Syrian Kurds throw potatoes at departing US troops
Trump’s telephone call to Erdogan on October 6 appeared to give the “green light” for a major Turkish invasion of Northern Syria and a brutal clean-up operation against the Kurdish forces who have up till now controlled the area with US backing. It provoked a storm of outrage both among the USA’s NATO “allies” in Europe and large parts of the military and political establishment in Washington, most notably from Trump’s own former defence secretary “Mad Dog” Mattis. The principal criticism of Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds has been that it will undermine all credibility in the US as an ally you can rely on: in short, it’s a disaster on the diplomatic level. But there is also the concern that the retreat of the Kurds will result in a revival of the Islamic Forces whose containment has been almost solely the work of the Kurdish forces supported by US air power. The Kurds have been holding thousands of IS prisoners, and more than a hundred of them have already broken out of gaol.
Trump’s action has set off alarm bells within the US bourgeoisie, multiplying worries that his unpredictable and self-serving style of presidency is becoming a real danger for the US, and even that he is losing what little mental stability he possesses under the pressure of the office and above all of the current impeachment campaign against him. Certainly his behaviour is becoming increasingly bizarre, showing himself not only as an ignoramus (the Kurds didn’t support us on the Normandy landings…) but as a common mobster (his letter to Erdogan warning him not to be a fool or a tough guy, which the Turkish leader promptly threw in the bin, his threats to destroy Turkey’s economy…). He governs by tweet, takes impulsive decisions, disregards advice from his staff and then has to back-track the next minute – as witness the letter and the hasty dispatch of Pence and Pompeo to Ankara to cobble together a cease-fire in Northern Syria
But let’s not dwell too much on the personality of Trump. In the first place, he is merely an expression of the advancing decomposition of his class, a process which is everywhere giving rise to “strong men” who incite the lowest passions and rejoice in their disregard for truth and the traditional rules of the political game, from Duterte to Oban and from Modi to Boris Johnson. And even if Trump jumped the gun in his dealings with Erdogan, the policy of troop withdrawal from the Middle East was not the invention of Trump, but goes back to the Obama administration which recognised the total failure of US Middle East policy since the early 90s and the necessity to create a “pivot” in the Far East in order to counter the growing threat of Chinese imperialism.
The last time the US gave a green light in the Middle East was in 1990 when the US ambassador April Glaspie let it be known that the US would not interfere if Saddam Hussein marched into Kuwait. It was a well-organised trap, laid with the idea of conducing a massive US operation in the area and compelling its western partners to join a grand crusade. This was a moment when, following the collapse of the Russian bloc in 1989, the western bloc was already beginning to unravel and the US, as the only remaining super-power, needed to assert its authority by a spectacular demonstration of force. Guided by an almost messianic “Neo-Con” ideology, the first Gulf war was followed by further US military adventures, in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. But the waning support to these operations from its former allies, and above all the utter chaos they stirred up in the Middle East, trapping US forces in unwinnable conflicts against local insurgencies, has demonstrated the steep decline of the USA’s ability to police the world. In this sense, there is a logic behind Trump’s impulsive actions, supported by considerable parts of the US bourgeoisie. US imperialism has recognised that it cannot rule the Middle East through putting boots on the ground or even through its own air power. It will rely more and more on its most dependable allies in the region – Israel and Saudi Arabia – to defend its interests through military action, directed in particular against the rising power of Iran (and, in the longer term, against the potential presence of China as a serious contender in the region).
The “betrayal” of the Kurds
The ceasefire negotiated by Pence and Pompeo – which Trump claims will save “millions of lives” – does not seriously alter the policy of abandoning the Kurds, since its aim is merely to give Kurdish forces the opportunity to retreat while the Turkish army asserts its control of northern Syria. And it should be said that this kind of “betrayal” is nothing new. In 1991, in the war against Saddam Hussein, the US under Bush Senior encouraged the Kurds of northern Iraq to rise up against Saddam’s regime – and then left Saddam in power, willing and able to crush the Kurdish uprising with the utmost savagery. Iran has also tried to use the Kurds of Iraq against Saddam. But all the powers of the region, and the global powers who stand behind them, have consistently opposed the formation of a unified state of Kurdistan, which would mean the break-up of the existing national arrangements in the Middle East.
The armed Kurdish forces, meanwhile, have never hesitated to sell themselves to the highest bidder. This is happening before our eyes: the Kurdish militia immediately turned to Russia and the Assad regime itself to protect them from the Turkish invasion.
Furthermore, this has been the fate of all “national liberation” struggles since at least the First World War: they have only been able to prosper under the wing of one or another imperialist power. The same grim necessity applies throughout the Middle East in particular: the Palestinian national movement sought the backing of Germany and Italy in the 1930s and 40s, of Russia during the Cold War, of various regional powers in the world disorder unleashed by the collapse of the bloc system. Meanwhile, the dependency of Zionism on imperialist support (mainly, but not only, from the US) needs no demonstration, but is no exception to the general rule. National liberation movements may adopt many ideological banners – Stalinism, Islamism, even, as in the case of the Kurdish forces in Rojava, a kind of anarchism – but they can only trap the exploited and the oppressed in the endless wars of capitalism in its epoch of imperialist decay.
A perspective of imperialist chaos and human misery
The most obvious beneficiary from the US retreat from the Middle East has been Russia. During the 1970s and 80s, the USSR had been forced to renounce most of its positions in the Middle East, particularly its influence in Egypt and above all its attempts to control Afghanistan. Its last outpost, and a vital point of access to the Mediterranean, was Syria and the Assad regime, which was threatened with collapse by the war which swept the country after 2011 and the advances made by the “democratic” rebels and above all by Islamic State. Russia’s massive intervention in Syria has saved the Assad regime and restored its control to most of the country, but it is doubtful whether this would have been possible if the US, desperate to avoid getting stuck in another quagmire after Afghanistan and Iraq, had not effectively ceded the country to the Russians. This has sown divisions in the US bourgeoisie, with some of its more established factions in the military apparatus still deeply suspicious of anything the Russians might do, while Trump and those behind him have seen Putin as a man to do business with and above all a possible bulwark against the seemingly inexorable rise of China.
Part of Russia’s ascent to such a commanding position in Syria has involved developing a new relationship with Turkey, which has gradually been distancing itself from the US, not least over the latter’s support for the Kurds in its operation against IS in the north of Syria. But the Kurdish issue is already creating difficulties for the Russian-Turkish rapprochement: since a part of the Kurdish forces are now turning to Assad and the Russians for protection, and as the Syrian and Russian military move in to occupy the areas previously controlled by the Kurdish fighters, there is a looming risk of confrontation between Turkey on the one hand and Syria and its Russian backers on the other. For the moment this danger seems to have been averted by the deal made between Erdogan and Putin in Sochi on 22 October. The agreement gives Turkey control over a buffer zone in northern Syria at the expense of the Kurds, while confirming Russia’s role as the main power-broker in the region. Whether this arrangement will overcome the long-standing antagonisms between Turkey and Assad’s Syria remains to be seen. The war of each against all, a central feature of imperialist conflict since the demise of the bloc system, is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in Syria.
For the moment Erdogan’s Turkey can also congratulate itself on its rapid military progress in northern Syria and the cleaning out of the Kurdish “terrorist nests”. The incursion has also come as a godsend to Erdogan at the domestic level: following some severe set-backs for his AKP party in elections over the last year, the wave of nationalist hysteria stirred up by the military adventure has split the opposition, which is made up of Turkish “democrats” and the Kurdish HDP
Erdogan can, for the moment, go back to selling the dream of a new Ottoman empire, Turkey restored to its former glory as a global player before it became the “sick man of Europe” at the beginning of the 20th century. But marching into what is already a profoundly chaotic situation could easily be a dangerous trap for the Turks in the longer run. And above all, this new escalation of the Syrian conflict will add considerably to its already gigantic human cost. Well over 100,000 civilians have already been displaced, greatly increasing Syria’s internal refugee nightmare, while a secondary aim of the invasion is to dump around 3 million Syrian refugees, currently living in dire conditions in Turkish camps, in northern Syria, largely at the expense of the local Kurdish population.
The baseless cynicism of the ruling class is revealed not only in the mass murder its aircraft, artillery and terrorist bombs rain on the civil population of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Gaza, but also by the way it uses those forced to flee from the killing zones. The EU, that paragon of democratic virtue, has long relied on Erdogan to act as a prison guard to the Syrian refugees under his “protection”, preventing them from adding to the waves heading towards Europe. Now Erdogan sees a solution to this burden in the ethnic cleansing of northern Syria, and threatens – if the EU criticises his actions – to channel a new refugee tide towards Europe.
Human beings are only of use to capital if they can be exploited or used as cannot fodder. And the open barbarism of the war in Syria is only a foretaste of what capitalism has in store for the whole of humanity if it is allowed to continue. But the principal victims of this system, all those whom it exploits and oppresses, are not passive objects, and in the past year or so we have glimpsed the possibility of mass reactions against poverty and ruling class corruption in social revolts in Jordan Iran, Iraq and most recently Lebanon. These movements tend to be very confused, infected by nationalist illusions, and cry out for a clear lead from the working class acting on its own class terrain. But this is a task not only for the workers in the Middle East, but for the workers of the world, and above all for the workers of the old centres of capital where the autonomous political tradition of the proletariat was born and has the deepest roots.
 For further analysis of the history of Kurdish nationalism, see https://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201712/14574/kurdish-nationalism-another-pawn-imperialist-conflicts