Spartacist Canada No. 183
Down With U.S. War Against ISIS!
Syria/Iraq: Kurdish Nationalists Serve U.S. Imperialism
The following article is reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1056 (14 November), newspaper of the Spartacist League/U.S.
In his press conference the day after the midterm elections, President Barack Obama stated that he would seek Congressional authorization for his war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, three months after the U.S. imperialists started their bombing campaign against those reactionary Islamists. Two days later came the announcement that 1,500 American troops would soon be sent to Iraq, doubling the number of military “advisers” there. The insistence by the White House that there will be no U.S. “boots on the ground” to carry out the war against ISIS is sounding thinner by the day.
For the moment, the Obama administration continues to rely on bombing attacks and local proxies on the ground. In the battle for the predominantly Kurdish city of Kobani in northern Syria, the U.S. has carried out airstrikes against ISIS and dropped arms and other supplies to fighters, mainly from the People’s Protection Committees (YPG). The YPG—the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is allied to the nationalist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) based in Turkey—is acting as both ground troops and spotters for the U.S. imperialists. YPG spokesman Polat Can described how a member of his organization in the joint operation command center transmits the coordinates for bomb attacks provided by YPG forces on site (civiroglu.net, 14 October).
The acceleration of U.S. “mission creep” in Iraq and Syria underscores the need for class-conscious workers everywhere, particularly in the U.S., to oppose the war against ISIS and all other imperialist depredations. Cynically carried out in the name of humanitarian assistance to the Yazidis, the Syrian Kurds and other victims of the ISIS cutthroats, the imperialist onslaught is aimed at reinforcing the U.S. hold over the Near East. The U.S.-led “coalition” hodgepodge includes Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been among the main financial backers of ISIS, as well as other Persian Gulf monarchies. The public beheadings by ISIS shocked Americans, feeding into support for the bombing campaign. Not as publicized in the U.S. capitalist media are the numerous beheadings carried out by Washington’s Saudi allies, who execute people convicted of homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, apostasy and sorcery.
In Kobani, the PKK-allied forces have tied the fortunes of the oppressed Kurdish population to U.S. imperialism’s war against ISIS. They are joined in this effort by Iraqi government forces and the Kurdish pesh merga of northern Iraq, who are conducting joint military operations with the U.S., just as they did during the American occupation of Iraq. As we stated last issue, “The fact that all these forces are ‘boots on the ground’ for imperialist intervention means that revolutionary Marxists have a military side with ISIS when it targets the imperialists and their proxies” (WV No. 1055, 31 October).
We are implacable opponents of the ultra-reactionary political and social program of ISIS, and we condemn communal atrocities on all sides. Prior to the U.S. military intervention, we insisted that the international proletariat must take no side in the raft of interethnic and inter-communal conflicts in the region, which are in no small part the legacy of imperialist subjugation. Where the working class must take a side is in opposition to the imperialists and their lackeys in Iraq and Syria.
Our military side with ISIS against the U.S.-led coalition and its local adjuncts today flows from our understanding that it is the imperialists who are the main enemy of the working people in the U.S. and the Near East. In its quest for profit and domination, the U.S. ruling class has slaughtered millions upon millions and constantly wreaked havoc around the world. In other circumstances, ISIS might well act as an agency of the imperialists, as its forebears did in the CIA-backed mujahedin war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. More recently, U.S. backing for the opposition to Syria’s Assad regime in the early part of that country’s civil war gave much encouragement to Islamic fundamentalist forces, including what would become ISIS.
Laying the cards on the table, a New York Times (23 October) editorial titled “Why Kobani Must Be Saved” noted that the Kurdish town, “once dismissed as inconsequential by American commanders,” had become a test of the Obama administration’s strategy of airstrikes combined with reliance on local ground forces. “A setback in Kobani,” the Times declared, “would show the fragility of the American plan and hand the Islamic State an important victory.”
From the point of view of the international proletariat, a defeat of U.S.-backed forces in Kobani could throw a monkey wrench into imperialist designs for the region. It could also promote opposition domestically, where despite the uptick in support for the anti-ISIS campaign working people remain war-weary. Ground down by years of economic crisis, with a “recovery” that has overwhelmingly benefited the rich, much of the American population is distrustful of and disaffected from the government, including over its shredding of the right to privacy and other democratic rights under the rubric of the “war on terror.” We Marxists aim to turn such disillusionment and anger into class struggle against the capitalist rulers at home. It is through such struggle that the proletariat must be won to the program of socialist revolution to destroy the imperialist beast from within.
Kurdish Nationalists’ Ties to Imperialism
The PKK leadership’s current alliance with the U.S. is only the latest in a long history of maneuvers by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois Kurdish nationalists to ingratiate themselves with the imperialists and/or regional capitalist regimes. At all times, this program has meant betraying the just struggles of the Kurdish people.
The Kurdish nation is divided among Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey—a legacy of the carving up of the Near East by British and French imperialism out of the carcass of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. The national liberation of the Kurdish people requires the proletarian overthrow of those states and the forging of a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan. Kurdish national aspirations must be linked to the struggles of the working class in Turkey and throughout the Near East and beyond. Centrally important to this perspective is the presence of as many as one million Kurds in Germany, where they are heavily integrated into the working class. These workers are a living bridge between the struggles of Near Eastern Kurds and those of the powerful German working class against its exploiters.
The Kurdish nationalist and tribal leaders have compiled a century-long record of betrayal, leading to one disaster after another for the Kurdish masses. When the Turkish Ottoman empire launched the genocidal campaign against the Armenians during World War I, in which as many as one million or more were massacred, it was assisted by Kurds mobilized by their tribal leaders. The Kurds were subsequently rewarded with merciless repression. In consolidating the modern Turkish state, Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk) sought to destroy the Kurds’ national identity, banning the use of their language. Repeated Kurdish revolts were brutally suppressed, with hundreds of thousands deported to central and western Turkey.
It was the Soviet Union, created by the proletarian 1917 Russian Revolution, that showed the way out of this cycle of ethnic and communal slaughter and created the conditions for the Kurds to achieve their greatest degree of freedom. Under V.I. Lenin’s Bolshevik regime, the 200,000 Kurds in the fledgling workers state were granted full political and language rights. Autonomous administration was granted to Kurdish districts in the Caucasus, with education and government business conducted in their language. It was in Soviet Armenia that a written Kurdish language first flourished (initially in the Armenian alphabet, followed by Latin and Cyrillic). The Armenian capital, Yerevan, became the first center of Kurdish publishing and literary development. The bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state under J.V. Stalin did not erase these gains, even after Stalin dissolved “Red Kurdistan” in 1929. By the 1930s, all Soviet Kurds were literate, compared to a mere 1 percent before the Revolution.
The actions of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), today led by Massoud Barzani, and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraq provide a textbook example of how looking for allies among local capitalist rulers and their imperialist godfathers spells defeat. After the Arab nationalist Ba’ath regime that was installed in Iraq in 1963 launched an attack on the Kurds, the KDP got support from an unholy alliance of the CIA, the Israeli Mossad and the Shah of Iran. In return, the KDP turned on the Iranian Kurds, hunting them down and turning them over to the Shah. After a cease-fire with the Ba’ath regime in 1970, the Kurds secured a large autonomous region in northern Iraq.
As always, the Kurds’ supposed benefactors turned on them. In 1975, the Shah made a separate peace with Hussein and cut off support to the Kurds, with the CIA quickly following suit. This allowed the Iraqi army to surge back into the Kurdish area. The subsequent wave of repression forced more than 100,000 Kurds to flee the region. Shortly afterward, during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), the KDP got support from Iran while the PUK made a cease-fire deal with Hussein. In 1983, the U.S. began a tilt toward Iraq in the conflict. With arms and other aid flowing in from the U.S. and Europe—including the technology to develop poison gas and biological weapons—the Iraqi regime was emboldened to move against the Kurdish population. The PUK then joined with the KDP and Iranian armed forces, which moved deep into Iraqi Kurdistan. Hussein responded by launching air bombardment and poison gas attacks, killing Kurds by the thousands.
During Operation Desert Storm, America’s first war on Iraq in 1991, the KDP and PUK sided with the imperialists. Following the war, the Kurds rose up in the vain expectation that the U.S. would back them. The uprising was brutally suppressed by the Iraqi government, and this time the number of refugees exceeded one million. Nevertheless, the Iraqi Kurds were able to set up their autonomous region as a result of a U.S.-enforced “no fly zone” in the north of the country. During the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, both the KDP and PUK operated under American command and then served as military auxiliaries to the occupation forces. For nearly a decade, Barzani has held office in the oil-rich north, and Talabani served as president of the Baghdad government from 2005 to July 2014.
While the Kurdish leaders have benefited handsomely from their services to the imperialists, the masses have paid with their blood. Throughout the Iraq occupation, the U.S. manipulated and reinforced sectarian divisions, including by mobilizing the Kurdish pesh merga along with Shi’ite militias to crush Sunni insurgents in Falluja in 2004 as American troops leveled that city. From encouraging Shi’ite death squads to rounding up Sunnis associated with Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, the Shi’ite-dominated Baghdad government poured gas on the exploding sectarian powder keg. It was out of the ruins of such communal warfare that Al Qaeda in Iraq, which later morphed into ISIS, emerged and gained support from many aggrieved Sunnis.
The PKK, Syria and Turkey
The PKK, which used to pass off its nationalist program as a variant of “Marxism-Leninism,” got a foothold in Syrian Kurdistan in the late 1970s as a result of tensions between Turkey and Syria. At the time, Syria became a close ally of Iran, as it is today, and was also aligned with the Soviet Union. Seeking to use the Kurds against his Turkish rivals, then-president of Syria Hafez al-Assad (father of the current president) allowed the PKK to open offices in Damascus and establish training centers in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which was under Syrian control. A high proportion of PKK fighters in Turkey—as many as a third by some estimates—were and are today Syrian Kurds.
At the same time, Hafez al-Assad’s Arab nationalist regime moved to deepen the oppression of the Kurdish people in Syria. He actively sought to settle Arab tribes on Kurdish land and continued to deny citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Kurds. Today, some 300,000 of them are stateless.
The destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991 increased Syria’s vulnerability to Turkey’s much greater military power. By 1998, facing the threat of military intervention by Turkey, Assad banned the PKK, imprisoned a number of its leaders and kicked out PKK founding leader Abdullah Öcalan. The following year, Öcalan was captured with the assistance of the CIA and imprisoned in Turkey. In subsequent years, PKK fighters in Syria and Lebanon were forced to relocate to northern Iraq.
The 2011 outbreak of the Syrian civil war provided the PKK/PYD with a new lease on life. The regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Kurdish PYD shared an antipathy toward the Sunni Arab rebels. Even those Syrian Kurdish parties that were initially willing to play ball with the U.S., Turkey and others in setting up a united opposition in exile eventually withdrew from the main anti-Assad coalition because the non-Kurdish rebel groups rejected any form of autonomy for the Kurds. The PYD told Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces to stay away from Kurdish territory. The warning was generally heeded, although there have been intermittent clashes between the FSA and the YPG. Assad sought to encourage the tension by conciliating the Kurds, allowing some to have their citizenship restored and assenting to the transfer of around 1,000 PKK fighters from Iraq to Syria.
July 2012 marked an important pivot in the Syrian civil war, as rebel forces launched an offensive in Damascus (killing three members of Assad’s inner circle in a bomb attack). With rebels advancing on the outskirts of the capital, Assad reached a tacit agreement with the PYD. Syrian troops were withdrawn from Kurdish areas and PYD forces quickly moved in virtually without military confrontation. This freed up regime forces to fight the rebellion in Damascus and elsewhere.
The main foes of the PYD were now the Nusra Front and ISIS. A detailed on-site study earlier this year by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an advisory body to the imperialists, documented cases in which the YPG, while engaged in key battles with Islamists, received weapons as well as air support from the Assad regime. The ICG also reported that Damascus was supplying the PYD with financing and diesel fuel.
The creation of a semi-autonomous Kurdish region right on the border with Turkey was anathema to the regime in Ankara. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Turkey had sought to head off the consolidation of a PYD/PKK-dominated area on its border. A glance at a map shows why this is considered so critical. The parts of Turkish Kurdistan where the PKK has centered its guerrilla war are located in eastern and southeastern Anatolia, while the Kurdish regions of Syria are more to the west. The threat to the Turkish government is that PKK fighters operating from bases in Syria could open a new front against Turkey in central Anatolia.
During the long, brutal war waged by capitalist Turkey against the PKK, in which 37,000 Kurds were slaughtered between 1984 and 1999, PKK fighters in Iraq were hunted down and killed by the KDP and PUK on behalf of Ankara. Today, to undercut PYD gains in Syria, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has again turned to his ally Barzani. The KDP first sought to consolidate a foothold in northern Syria by conciliating the PYD, but attempts to set up a joint administration of Syrian Kurdish areas have failed. To counter the growing influence of the PYD, Barzani then announced that hundreds of Kurdish defectors from the Syrian army, who had received training from the KDP in Iraqi Kurdistan, would be dispatched back into Syria. The PYD blocked their entry at the border. More recently, Ankara agreed to allow KDP forces to transit through Turkey to Syria, which Erdogan sees mainly as a police action against the PKK/PYD.
Behind such maneuvers are the strong economic ties between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey. Tens of billions of dollars in Turkish investment have poured into Erbil, the regional Kurdish capital, in recent years, transforming the city’s skyline while lining the pockets of the Barzani clan and other nationalist leaders. Turkey also has its eyes on the area’s oil resources, although Washington has so far opposed Barzani’s attempts to export oil directly to Turkey without giving the central government in Baghdad its cut.
The Turkish rulers consider Iraqi Kurdistan a gateway for projecting power in the Near East. This aim is also served by Turkey’s support to the anti-Assad opposition in Syria. Erdogan has pushed for tying assistance to the Kurds in Kobani to setting up a Turkish-dominated buffer zone inside Syria. This would include a no-fly zone that would clearly be aimed at the Assad regime, since ISIS lacks an air force.
Reformists Salute Imperialists’ Foot Soldiers
A victory for the U.S. and its underlings would further embolden the imperialists in their drive for domination and throw back the struggles of the Kurds and other oppressed peoples and communities. This understanding, which is elementary for Marxist opponents of the capitalist-imperialist order, is trampled on by reformist leftists internationally who are backing the Kurds in Kobani.
In the front ranks of the pro-imperialist chorus in France is the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA—affiliated with the United Secretariat), which calls on the French government to arm the Kurds in Kobani. In an October 9 statement, the NPA stated that it was “opposed to the catastrophic interventions of the armies of the great powers” against ISIS and called instead to “support the resistance of the local progressive forces.” In other words, the Mafia don should assign the hit to a junior foot soldier, the difference being that in the Mob that act might win initiation into the Family. The NPA’s line on Kobani is basically the same as its position on French imperialist intervention in Mali and other African neocolonies, where the NPA prefers arming local forces to sending in French soldiers.
In the U.S., the same reformist groups that a decade ago built an antiwar movement directed against the Republican Bush administration are keeping any opposition to the current U.S. intervention, directed by the Democratic Commander-in-Chief, sotto voce at best. Among the opportunists are those who claim to oppose U.S. intervention in Syria/Iraq while simultaneously backing the Kurdish forces that are acting as imperialist proxies. For example, a statement by Socialist Alternative (27 October) gushes over the possibility that “Kurdish militias in Kobane, currently supported by U.S. strikes and weapon supplies, will turn back the IS [Islamic State] offensive,” declaring that such an outcome would “underline the need for a united and mobilized movement from below to permanently defeat IS” (socialistalternative.net).
At least these reformists are straightforward in hailing the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. The centrists of the Internationalist Group try to have it both ways, calling in the Internationalist (October 2014): “Defend the Kurds, Defeat U.S./NATO Imperialism!” The simple fact, as we wrote last issue, is that “championing the Kurds in the current conflict can only mean lending support to imperialist plunder.”
In their publicity for the Kurdish nationalists, many reformist groups are pointing to the Kurdish regions of northern Syria as the site of a social revolution being carried out under the PKK and PYD. These are the same left groups that not too long ago were hailing the Syrian rebels, who were all—from a few more-secular types to the Islamists—as hostile to the idea of Kurdish national rights as they were to the Assad regime and who explicitly appealed to the imperialists for military intervention on their behalf.
The reality in what the PYD calls Rojava (western Kurdistan) is not quite so rosy. Far from putting forward the overturn of capitalist property relations, the PYD’s charter for self-rule in Rojava enshrines the right to private property. The PYD has set up its own apparatus of repression through its military, police and prisons—i.e., a fledgling bourgeois state apparatus. The members of the People’s Councils that have been established, to the cheers of the reformist left, are appointed by the PYD. While the councils include representatives of other parties and, in areas containing sizable non-Kurdish populations, members of other communities, these bodies have little real function beyond distributing humanitarian aid and other necessities. The ICG report said of the PYD: “Most often, it took over the [Assad regime’s] governance structures and simply relabeled them, rather than generating its own unique model as it claims.”
Belying the claims of autonomy, the Assad regime has not fully withdrawn its forces from the area, expecting to return en masse at the first opportunity. While Damascus has pulled back most of its security personnel, it continues to run administrative offices and to pay the salaries of state employees, including teachers (who continue to follow the Ba’ath Party-approved syllabus). In the largest Kurdish city, Qamishli, Syrian government forces remain at the border crossing with Turkey, at the airport and in the center of town, where the offices of the security services are located. Recent on-site reports by Human Rights Watch and the Washington Institute noted that Syrian soldiers and other security personnel move freely in Qamishli and surrounding villages. The bottom line is that whatever autonomy might have been achieved has been subordinated by the Kurdish nationalists to their service in the imperialist military campaign.
Marxists seek to break Kurdish militants from the nationalist politics that have time and again led to disaster and win them to a revolutionary proletarian internationalist program, which centrally includes unconditional opposition to imperialism. Forming a strategic part of the proletariat of Turkey, Iran and other Near Eastern societies as well as Germany, Kurdish workers possess the key to social and national liberation. As a Spartacist representative stated in greetings to a conference of Kurdish militants in Europe three decades ago:
“We understand that the struggle for a United Socialist Republic of Kurdistan will be shaped by and in turn shape the future of the revolutionary proletariat of the whole region toward a socialist federation of the Near East. Our model is Lenin’s Russia of 1917-1924 where the Bolsheviks offered the national minorities the option and the advantages of association with the Soviet Federation. For our part, we are dedicated to the forging of the internationalist party of worldwide proletarian revolution and speak to you in the understanding that the future of humanity depends on its construction.”
—WV No. 362, 14 September 1984