Donald Trump has announced the withdrawal of American troops from Northern Syria, and given effective consent to President Erdoğan’s plan to invade.
This marks a slight shift from Trump’s previous stated position. Back in December he announced that American troops would leave Northern Syria within the medium-term future, but that it was conditional on guarantees from Turkey regarding the safety of the Kurds.
Those guarantees have now ceased to be a consideration, and the United States is perfectly content to leave Rojava to the mercy, or lack thereof, of the Turkish army.
This new announcement also seems to render the deal struck between Turkey and the United States back in August obsolete, where the Syrian Democratic Forces (the political leadership of Northern Syria, dominated by the Kurdish YPG) would move away from the Turkish border in order for Erdoğan to back down from a military invasion of Northern Syria.
Turkey’s approach to the Kurdish forces in Northern Syria has been one of outright hostility, seeing them as indistinguishable from the PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla organisation fighting for Kurdish autonomy in the lands ruled by the Turkish state.
As in many other areas of his premiership Trump has been fickle in his dealings with Turkey, dictating policy based on his immediate (and often late-night) whims. The majority of interactions with Turkey in the last year have been based on personal initiatives from Trump, usually announced shortly after a phone call with Erdoğan.
This has been highly erratic, though. Less than a day after his latest announcement Trump tweeted that he would “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if they did anything off-limits.
As surreal as it can feel to try and parse a coherent train of thought from Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, it is instructive. It is full of retweets about how Obama had allied the US with terrorists and opponents of Turkey, which Trump is now rectifying.
Trump’s actions have angered many of the cooler heads of American imperialism, who have seen the Kurdish forces as a reliable ally. The Kurds have given the US a force in the region to support which is fighting against Daesh, and crucially isn’t Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, the Kurds (those in Northern Syria, at least) have been a much more reliably anti-Daesh force than Assad and the Syrian Arab Army.
They worry that this betrayal will lower the political currency of the US as a potential ally to those in the Middle East. When Trump is left to his own devices he has sometimes (though far from universally) pursued an “America First” semi-isolationist foreign policy, which represents a different form of American chauvinism from the more orthodox neoconservatism preferred by those in the Pentagon and the state department.
In today’s world, unlike the world of 100 years ago, dominated by great colonial empires, we can no longer divide the world (or even most of it) neatly into imperialist powers and countries which are “imperialised” by those powers.
Marksist Tutum, a revolutionary socialist organisation in Turkey, opposes the view held by many on the left that countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Turkey are “semi-colonies or neo-colonies”.
Marksist Tutum contends that these countries are sub-imperialist powers, with expansionist aims being realised within their own regional spheres of influence. In practice, this sub-imperialism often means operating as junior partners of the big imperialist powers, as Turkey has historically attempted to achieve with the United States with varied success. This view is opposed to the mechanistic idea of imperialism held by many on the anti-imperialist left, which sees these states
as a mere puppet of the American suzerain, without their own independent ambitions.
Turkey does have these independent aims and imperialist yearnings, which it has acted on throughout its century of existence: its land grabs in central Asia immediately after its formation; its invasion of Cyprus in 1974; and its more recent expansions into Syria.
These latest proclamations by Trump and Erdoğan are serious bad news for Rojava, the de facto Kurdish state in Northern Syria. The Rojava forces have largely succeeded in defeating Daesh, but in doing that they have outlived their usefulness to the USA, and it is unclear what will happen next. Perhaps they will have some luck in staving off a Turkish invasion, or perhaps they will succeed in their long-running attempts to come to a compromise with Assad.
It is the job of working class internationalists to uphold the self-determination of Rojava against imperialist encroachment, and to strive for a situation where the Kurds cease to be oppressed as a nation. But also to offer a sober and honest assessment of their political project, and to be crystal clear about what we are defending.
Some on the left have hailed the model of “democratic confederalism” in Rojava as an alternative form of socialism to the musty fusty old Marxism of the past, citing the People’s Councils which exist across the country, and the apparent conversion in prison of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan to the libertarian socialist ideas of Murray Bookchin.
But within the autonomous region there have been reports of state repression against the Arab minority, and the limited ideas of democracy which exist are not based on the centrality of the working class.
When the ideas of working class self-emancipation do take hold in the region, it will not be as a result of the Damascene conversion of a former Maoist guerrilla.