, 2015), pp. 126–149.

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