Since the Turkish invasion of Kurdish-controlled northern Syria started on 9 October, over 160,000 civilians have been displaced, with at least fifty civilian deaths already.
The invasion immediately followed the announcement by Donald Trump that US troops would be withdrawn from northern Syria.
Trump’s “America First” policy is confused and totally inconsistent. Attempts by the White House to portray Trump’s move as a step in disengaging the US from overseas conflicts were shown to be a scam when Trump also announced sending 2,000 soldiers to Saudi Arabia in a move against Iran.
The decision to withdraw American troops from Syria angered many in the Pentagon and the State Department, who saw this as a betrayal of their allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces and a knock against America’s credibility as a protector.
Out of desperation, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces have struck a deal with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, brokered by Russia. Assad has moved troops to the border, and it is not unlikely that at some point they will come into conflict with the Turkish army.
The Kurds have a right to self-determination. We should be on the streets supporting them, and demand that the big powers supply them with sufficient arms to defend themselves. It is not for us to condemn them when they manoeuvre among the bigger powers and call for a no-fly zone or military intervention, whether it is Trump or Assad they are dealing with.
The intervention of the Syrian Arab Army, however, does not come as an act of altruism, and at some point a price will be demanded. Assad is a butcher. His rule is a direct continuation of his father’s Brezhnev-era Soviet-backed military regime.
If Turkey is successfully repulsed from northern Syria, it is possible that Assad may allow the Kurdish-majority region to retain some autonomy. But that is far from guaranteed. The Assad regime oppressed the Kurds for decades.
The Kurds have been passed back and forth between different imperialist powers which saw them as a useful ally for a while and then callously discarded them. There is little reason to believe that this will be any different with the Russian-backed Assad. Despite troubles in their relationship (such as Turkey shooting down a Russian plane in 2015) Turkey and Russia have been growing steadily closer in recent years.
The Turkish invasion has also caused fears regarding a possible return from the brink for Daesh. Approximately 12,000 Daesh fighters are imprisoned by the SDF, and there are tens of thousands more relatives of Daesh members in camps. Most of these are situated south the proposed area which Turkey has designated to invade, but the SDF has had to move troops away from guarding the prisons in order to defend against Turkey.
Already there has been a resurgence of the Daesh insurgency in Kurdish-controlled areas. Since the beginning of the Turkish offensive, a car bomb has been set off in Qamishli, there have been numerous attacks against the SDF near Al Mayadin, and suicide bombings and shootings were carried out in Raqqa.
All of this means more death and destruction for innocents in Syria, and an exponential worsening of the situation with refugees.
He has cynically threatened that if European governments fail to accept his military invasion he will send the 3.6 million refugees into Europe.
This plays into the racist dread that European states have about refugees from the Middle East (and Africa). In order to limit refugees and immigrants gaining access to “Fortress Europe”, the EU and its member states have relied on murderous border regimes and cooperation with dictators: in addition to their reliance on Erdoğan to stop refugees coming from Turkey, the EU through the Khartoum Process has worked with the Sudanese government to capture and sometimes torture refugees before they can cross the Mediterranean
A more likely fate for the refugees in Turkey than being granted access to Europe is Erdoğan’s proposed resettlement programme. Once Turkey has established a “safe zone” in northern Syria, he plans to settle up to two million refugees in the Kurdish area. Those refugees are from all over Syria. The plans have been condemned by some as ethnic cleansing against the Kurds.
Thirteen major trade unions have published a statement condemning the invasion and calling on the British government to intervene. It is a very positive thing that these unions have felt the need to publish this condemnation and statement of support for the SDF.
Their call on the British government to “deploy an international force and enforce a No-Fly Zone” seems naive, however: Britain is even less likely to deploy troops in a way that protects the Kurds than the USA, or maybe even Assad. Britain will not go to war with Turkey over this, and the left should not demand that it should.
If a No-Fly Zone is set up by western powers (as over Iraqi Kurdistan by the US and its allies in 1991-2003), that will be good, and we should certainly not agitate to remove it; but to positively endorse the general idea of British military deployment would amount to giving the British military the explicit confidence of the working class movement, which is not deserved. The argument is essentially the same as over Libya, Iraq, and Kosova.
The Socialist Workers’ Party has written a largely descriptive article on the situation. More telling is their report of the solidarity demo on Sunday 13 October. They reject the call of the SDF and thirteen major British trade unions for a No-Fly Zone or troops, saying that it would only make the situation worse. However, they do that very politely, with none of the flailing denunciation of “pro-imperialism” usually seen in such cases. The Socialist Party offered similar.
These statements will likely leave a strange taste in the mouths of readers who have read how these organisations have written about other conflicts. When embattled minorities in the Balkans faced the genocidal Milošević in the 1990s, the SWP shouted for NATO to pull back and leave Milošević to it. When anti-Gadaffi rebels in Libya called for NATO intervention, the SP compared them to the Nicaraguan contras.
It is good and right that the discussion around the Turkish invasion has centred on the actions of the Turkish state and has seen it as an imperialist actor in and of itself, rather than merely through its relationship to the United States.
For people to realise (whether consciously or not) that the actions of the US are not the be-all and end-all of thinking about imperialism is an important step towards the left relearning to think.