The Kurds in Syria

12 Oct
this post also features in offguardian

Turkish tank transporter on its way into Northern Syria [Sedat Suna/EPA]

“Attempts by Third World leaders to establish independent control of their economies, in preference to their economies being used as spheres of profit-accumulation for the sole direct benefit of foreign investors, is almost invariably met by the opposition of investor-dominated foreign governments.” Stephen Gowans

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Adrift on that uncharted ocean we call Life, humans seem drawn to the illusion of certainty like wasps to an open jam jar. God is good! … I think so I am! … Brexit will be dandy/a disaster! … Bashar al-Assad is a Demon/a Saint! … Kurds Good, everyone else Baad!

A self proclaimed spiritual teacher I turned to for life guidance – and still do, since the truths he spoke remain untainted by his own failure to walk the talk – said often that the path of spiritual inquiry is a journey from thinking we know to knowing we don’t. Which is flat out comical when pretty much the first thing you encounter on the spiritual scene is a set of know-alls and closed minds trying to pass themselves off as humble.

Not all, to be sure, but too many. Me, I never did like the word ‘spiritual’ – too many insipid and downright daft connotations – but substitute ‘existential’ and the proposition works just fine.

I don’t mean we fear not knowing per se – only when we are desperate to know. In the context of Syria some are happy with not knowing but it soon becomes clear why. They don’t care, and when we’ve ceased to care the tension of wanting to know, while realising we can’t, disperses like a headache after codeine.

That’s what makes cynicism in all its forms attractive. It’s the opium of the intelligentsia.

But I’m talking Syria, not psychology. Most folk are brainwashed – sorry, no other term will do – into accepting a ludicrous narrative on this unfortunate nation, recipient of imperialism’s wrath for reasons I’ve gone into many times and will do so again in a moment. When we couple that inability to bear not knowing with another human attribute, laziness, it’s not hard to grasp why we like binary narratives. We want our good guys good, our bad guys bad, and ne’er the twain shall mix. The young Bob Dylan had a point. On Desolation Row, his metaphor for the human condition, everybody’s shouting, which side are you on?

And once we’ve raised our flag on what it pleases us to call The Truth, comfort floods in, if only the bleak comfort of “It’s All Shite”. Like a cornered beast we’ll go for anyone threatening that comfort, however logical and evidence based their approach. The more so given another very human attribute, ego. Once I’ve raised my flag on The Truth, challenge it and you challenge me.

I just might have to take you out.

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I’ll get to the Kurds shortly. First let me set out my take on Syria’s ordeal, in light of the above – and the facts that (a) our best knowledge about anything is necessarily provisional; (b) access to facts in this crime scene of a country is limited by on-the-ground realities – and by tight synergy between media business models and the agendas of Wall Street and imperialism.

In a July post on Israel, I wrote:

First, [imperialism must] install privileged groupings, beholden to the distant power, in those nations whose resources are plundered. Hence a Shah of Iran or King Hussein of Jordan, loathed by the peoples on whom they’d been foisted. Hence puppet monarchs in Egypt prior to Nasser, in Libya prior to Gaddafi and in Iraq prior to Saddam. Hence too the House of Saud.

Second, divide-and-rule, always of the essence, is all the more so in a Middle East whose most numerous people, Arabs, should they transcend their differences, could control the gateway to the East and the world’s greatest concentrations of its key commodity. Such a coming together is to be averted by all available means.

For instance by doing as Britain and France did, and carving the Arab world into artificial states as WW1 synchronised the fall of the Ottoman Empire with the rising importance of oil – which is why on the one hand Nasser’s pan-Arabism, on the other Ba’athist Iraq and Syria, had to be crushed with help from Israel and, in Syria’s case, ‘moderate Islamists’. Or by favouring minorities – Kurd, Alawite, Druze, Maronite – much as a gerrymandered Six County statelet played the orange card whenever Protestant and Catholic workers found common cause in Belfast’s linen mills and shipyards. Or by recognising that of the three currents – Arab socialism, communism and Islamism – vying for hearts and minds on the Arab Street, only that last lends itself, albeit with attendant risks, to co-option by imperial designs.

That is from my review of a book arguing that Israel offers the West a beachhead from which to control the middle east. I’ll return to this idea. I see it as highly germane to our being primed to view the Kurds in a particular way.

But back to Syria, a state created by European powers – as had been Iraq, Kuwait, Libya and so many other Arab entities for the divide-and-rule reason given. In this context the importance of Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein can hardly be overstated, likewise the necessity of his humiliation by Israel and the West in the years from Suez 1956 to the Six Day War of 1967.

Nasser’s pan-Arabism inspired not just his own generation of Arabs but, even more important, the next one. Though his reining in – a fatal heart attack at fifty-two merely the coup de grace – was arguably a crueler end even than Saddam’s and Gaddafi’s, he fired future Arab leaders just as Simón Bolivar had fired Latin America’s anti-colonialists of the nineteenth century, and anti-imperialists of the twentieth and twenty-first. Among that next crop of leaders were Muammar al-Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad.

The common denominator? Ba’athism, which we can here read as Arab socialism. All sought to negotiate for their states, in the context of cold war and imperialism, a degree of protection by the USSR while insisting on a uniquely Arab path. To this end they rejected both marx-leninism and, with tragically less success, the ‘free market’ ideology of Western powers as advanced by IMF, WTO and World Bank.

And where those agencies didn’t do the trick, by lethal sanctions and force of arms under cover of humanitarianism.

Prior to the dismantling at terrible human cost of Iraq and Libya, and the severe mauling plus ongoing occupation and creeping balkanisation of Syria, all three states displayed two striking features. They raised living standards, literacy levels and welfare infrastructure while promoting secularism and retaining state control of key economic sectors. None of these things, that last in particular, endeared them to Western ‘advisors’ increasingly in the grip, after the 1973 OPEC crisis, of Chicago School orthodoxies road tested in Pinochet’s Chile.

The second striking feature? All three were marked by the ruthlessness with which opposition – communism and violent Islamism in particular – was suppressed. These were hardly models of the Open Society but at their stage of development, as imperialised postcolonial states, it is my view that such a thing could exist only in the abstractions of armchair idealists.

In Syria under Hafez al-Assad, the Muslim Brotherhood resisted Ba’athist reform at every turn while the West, its agendas in the region hidden from its own peoples, watched with bemused ambivalence. I’ve alluded elsewhere to the schizoid relations Zionism and imperialism have with Islamism. Think WWI and Lawrence of Arabia. Think cold war Afghanistan, Israeli backing of Hamas against Fateh, and that faustian pact with Riyadh. Think ‘moderate Islamist’ Kurds in Syria. All these relations are driven, on and off and more or less covertly, by a range of motives that include: oil; oil pipelines; Israel’s need as a usurper and expansionist state to sow division; and Washington’s visceral mistrust, rendering salafism the lesser evil, of ‘Arab communism’.

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I spoke of the brainwashing narratives through which disobedient Arab leaders are demonised in Western media. By such means is Chomsky’s “manufacture of consent” to war and sanctions engineered. Certainly they went into overdrive on Saddam, Gaddafi and Assad Junior – Chavez, Maduro and Mugabe too – but propaganda is only half the story.

The other half is that few in the West have experienced destitution. Yes, baby boomers raised on working class streets knew the haunted look of mothers with too much week and too little money. I recall – I’d be seven or eight – the despair and humiliation on the face of one whose kids I played with, as she fled a local grocer’s under the silent gaze of a line of customers after failing to get milk and other basics on tick.

But destitution of the kind which in the thirties stalked the Gorbals, Bowery and slums of every Western city? Which came hand in hand with rickets, polio and TB? Few alive today remember such things. For that we must turn to Steinbeck, Orwell and those harrowed and haunted faces captured in the lens of Dorothea Lange.

(Though it is once again on the rise – the demise of the Soviet Union having called time on the business case, rooted in a cold war drive to win hearts and minds, for Caring Capitalism.)

Our ignorance of poverty combines in a perfect storm with existential realities sketched out at start of this post. And with Western media’s simplistic narratives, their lies of omission and the willingness of their deskbound columnists – they have no reporters in Syria – to mix allegations that make little sense, other than as comic book evil-for-evil’s-sake villainy, with sufficient truth, or at any rate plausibility, to make them stick.

We hear of torture, show trials and scant regard for habeas corpus. We do not hear of raised living standards, universal literacy or other upsides of Ba’athism. We hear of executions and disappearances but not of the many Daraa protestors who drew a clear distinction between a popular leader, and the system he’d inherited and sought – always a dangerous endeavour – to liberalise. Nor of those who gave Bashar the thumbs-down when, having seen their demands for greater freedom hijacked by Islamists, his response was deemed namby-pamby, lacking the steel of the old man: a Hafez now remembered – there’s nowt so fickle as folk! – wistfully.

We hear Bashar al-Assad is a tyrant but not that he won an internationally observed election in 2014. We hear the mass of his people want shot of him but not that credible experts – among them two former UK ambassadors, UN weapons inspectors and former CIA agents – challenge the claims against him. (As in many cases do elementary logic and such fragments of evidence as have come to light.) And we hear barrel bombs are vile, but not that they stand in relation to white phosphorous used by the IDF in Gaza, and depleted uranium used by America wherever it damn well pleases, as flint tipped spears to automatic rifles.

I can’t be sure none of the accusations against Damascus is true. Neither can you. What I can be sure of is that those making them combine staggering hypocrisy – Extraordinary rendition? Abu Ghraib? – with a venality toward the middle east abetted by the silence of ‘our’ media. But such questions aside, and regardless of whether or to what extent those charges are true, we rush to judgment because the idea that repression and even corruption might coexist with a real desire to raise a people en masse from the greater tyranny of poverty is way too much nuance for us. What we want are nice simple morality tales of third world leaders with the one-dimensionality of Enid Blyton characters; the goodies saintly, the baddies reassuringly loathsome.

Mandela Good … Mugabe Baad …

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Speaking of saints, it’s time we considered the Kurds. I’ve done the heavy lifting so this needn’t take long. The Kurdish issue is far from clear cut but for my narrow purposes just two questions apply. One, why have the Kurds been sold to us since the first Gulf War and especially since the Daraa protests of 2011 as goodness incarnate? Two, what would be the impact of ‘autonomous’ Kurdish territories inside Syria?

The mainstream answer to the first question is that these are our brave allies in the war on ISIS. (For the counterview, subject as ever to my health warning on humans’ need to embrace, either way, the illusion of certainty, try this from Sarah Abed, this from Stephen Gowans, or this from a Vanessa Beeley who, unlike mainstream media, has a presence in Syria. That does not make Beeley an unimpeachable source, but does give her the right to be taken seriously.)

I’ve already sketched out in general terms why we should be suspicious of so hard a sell on the cuddliness of Kurds. We might add – since of late it is rare to hear mention of Kurdish fighters in Syria without the word ‘brave’ attached – that attributions of courage and cowardice are often irrelevant. Hitler was twice awarded an Iron Cross, the second time on the recommendation of his Jewish commanding officer. Often ridiculous too. During the ‘Troubles’ it was de rigeur for a British politican to describe any act of terror by the Provisional IRA as ‘cowardly’, as it is now de rigeur to apply that descriptor to any suicide bombing on Western or proxy targets.

More specifically, the West’s chief enemy in Syria has never been salafist terror but Ba’athism. The removal of Assad is an aim that predates, for reasons easy to fathom if we are so minded, the Daraa protests. On empire frustration at economies insufficiently opened up to Wall Street, Naomi Klein’s account in Shock Doctrine of what happened to post invasion Iraq is a model of impeccably substantiated investigation. For the pipeline aspect in Syria try this. For Israeli and Western hydrocarbon grabs in the Golan, try the Economist. All this, mark you, before we even get to Syria’s geopolitical significance in light of China’s One Belt One Road, Russia’s recovery from the Yeltsin years, and the alarm bells both ring on Wall Street.

Given these things, and a century of willingness to work with salafism “for the greater good”, it takes immense but sadly not rare naivity to buy the notion that swathes of Syria are stomping grounds for the West and its proxies – all, unlike Russia and Hezbollah, uninvited – for the sole reason that ISIS must be defeated.

Had defeating ISIS been the priority for America and its junior partners, President Trump would have had every backing for his initial desire to work with Putin to that end. Instead warmongers in both parties combined with deep state, military-industrial complex and ‘liberal’ media to halt such an idea in its tracks. Hence Muellergate. Hence Ukrainegate.

Had defeating ISIS been the priority for America and its junior partners, resolving the situation which initially sparked this post would be easy. That situation being Trump’s abandoning the YPG and YPJ to an Ankara preparing to crush them as brothers in arms to a PKK it sees in much the same way Britain saw the IRA, Sri Lanka the Tamil Tigers.

And the easy resolution? Call me a dupe, but unlike many people I do not automatically rule out all possibility of RT (née Russia Today) being worth a read from time to time. In this case, what it had to say on October 7 – Worried for Kurds in Syria abandoned by US? Here’s an obvious solution but it will make Washington hawks MAD – may be judged on its merits:

What happened in August 2016 should have … been a clue – and offers a possible way out of the present conundrum. Back then, Turkey invaded from the north in ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’, attacking the Kurds from the rear just as [they were] launching a major push against Raqqa. The US did nothing to stop this. Only when the Syrian Arab Army – accompanied by Russian observers – stepped in to create a buffer zone between the Turks and the [Kurdish led] SDF, did the invasion stop.

While Ankara thinks nothing of attacking the Kurds, it is hard to imagine it would dare open fire on Syrian troops or the Russians fighting alongside them. The obvious solution for the Kurds is to make a deal with Damascus and secure the protection of the Syrian government that the US could never provide. This would keep them safe, while keeping Damascus happy and Ankara without grounds to object.

The only ones displeased by this would be regime-change advocates in Washington – but that’s their problem.

So there’s my cautious response on the first question. Kurds are held up as goodness incarnate because the YPG and YPJ, though by no means all Kurds, are opposed to Assad. Again I stress: I can’t offer all this as Absolute Truth. Simply as a good deal more convincing, on circumstantial and to lesser extent hard evidential grounds, than the mainstream accounts on offer. (Accounts dismayingly accepted and relayed by much of the far left, but that’s a tale for another day.)

My second question, on the consequences of ‘autonomous’ regions inside Syria, should be a no-brainer. Recall that I said earlier:

Israel offers the West a beachhead from which to control the middle east. I’ll return to this idea. It is highly germane to our being primed to view the Kurds in a particular way.

To the fury of Washington, Whitehall and Quai d’Orsay their attempt to remove Assad – as they had removed Saddam and Gaddafi, and as they wish to remove the Ayatollahs in Tehran – was thwarted by Russia’s decisive intervention. Needless to say, this did not lead to philosophical – you win some/you lose some – acceptance of defeat. The West is still very much in the game of seeking to control Syria and the wider region; a game it has played for a century.

For that section of America’s ruling class prepared to go for broke in Syria, Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump was a serious setback. Yes, as noted already, Trump’s oft stated willingness to work with Putin has been reined in. (In this regard Robert Mueller’s falling flat on his face as the Russiagate narrative unravelled does not greatly matter. Trump has spent most of his first term on the back foot and that’s what does.) But all talk of going eyeball to eyeball with the world’s second military power, to see who blinks first, is for now on ice.

Bogging the Syrian Army and its Russian allies down in an endless war of attrition is likely to be causing headaches in Moscow, but yet another aspect of the smoke and mirrors at play here is the difficulty of assessing the cost to Putin’s popularity. In any case steady SAA gains since 2016 mean that without Western boots on the ground in serious numbers – politically unthinkable – or Russia pulling out – ditto – Damascus cannot be brought by slow degree to its knees.

Which leads us to option three: Syria’s balkanisation, with calls for autonomous regions for the Kurds analogous, on a smaller scale, to the gathering momentum for a Zionist state in the first half of the twentieth century. Analogous in the appeal to ancient nationhood. Analogous in the usefulness to the West of a beachhead within a fragmented Syria.

And this, I believe, answers that second question. Just one last thing. There’s a growing trend on the liberal left to speak in glowing terms of a women’s cooperative movement in a Kurdish controlled Rojava the world seems to have forgotten sits firmly within the borders of Syria. Vice Magazine – its co-founder insisting “we’re not trying to say anything political” – hails The Most Feminist Revolution the World Has Ever Witnessed.

Other responses from liberal, socialist, anarchist and feminist outlets have not all been quite so gushing but the trend is the same. Rojava ticks all the boxes for Western progressives. Kurds good! Feminists good! Cooperatives good! Me, I shudder. I feel hairs standing at the back of my neck. I fear that yet again we are being played, our best instincts co-opted for imperial ends.

I haven’t been to Rojava but am willing to believe there’s magic in the air, the kind that always breaks through in revolutionary situations – which to some Kurdish eyes this may well seem to be. I dare say Kurdish patriarchs are worried, and seeking by gross means or subtle to rein in the boldest elements. I dare say – I’m guessing of course – that Kurdish capitalists speak darkly of the threats from communists and anarchists.

Seen through the narrowest of lenses, this all looks to the good to progressive eyes. The more so when the owners of those eyes never thought to question the premises on which Syria was so grievously violated. But then, didn’t the brightest and most altruistic of western youth once give the same rapturous welcome to another wonderful ideal: the kibbutzim of Israel?

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2 Replies to “The Kurds in Syria

  1. Crackin’ piece and probably a bit near the knuckle for some folk’s comfort zones.

    I can certainly relate to the early observations about spiritual gurus (a term often synonymous with the term charlatan for those who can’t spell very well). Though, having been force fed religion at an early age I ‘ve always been equally disappointed with many considered traditional as well as ‘New Age’. Probably because my nascent engineering ‘do what it says on the tin’ mind took the teachings too literally and at face value at such a tender age.

    I can see the practical efficacy but evidence of putting it into practice is, as you intimate, as rare as rocking horse shit, even amongst those with the pips on the shoulders.

    Which is not too surprising really as despite the bullshit about being autonomous individuals able to think for ourselves rather than fall for propaganda we are all influenced by the social and cultural context in which we reside.

    To be frank it’s often very scary to constantly and consistently encounter the simplistic and exceptionalist “goody/baddy” dichotomy of the liberal mindset and worldview. A view neatly captured in Orwell’s concept of doublethink in which a principle is objectively applied to those considered/labelled “other” but conveniently ignored – as Chomsky often observes – when the same principles are violated by “us” – “THE Gooddies.”

    Often via an incredulous sounding and plaintiff appeal along the lines it not being possible/feasible/realistic to view/consider two cases of the same behaviours resulting in the same outcomes as being in any way shape or form “equivalent” on the spurious grounds that such conclusions cannot possibly ever apply to “us” because we are “THE Goodies” and by definition different and exceptional.

    The older I get the more I comprehend the term “Perfidious Albion.”. A concept whose connotations and practice seems to have spread way beyond the shores of these islands.

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