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Against the bigger war going on in the Ukraine, a smaller one hotting up has been getting little attention. Turkey started shelling a region in Syria which the inhabitants call Rojava and killed some of those inhabitants, including military leaders, who have had mass funeral protests.
The Kurds’ representatives were blaming the USA and Russia but most of all the former, saying it’s part of a deal for Turkey to lift its objections to Sweden and Finland for membership of Nato.
The official quid pro quo was for those countries to repress their Kurdish diaspora and to remain silent on repression in Turkey. But it seems an unofficial part of the deal was to let Turkey set its military loose on Rojava, the inhabitants of which are now living in fear of a full Turkish invasion.
Far indeed do the consequences of the war in the Ukraine reach around the world – Rojava is over 2,000 km from the Donbas region (and they will reach much further than this before it’s over)!
The Kurdish-led Rojava sector fought ISIS from 2014 to March 2019, at first without any external help and later assisted by NATO bombing runs.
The USA’s earlier policy had been to boost Islamic jihadism as a counter to left-wing nationalism and Russian influence (for example in Afghanistan) – until jihadism threatened western interests also. Then it waged war to eradicate it and, in the course of that, supported the Kurds in Rojava.
But US/NATO wants a solid block facing (not to say encircling) Russia – so now previous bets are off and the Rojava region can be thrown to the wolves – or to Turkey; first by Trump to screams of outrage from US Democrats but now by Biden, to probable silence.
But why does the Turkish military want to shell Syria? Why specifically shelling the Rojava region? If you know, you know but if you don’t, a little background might help.
The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Turkey, comprising around 18% of Turkey’s population; the largest concentration (2 million) of which lives in Istanbul. The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslim, with Alevi Shi’a Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Yezidi communities.
Together with Kurdish populations in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia (all “Kurdistan”) the Kurds number between 25 and 35 million in the Middle East (with a very large diaspora in Europe, the USA and other areas).
The area occupied by Kurds in the Middle East is of huge strategic and resources importance and none of the major states in the area have agreed to their having a state.
After World War One and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious Western allies made provision for a Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres.
However the new leader of Turkey, Kemal Attaturk, the “father of modern Turkey” rejected a reduction in the size of the state and the subsequent imperialist Treaty of Lausanne set the boundaries of modern Turkey without any reference to the Kurds (“mountain Turks”, according to Attaturk).
Also in 1920, the Royal Air Force of the UK bombed the Kurds with chemical weapons and machine-gunned them during the Iraqi (then Mesopotamia) uprising,
In 1946 the USSR supported a Kurdish state in a part of what is Iran today but in the face of the western powers’ opposition and support for the state of Persia’s (then a client state of the West) claim to the territory, the USSR withdrew its support and the Kurdish state was suppressed.
Every attempt to set up a Kurdish state since then has been violently suppressed and, in Turkey, even an autonomous Kurdish region was beyond contemplation by the authorities, who suppress even Kurdish language and music.
THE KURDS IN SYRIA
In 2013 an uprising began against the Assad regime which, though it had some popular elements quickly became dominated by Jihadists and NATO proxies. The Syrian part of the Kurdish liberation movement saw an advantage for itself here and set up its own liberated areas.
Also in 2013 the fundamentalist islamist group ISIS burst on to the scene and, taking advantage of the Assad regime’s beleaguered situation, attacked large areas of Syria, to overthrow the regime but also to subjugate all peoples in the region, including the Kurds and Arabs of any kind.
The Kurds of Rojava fought to protect their areas from ISIS but also carried out a heroic rescue action to save Yazidis, opening and defending a corridor for Yazidi refugees to reach safety in the Kurdish liberated area where they built a cross-community alliance with Yazidis, Turkmen and Arabs, in which they state that all its citizens have equal rights.
Whether this is as true as they (and as their supporters in parts of the European Left) say or not, certainly women have a formally equal status and women are elected – and also appointed — to positions of high administrative and military responsibility.
The Turkish regime has been at war with the Kurds within the state’s territory led by the PKK since 1974 and viewed the setting up of an independent republic under Kurdish leadership across the border in Syria with great alarm.
In 2014 Turkey began attacking support and supply lines from Kurds in Turkey to Rojava, which caused outrage among the extended Kurdish diaspora and other opponents of ISIS in the West.
And in fact, although Turkey is an important member of NATO, Turkish military attacked the enclave a number of times, both directly and through the use of muslim fundamentalist jihadists.
Nevertheless, NATO’s concentration on wiping out the ISIS threat in the area had to have a restraining effect on Turkey. And then there was Russia too, also supplying air cover — but to the Syrian regime.
“MY ENEMY’S ENEMY IS ….” — an understandable but dangerous philosophy
At first in 2013 it seemed that the Kurds around Rojava were merely taking advantage of the Syrian regime’s trouble to go for establishing their own republic, in addition to fighting the dire threat of ISIS.
In the latter struggle, they would of course gladly accept NATO bombing of ISIS and liaise with NATO commanders on where ISIS forces were gathering – for the Kurd’s own safety and for destruction of a dangerous enemy.
However some years ago an interview with the Kurdish commander of the Rojava military forces was published in which he said that the intentions of the Rojava military went further and involved overthrowing the Assad regime, an objective that they shared with NATO.
At a meeting organised by socialist Irish Republicans about five years ago, while expressing admiration for the Kurd’s struggle for self-determination in general and specifically against ISIS, I questioned from the audience a Kurdish speaker from London.
When I commented on what seemed a clear alliance with western imperialism and in particular the USA, the biggest imperialist power in the world, the speaker replied that they were merely accepting necessary aid for their defence against ISIS.
But when I pointed him towards the Kurdish military commander’s interview on the regime change objectives of his forces and of NATO, all he had to say was that I should visit Rojava.
This situation and its history once again highlights the dangers of revolutionaries doing any deal with imperialism, most of all one where the long-term survival of one’s people depends on the continued support of an imperialist power.
It also raises the question of whether it is justifiable or at least wise in the longer term to use a major world power’s assistance in order to remove a smaller power.
The main Kurdish liberation movement of the PKK fought a heroic struggle for decades, in particular against the ferocious Turkish regime, with many martyrs and political prisoners.
One of its weaknesses was the almost deification of their leader Oçalan and the way his attempted embracing of the proposed “peace process” undermined the movement, as similar processes have done wherever they have been introduced.
Of course, as with the Spanish state, another fascist but supposedly democratic regime, the Turkish regime is not interested in any “peace process”, a slow sapping of the resistance movement. For its ruling elite, crudely crushing the resistance with brute force is the only way .
The Kurdish movement in Syria was seen as a spinoff from the PKK which supported it in its struggle against the Syrian regime but in particular in its heroic struggle against the Islamic State/ ISIS/ Deish.
However the Turkish state would view any independent Kurdish area, let alone one in nearby Syria as encouragement to Kurds within its territory. The ISIS movement threatened some Western interests and so NATO went to war with it, the Syrian Kurds linked themselves with NATO not only to defeat ISIS but also to overthrow the Assad regime.
US-led NATO wanted to overthrow the Assad regime but as part of its Middle Eastern encirclement of Russia (which is why Russia came to the aid of Assad against ISIS). Iraq and Libya had fallen already and, after Syria, Iran would be next on the list.
But as the ISIS threat and the likelihood of deposing Assad faded, NATO support for the Rojava fighters declined. In October 2019 the SDF had to conclude an agreement with the Syrian regime to have it move into their area to end five days of attacks by Turkey.
When their protection from Turkey could be dropped in exchange for a US/NATO advantage in Eastern Europe, nothing stood against a Turkish all-out attack on Rojava. Nothing, that is, except the Russian airforce.
If Turkey is to attack Rojava with ground troops it will need to use air cover both in manned and unmanned vehicles, which would require Russia not policing the no-fly zone in Syria near the Turkish border.
In February 2021, a Russia-brokered agreement between the SDF and the Syrian regime to lift the SDF’s siege of regime-held towns showed strains. But last month, at a summit in Tehran between leaders of Iran, Russia and Turkey, the other two warned the latter not to attack the Kurds in Syria.
However, despite Turkey’s NATO membership, Russia does get along with the state’s rulers from time to time and the recent discussions between the ruling elites of Russia and Ukraine on unblocking the flow of grain and fertiliser out of the war zone were held in Turkey.
The Syrian regime does not want an autonomous area within the territory of its state and Russia’s leaders will be anxious to keep on good terms with its ally – but it will also wish to wean Turkey away from NATO.
The Rojava enclave, though never as wonderful as it was proclaimed to be from a socialist point of view, is nevertheless an interesting experiment in federalism and multi-ethnic administration.
It will be sad if Rojava falls to Turkish aggression and a mean repayment for their heroic struggle to rescue the Yazidis and to hold off the advance of ISIS which cost them 10,000 dead fighters. It may also be yet another disastrous byproduct of the proxy war NATO is waging in the Ukraine.
SOURCES & FURTHER READING:
Turkish military attacks on Rojava: https://thefreeonline.com/2022/07/12/mass-funerals-as-terrorist-turkey-shells-towns-and-refugees-before-new-rojava-invasion/
Trump dumps the Syrian Kurds: https://progressive.org/latest/foreign-correspondent-trump-kurds-empire-crumbles-erlich-101918/
Russia blocks Turkey’s plans to attack Rojava: https://www.irishtimes.com/world/middle-east/2022/07/20/iran-and-russia-warn-turkey-against-military-offensive-against-syrian-kurdish-forces-in-syria/
Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led Rojava alliance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Democratic_Forces
Long history Turkish State conflict with Kurds: https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/conflict-between-turkey-and-armed-kurdish-groups
A modern history of the Kurds: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440