As fighters from “Islamic State” (IS) enter the besieged Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria, Kurds abroad have been demonstratiing in several major European cities.
In a conflict between the democratic, secular Kurdish forces and the fascistic barbarism of IS, Kurds should expect the support and solidarity of the UK left.
Over the summer, British socialist organisations were rightly a dynamic force in building demonstrations against Israel’s murderous attacks on Gaza, with up to 150,000 marching in London alone.
Like the Palestinians, the Kurds are an oppressed nation struggling for self-determination. Yet, the British left has been conspicuously late in its solidarity with Kobani.
Viewing the events in Kobani almost exclusively through the narrow lens of our own government’s actions, groups like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) have focused on preventing or stopping Western intervention rather than on solidarity with the Kurds.
There are good reasons to oppose Western interventions. In Afghanistan over a decade of bombing has, in fact, made the Taliban stronger not weaker. In Kobani, IS has now entered the town and aerial bombardments are of little use to the Kurdish fighters defending street-by-street.
Intervention is motivated by the interests of UK and US imperialism, not those of the Kurdish people. Speaking on 8 October US secretary of state John Kerry said: “As horrific as it is to watch in real time what is happening in Kobani, you have to step back and understand the strategic objective.”
Nevertheless negative focus on stopping intervention has left groups saying little or nothing on what to do to positively support the Kurds.
They have plenty to say on what not to do.
On 9 September, as IS threatened to massacre the Yazhidis, Charlie Kimber concluded an article in Socialist Worker: “Islamic State is brutal and offers no way forward for the people of Iraq. But further bombing by US and Britain is no solution. It needs to be opposed.”
On 30 September, Tomáš Tengely-Evans mentioned the Kurds briefly in a survey of US imperialism in Socialist Worker, but only to complain that “the West is also arming Kurdish fighters to be a proxy army”. He concluded that though “the West’s propaganda around Islamic State means that a majority of people in Britain support bombing... the tens of thousands who marched for Palestine this year show the potential for building an anti-imperialist movement to stop the warmongers again.”
On 19 August, Socialist Worker wrote an article entitled ‘Arming the Kurds won’t stop Iraq’s brutal civil war’, noting that: “Many on the left think this a good alternative to direct Western intervention, which has been responsible for the spread of sectarianism in the region.”
Noting that nationalist movements often have no choice where to get arms from, the SWP also equate taking arms from the west with “Western intervention”, commenting coldly that “despite the horror at what the Islamic State is doing, Western intervention will only prolong the fighting and intensify the divisions.”
Socialist Worker’s most recent article (7 October), continues the theme but cautioning against Turkish intervention.
Again, offering no positive demands, the paper concedes that “while the predicament of the Kurds in Kobane makes it difficult... to argue against US bombs and Turkish military involvement... it is important that the argument is put forward. US bombs have never solved any problem in the Middle East or elsewhere. Neither the US nor Turkey are likely ever to do any favours for the Kurds.”
Few of these statements taken by themselves, are flatly wrong. Socialists can have no trust in Turkey, a NATO member which is one of the main oppressors of the Kurds, and should not call on it to intervene.
Nevertheless, they have to be understood as part of the left’s “common sense” on the Middle East and imperialism. All of the articles reveal a tendency to treat the Kurdish struggle as worthy of significance only in so far as it is a factor in the actions or ambitions of Western imperialist powers.
They take as their starting point the need to oppose imperialism, and they elevate the latter to an all-governing imperative, rather than the need for socialists to support and make solidarity with the Kurdish people.
Linked to this is an implication, rarely clearly stated and often balanced by denunciations of IS, that the rise of the Islamist group is a challenge to US imperialism.
In an interview with Socialist Worker on 28 June, Alex Callinicos came closest to spelling out the logic of the “anti-imperialist” position, writing that “what’s happening in Iraq underlines the extent to which the US has been weakened” and that it “means movements from below can strike real blows — not just against US power or the power of particular ruling classes, but against the whole system.”
On 23 June, in the SWP’s International Socialist Journal, he wrote that the “repellent character of ISIS’s sectarian jihadi politics shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that the renewal of the Sunni insurgency has re-opened the Iraqi political situation” and “that there is no doubt that the ISIS advance adds to the crisis of American imperial power.”
What Callinicos does not say is that IS have “re-opened the Iraqi political situation”, in the direction of civil war which threatens not only American imperialism but the workers’ movement, women’s organisations, secularists and the hope of a non-sectarian way forward.
IS’s oppression of the Kurds complicates the “anti-imperialist” narrative, unlike in Palestine, where support for Palestinian self-determination is relatively straightforward and, for the SWP, is married to the destruction of Israel, US imperialism’s ally in the region.
Meanwhile, the Socialist Party (SP) typically confines itself to abstract propaganda. Supporting the right to armed resistance, the SP raises the timeless demand that this “should be under the control of democratically-elected, non-sectarian defence committees” and a call for a “voluntary socialist confederation of the Middle East would enable all peoples to freely and democratically decide their own fates.”
Armed resistance in Kobani already exists. It is led by the forces including the PKK-linked Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Brigades.
Socialists must express clear solidarity with the Kurdish forces fighting in Kobani, demand that countries in the region such as Turkey allow arms and fighters across the borders to reach Kobani and call on the west to break off its military alliance with Turkey unless it does so.
Organisations such as the SWP and the Stop the War Coalition (StW) which have concentrated exclusively on organising to stop military intervention should focus their effort and resources on building this positive solidarity with the Kurds.