Opinion: No Friends but the Mountains

Trump’s most recent foreign policy disaster in Syria isn’t the first time America has betrayed the Kurds

As the Syrian civil war winds down and ISIS has been mostly imprisoned or killed, northern Syria has become the sight of extreme tension once again. 

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—who were the pivotal force in eradicating ISIS—controls most of the area that Turkey has since invaded, most recently overtaking the city of Afrin. 

Credit: Reuters.

The Trump administration responded to criticism over removing U.S. troops from the area by brokering a weak cease-fire and announcing bizarrely that the U.S. had taken control of oil fields near the area, a statement implying a complete misunderstanding of the issues at play. President Erdogan of Turkey has openly stated his intentions to remove the Kurds and replace them with Syrian refugees and ethnic Turkmen. Turkish hatred of the Kurds and the politics of refugee migration are at the heart of the problem, and have been for quite some time. Oil fields have almost nothing to do with it, and the situation seems to be above Trump\’s diplomatic capabilities. 

It only took a few hours for Turkey to break the U.S.-brokered cease-fire agreement in northern Syria, displaying Trump\’s overall inability (or unwillingness) to curb Turkey\’s dedication to destroying the Kurdish SDF\’s democratic experiment in the region that has become known as Rojava. Turkish airstrikes killed five civilians and four SDF fighters during a time that was designated for civilians to evacuate the area according to the terms of the agreement

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Credit: Ruptly. Protest sign used in demonstration in Berlin, Germany. Artist: unknown.

Turkey has a long history of oppressing the Kurds and has destroyed any visible display of Kurdish autonomy in Turkey and surrounding nations. This conflict with Kurdish identity led to the creation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 1978, a Marxist Leninist revolutionary group created by ethnic Kurds who were fighting to create an autonomous Kurdish state. 

Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist group, and the fighting between Turkish forces and the PKK really escalated in 1984. In the eyes of Turkey, that fight now bleeds into Rojava, since Erdogan considers the Democratic Union Party (PYD)—the largest SDF party in Rojava—and its militia, the People’s Protection Unit or YPG, to be an offshoot of the PKK. A main reason for this assertion is that northern Syria has become a surprisingly successful democratic experiment based on the writings of one of the founding members of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan. 

Ocalan started out as a Marxist Leninist, but was heavily influenced by the writings of American libertarian socialists like Murray Bookchin. He created the concept of Anarchist Confederalism out of a mixture of leftist ideologies from his prison cell in Turkey, where he has been serving a life sentence since the 1990s.

In Rojava, the SDF has been able to take the concepts of Ocalan and create a “from-the-bottom-up” democratic society organized around solidarity for a democratic modernity. The way this system works is through a series of council systems: each neighborhood, village, and commune has its own counsel where all decisions that affect it are made. Larger decisions (like building hospitals) go up the chain to regional councils called cantons. Each council unit is encouraged to be as independent as possible and to strive for direct democracy, gender equality, ecological sustainability, and cultural tolerance. Miraculously, they have formed this society all while fighting together to eliminate ISIS.

In 2017, an internationalist commune was created in Rojava and radicals from all around the world have been training under the systems in place there. Volunteers at the commune have described the Kurdish movement as a place where marxists, anarchists, feminists, and ecologists all work together in solidarity. 

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Demonstrations in Berlin in Oct. 2019. Courtesy: Associated Press.

Rojava’s success threatens Turkish nationalism in that it could possibly embolden Kurdish populations in Turkey. A successful method for building autonomous coalitions in solidarity is the exact opposite of what Turkey has been attempting in its history of forced assimilation for the Kurds.  

The second angle to the conflict between the SDF and Turkey is one of immigration. The Syrian civil war has driven millions of refugees out of Syria: 3 to 4 million of these refugees have sought asylum in Turkey, and in 2016, Erdogan agreed to a multibillion dollar agreement with the European Union to accept refugees to halt the flow into the EU

As anti-immigrant tensions rise in Turkey, taking in refugees has become a political liability. While addressing the UN in September 2019, Erdogan said, “The parts [of Syria] liberated and secured by Turkey are the only places of return for the Syrians who fled their country for their lives.”

It seems that President Erdogan\’s plan is to kill two birds with one stone by cleansing the Kurds and their democratic aspirations from Rojava and replacing them with unwanted refugees. If better leadership does not step in, it seems like the only outcome of this conflict over Rojava will be the grim cynicism of nationalism stomping down the hope and solidarity of the 21st century’s first socialist revolution. If so, a bold democratic experiment will be massacred and replaced by a refugee camp.

If there were any questions about Turkey’s plans for Rojava, the city of Afrin is a grim forecast. According to Jacobin, as Turkish forces took the city, 400,000 Kurdish people have fled on foot, including women and children. These people soon found themselves blockaded from neighboring provinces by both Syrian forces and Islamist rebels. The ones who stayed behind were denied humanitarian aid, and the children and elderly died from easily preventable diseases and lack of food and basic needs. This all occurred in a region where the people were not only battling Islamists like ISIS, but had also taken in 300,000 displaced people. A brutal reward for their heroism and humanitarian actions.

While politicians on both sides of the aisle speak out with feigned outrage about Trump “abandoning our allies” there are a couple truths they leave out. One being that it’s actually Turkey that is our ally—the U.S. has given billions in aid to Turkey and continues to do so

The second being that this is not the first time we have betrayed the Kurds. There is an old Kurdish saying, “No friends but the mountains.” And the U.S. seems to like it that way. 

According to research conducted by journalist Jon Schwartz, after years of fighting alongside the Kurds in Iraq, the U.S. turned its back in 2007 and gave Turkey airspace to drop bombs on them. In the 1960s, we armed the Kurds to help overthrow the Iraqi government and then sold the newly installed regime the napalm they used to massacre them. Those are just two examples out of many, because betraying the Kurds is an American tradition going back to WWI.

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Demonstrations in Berlin, Oct. 2019. Courtesy: Associated Press.

The U.S. media will likely follow this story for as long as it continues to sell ad space, but what happens after our collective interest fades? While the people of Berlin and Amsterdam took to the streets in major demonstrations against Turkey’s military offensive in Rojava this month, America appears to be asleep or at least has its attention diverted elsewhere while ISIS continues to gain support from Erdogan. Where are we in this conversation? Isn’t this, supposedly, why we entered (started) the War on Terror to begin with? To fight for “freedom’s victory” and against terrorist entities?

The Kurdish group of anarcho-socialists who not only defeated ISIS but built a society based on democracy, feminism, ecological stability, and cultural tolerance in the process deserve a shot at survival. Unfortunately for the SDF, U.S. foreign policy is not based on helping people who deserve it, and our ugly history in the Middle East does not leave a lot of room for hope. 

We’ve grown numb to the suffering of people in the Middle East just like the War on Terror has taught us to, but we have to start caring. This is all happening right now, today, in real time. The less we care, the quicker the media moves on and the less pressure there is on politicians. 

Even if the American people can not find it within themselves to care, it is at the very least important to become aware of the type of leadership our nation has fallen under and its effect on other nations. Without U.S. troops in Syria, Turkey will march on and the incredible people of Rojava will pay the price for our negligence. This is especially vital to remember during an election year when politicians will repeatedly tackle conversations like Medicare for all and other politicized talking points, ultimately sidestepping other important issues at hand that we aren’t regularly seeing as the media and U.S. government attempt to erase the last 20 years of American history from public consciousness.

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