The horrific violence that has been devastating Syria for the past eight years is intensifying.
On October 9, NATO’s second largest army, that of Turkey, launched a full-scale invasion of the territory under the control of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA), three days after US President Donald Trump gave the green light in a phone conversation with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The invasion began with shelling and aerial bombardment of civilian populations.
The aim of the invasion is to annihilate the AA’s revolutionary, democratic and feminist experiment. Solidarity between different ethnic and religious communities has been at the forefront of this experiment.
The revolution began, and has its strongest base in the Kurdish community. It also maintains important support in the Syriac/Assyrian community and other minorities. These communities will be particularly targeted by the army of the ethno-nationalist Turkish state and its Syrian auxiliaries — right-wing gangs motivated by the most reactionary type of fundamentalist Islamism. Opportunities for looting and plunder are also key motivators of these gangs. The intent of the invasion is genocidal.
However, while the media routinely refers to the AA, their peak body, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), and its armed forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as “Kurds”, it is important to understand that this is a multiethnic revolution with considerable support from the Arab majority.
Much of the media coverage has focused on Trump’s sudden reversal of US policy in Syria. From late 2014 until Trump’s phone conversation with Erdoğan, the US and other Western powers were in a tactical military alliance with the SDF. The basis of this alliance was a fight against a common enemy — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But as SDC co-president Ilham Ahmed explain in an October 9 Washington Post editorial, “The United States has not always treated us like a full partner; it refused to listen to our concerns about Turkish intervention, and it excluded us from United Nations-brokered talks on the future of Syria.”
Throughout the duration of the alliance, US policy was to keep the alliance purely military and exclude the SDC and AA (and its predecessors) from international talks. The SDF and AA have always been aware that the US would discard them when they were no longer useful, while using deft diplomacy to prolong the alliance for as long as possible following the defeat of ISIS as a territory-controlling entity in November 2017.
However, the cynical way in which the US carried out its policy reversal is still shocking. The reason why the relatively small US presence was useful to the AA was because it could act as a restraint on Turkish aggression. Ostentatious US patrols would deter attacks by Turkey, which as a NATO member would not attack US forces. In the face of recent demands by Erdoğan for a “safe zone” (despite the fact that Turkey has never been attacked from SDF-controlled territory), the US brokered an agreement whereby the SDF would dismantle its defences and allow joint US-Turkish patrols on the border in return for the US continuing to deter a Turkish assault.
“US officials told us to destroy our defensive fortifications on the border with Turkey, to withdraw heavy weapons and to pull back our fighters. Although this left our families and children exposed to Turkey and the jihadist groups, the United States promised it would maintain border security. We obliged because we desire peace with Turkey and because we trusted the United States to make good on its commitments … Instead, now we have been betrayed,” Ahmed said.
Syrian Civil War
The tactical alliance began during the siege of Kobane in 2014. What is often forgotten is that it was never the US’s preferred option. When the Syrian Civil War began after a mass uprising against the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2011, the US began giving military aid to armed opposition groups that originated with defections from Assad’s army after they were deployed against unarmed protesters. It is unclear whether the US wanted to overthrow the Assad regime or simply tie it down in an endless war, along with its Russian sponsor.
This aid was mostly channelled through the US’s allies in the region, in particular Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. These regimes used the aid to transform armed opposition groups into their own proxies and fuelled the rise of right-wing Islamist ideologies among them. However, this became a problem for the US, partly because it meant the growth in Syria of anti-Western jihadi movements such as al-Qaeda, but more because, in the wake of the mass uprisings in the Arab world in 2011 and particularly after the 2013 coup in Egypt, these regimes became increasingly antagonistic towards each other, increasing infighting among the Syrian opposition groups.
While the 2011 Syrian uprising was for democracy and social and economic justice, the rise of the armed group transformed the popular uprising into a multi-sided civil war. Some armed opposition groups retained democratic ideals but criminal gangs, right-wing Islamist and proxies for regional powers came to predominate. For its part, the regime reacted with ever increasing violence, but was unable to hold its own without rising levels of support from Russia, Iran and Iranian-aligned armed groups from neighbouring countries such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Carpet bombing became the regime’s tactic of choice.
Popular coordinating committees that had sprung up after the uprising were caught between the regime’s war of annihilation and the increasingly anti-democratic armed opposition. Those committees that continued to exist had their role curtailed by armed groups.
The Rojava Revolution
In Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) events took a different direction. The left-wing Democratic Union Party (PYD) already had a popular base and used this to build grassroots mass organisation. Armed defence groups were set up, most notably the Peoples Defence Units (YPG) and Women’s Defence Units (YPJ). But they were not only focused on community self-defence; their role was to be subordinated to the democratic self-organisation of the population, a reversal of the situation in the rest of Syria.
In 2012, taking advantage of the regime withdrawing its depleting forces to defend the main cities in Syria, the democratic forces took over Rojava’s main towns, initially liberating three geographically separated cantons. While the rest of Syria descended into hell, they began creating a unique system of grassroots democracy, characterised by popular participation, anti-capitalism, ecology and an emphasis on gender equality, religious freedom and equality between ethnic groups.
While inter-communal violence, encouraged by both the regime and right-wing armed opposition devastated the rest of Syria, in Rojava, solidarity and unity between communities was combined with linguistic and cultural rights for all communities. Kurdish and Syriac became languages of instruction in schools, alongside Arabic. Likewise, while in the rest of Syria women bore the brunt of a politics defined by rival groups of men with guns, Rojava developed a system of quotas to ensure gender parity and parallel women-only structures (including courts and security forces, as well as political assemblies), and male and female co-leadership of all institutions at all levels, along with an anti-capitalist cooperative economic model that prioritised women’s empowerment.
As this system of Democratic Autonomy expanded it became the major preoccupation of the Turkish regime and its Syrian proxies. The conventional wisdom is that this is because the Turkish state feared the contagion of Kurdish separatism because the majority of Kurds live in Bakur (Turkish Kurdistan). However, this is contradicted by the close relationship between the Erdoğan regime and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the dominant party in the autonomous Kurdish statelet in Northern Iraq. Furthermore, unlike the KDP, the Rojava Revolution was never separatist.
Closer to the truth in explaining the Turkish state’s hostility is the ideological affinity between the revolution in Rojava (and later North-East Syria) and the Bakur-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Up until the late 1990s the PKK was separatist. However, following his capture in 1999 by CIA and Mossad agents and rendition to Turkey where he remains imprisoned, PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan promoted replacing the goal of an independent Kurdistan with the goal of making democratically self-administering communities the basis of society. The influence of Öcalan’s philosophy on the Rojava and North-East Syrian Revolution is undisguised.
However, perhaps more significant in determining Turkish hostility than the revolution’s affinity with the PKK (who were in peace talks with the government at the time) was its affinity to another group in Turkey — the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Originating in the Kurdish community, this electoral party drew support from much of the Turkish far left, along with the feminist, ecological, LGBTI, ethnic and religious minority rights and other social movements. In municipalities where it gained power it promoted grassroots democratic participation that had much in common with Rojava.
Relentless persecution has not prevented the HDP from gaining greater support. It continues to win elections despite its parliamentarians being routinely jailed and local governments it controls sacked. In 2015 state violence against HDP-controlled municipalities in Bakur included the Turkish air force bombing its own cities. This context makes the revolution across the Syrian border an existential threat to both Erdoğan and the Turkish state: the threat of a good example.
The rise of ISIS
Turkey directed its proxies in the Syrian armed opposition to focus on Rojava rather than Assad regime. However, the YPJ and YPG defeated them. Erdoğan then began supporting the Syrian al-Qaeda franchise, then called Nusra, but they were also defeated. So Erdoğan began supporting ISIS.
ISIS originated as the Iraqi al-Qaeda franchise. Denied the al-Qaeda brand after attempting to usurp Nusra, it sought to overshadow al-Qaeda by outdoing it in extremism of all kinds. Its fanaticism made it a far more effective tool for the Turkish state to use against the determined YPJ/YPG fighters, and it made gains leading to the siege of Kobanê. However, with Turkish arms it was also able to crush rival armed opposition groups (some of the more secular of which went to Kobanê and allied with YPG/YPJ who were already allied with left-wing Syriac/Assyrian groups, forming the basis of the SDF) and then launch an invasion of Iraq.
This both alarmed the US and gave it a pretext to form a new Western coalition to reoccupy Iraq and start bombing Syria. In Iraq, the US-led coalition partnered with the US-created post-occupation state and KDP forces. In August ISIS reached Shengal, home of Iraq’s Yazidi ethnoreligious minority. The Yazidis were singled out for particularly horrible treatment: the men were massacred as were most women and children, but some of the women were taken off to ISIS’s capital, Raqqa in Syria, and notoriously auctioned off as sex slaves in the public market. The Iraqi government army and KDP forces offered no resistance. In contrast, YPG/YPJ forces from Rojava and PKK forces from Bakur not only came to the Yazidi’s assistance; they helped them set up their own armed resistance and democratic self-rule. The US-led coalition continued to support the government and KDP forces.
An unlikely alliance
In Syria, ISIS closed in on Kobanê. The US was initially unwilling to support the YPJ/YPG and their allies. The Kurdish diaspora and supporters campaigned for the West to stop arming Turkey, who were arming ISIS, and allow arms to reach Kobanê’s defenders. It appears that Plan A of the US-led coalition was to repeat what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s: Allow Kobanê to fall, and use the resulting genocide to justify further intervention. However, the tenacious resistance of Kobanê prevented this.
At the same time, the US wanted to intervene with minimal use of its own ground forces but was having trouble finding any suitable proxy among the fractious, increasingly Islamist-dominated right-wing opposition groups who were either too weak or too beholden to Turkey to fight ISIS (some US armed groups had already defected to ISIS, bringing their US-supplied weapons). The YPJ/YPG and their allies presented an interesting possibility: they were proven effective fighters and independent of Assad, Russia and Iran.
They were also politically palatable. Although feminist ecosocialists obviously have a different political outlook to Western imperialism, the actual practice of the Rojava Revolution ironically reflects the West’s stated values much better than any Western or Western-aligned state.
For the defenders of Kobanê, an end to the arming of Turkey and the blockade of Rojava would have been preferable to airstrikes. But airstrikes were preferable to nothing. Thus, an unlikely alliance was born.
The alliance proved extremely effective. In 2015, the YPG/YPJ and their allies based in the Arab, Syriac/Assyrian, Turkmen and Armenian communities consolidated themselves into the SDF while the Democratic Autonomous administration was institutionalised as what is now the AA. With US airstrikes to counter their enemy’s heavy weapons, and their own US-supplied heavy weapons, they rapidly gained territory. By the time of ISIS’s defeat as a territorial entity in November 2017, the AA controlled a third of Syria’s territory. The Iraqi Yazidi women’s armed force they helped establish, the YJŞ, joined them in the assault on Raqqa with the specific mission of rescuing enslave Yazidi women and children and taking them home.
For the US, in contrast to their disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the alliance brought them a decisive victory against an indisputably frightening and horrible enemy, at a cost of virtually no casualties. The SDF, on the other hand lost 11,000 fighters, making Trump’s boasts that he defeated ISIS himself obscene even by his standards. Initially, the US airstrikes had much lower civilian casualties than is normal for US airstrikes. This was because the rules of engagement were for airstrikes only when called by the SDF, who were keen to minimise civilian deaths. However, this changed after Trump took office, as he changed the rules of engagement to allow bombings at the US Air Force’s own initiative, greatly increasing the civilian body count.
Both Barack Obama and Trump, however, continuously played a double game: maintaining the fiction that Turkey was part of the coalition against ISIS, denying the AA any political recognition or a place at the endless (and ineffective peace talks) and, at strategic points, permitting Turkish aggression against the AA. Turkey, alarmed by the US alliance with the AA, played its own double game, cultivating closer ties with Russia. This has enabled the Assad regime to regain most of the territory held by the right-wing armed opposition: throughout 2016 and 2017, a succession of deals between Turkey and Russia resulted in opposition groups surrendering territory to the government.
Today, most of the right-wing armed opposition, beholden to Turkey, are fighting the AA, not the regime, apart from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Nusra’s latest incarnation) who have a more ambiguous relationship with Turkey and fight both the AA and the regime.
In 2016, Obama, in coordination with Russia, and with the collaboration of ISIS itself, allowed Turkish forces to take a strip of territory between the towns of Jarabulus and Al-Bab. This permanently separated the canton of Afrîn from the rest of the AA-controlled territory. In January 2017, Trump repeated this betrayal on a larger scale, with the US and Russia allowing a Turkish invasion of Afrîn.
Mass ethnic cleansing followed: 300,000 Kurdish civilians were driven out and replaced with Arab civilians displaced from other parts of Syria by the Russia-Turkey deals giving territory back to the regime. Those who remain in Afrîn, whether Arab or Kurdish, live under a reign of terror from Turkish opposition forces and their Syrian proxies: murder, sexual violence, religious oppression and wholesale looting are the norm — a frightening picture of what faces civilians should the rest of the AA territory fall to the invaders.
Trump’s sudden abandonment of the SDF has been fiercely condemned by a broad range of US political, military and media figures, including many who have previously defended Trump through every scandal and backed up his most unhinged tweets. On the left, Democratic congress members Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders are all generally opposed to US military adventures but have pointed that this is one conflict where withdrawal, particularly in the context and manner in which it has been carried out, will make the situation worse.
Serving and retired generals have called the abandonment of the SDF a stain on the US military’s honour. More surprising is the number of Trump loyalists who have echoed this and the extent to which media such as Fox News, which hitherto functioned as Trump’s personal propaganda arm, have amplified these voices.
This is despite the fact that the entire US political establishment, mainstream Democrats and Republicans, along with the military and all wings of the mainstream media, are all committed to US interests which, ultimately, benefit more from an alliance with NATO-member Turkey than with the feminist ecosocialists. Not just the US, but most NATO countries, in particular Germany and Britain, continued to arm Turkey throughout the conflict.
However, while some right-wing generals, politicians and journalists might actually believe in the “death before dishonour” guff, there are pragmatic reasons why the US ruling class might see this as the instance where Trump has gone too far. US imperialism depends on projecting strength. That is what military interventions are for. That was why the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, but the US’s inability to extricate itself from these quagmires, and the relatively high US body count, undermined the projection of power.
Obama’s short, sharp air war against Libya, with Islamists serving as the ground troops, might have seemed more successful at the time. That Libya was left in a state of permanent civil war might not have mattered to the West. But the 2012 attack on the Benghazi US consulate (killing CIA and diplomatic personnel who had probably armed the attackers), and Libya becoming a base for terrorist attacks on the West (such as the 2017 Manchester bombing) has created a perception that Obama’s intervention made Libya more threatening.
The manner Trump’s abandonment of the SDF, following his phone call with Erdoğan appears not only treacherous, but weak. Furthermore, while feminist ecosocialism might not be US imperialism’s preferred mode of government, the precipitous nature of the withdrawal, creating a very real threat of an ISIS revival, would negate the perception achieved of an intervention that actually worked.
For their part, the SDF and all sectors of society in the AA territory have sworn to resist fiercely while the PKK and other Kurdish and left-wing groups in Turkey have vowed to open a front for the resistance there. The revolutionaries’ track record suggests that Erdoğan is unlikely to be victorious in the long-run. However, the cost to civilians and fighters alike in North-East Syria will be horrific and the unique democratic experiment, and example it sets for the world, is in danger. For this reason, the people of the AA are calling for the resistance to become a global.
As Rojava women’s organisation Kongra Star said in an October 9 statement: “We call on all women of the world to protect and expand this island of freedom, which has been created through great sacrifices for all of us. We call on women from all over the world to develop activities everywhere under the campaign ‘Women Defend Rojava’. Turkey wants fascism to mark the first quarter of the 21st century … Of course, we know that the fascist Turkish state is supported by reactionary states and NATO states. For this reason, we call on all the democratic, socialist, revolutionary, feminist, anarchist and ecological movements living in the Middle East, Europe, USA, Latin America, Asia, Africa and all over the world to defeat the fascism imposed by the Turkish state with resistance.”