President Donald Trump on May 9 announced approval of a plan to arm the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the anti-ISIS coalition led by the Rojava Kurds. The aid—including heavy machine guns, mortars, anti-tank weapons, armored cars and engineering equipment—will boost the prowess of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), territorial defense militia of the Rojava autonomous zone and the central pillar of the SDF. “The Syrian Democratic Forces, partnered with enabling support from US and coalition forces, are the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future,” said a Pentagon statement. The move is being taken over strenuous Turkish objections to arming the Syrian Kurds, and will certainly be a contentious point when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Trump in Washington next week. (ANF, NYT, May 9)
As we’ve noted before, Rojava is caught in a pincer between Turkey and ISIS, and looking to both the US and Russia as tactical allies. Given their anarchist ethic, we assume they are doing so with their eyes wide open. Even tactical alliances have their political costs and risks, of course, and neither Washington nor Moscow provide aid without lots of proverbial strings attached.
We’ve also repeatedly stated that the US must ultimately choose between the Kurds and its old NATO ally Turkey if there is to be an effective campaign to crush ISIS—but with little faith that either Obama or Trump were capable of making such a tough choice. Is it now actually happening?
Even if we dare to hope so, obvious political risks present themselves. It will certainly exacerbate the growing enmity between Syria’s Kurds and Arabs if the Rojava leadership is seen to acquiesce in a carve-up of Syria by the Great Powers—a plan clearly seen in the new Russian proposal for “safe zones” in Syria. A key test will be the fate of Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital. It’s increasingly clear that the SDF is being groomed to take the city. The fact that it is a Kurdish-led force, being used to take an Arab-majority city, is already problematic. If the city becomes a de facto Russian protectorate, or even an American one—or, worse yet, if it is turned over to the Assad regime—the political results could be utterly disastrous.
Given Trump’s apparent breach with Putin, one aim of the decision to boost arms deliveries to the Rojava Kurds is likely to woo them away from Russia. And given Russia’s relentless aerial carnage against rebel-held Syria, Rojava’s cooperation with Moscow has been an obvious element in the growing Kurdish-Arab hostility.
An all too telling irony reveals the utter opportunism and hypocrisy of the Assad regime in currying favor with its Russian patrons. May 8 saw state-sponsored rallies across Russia to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. This year, high-profile official commemorations of Victory Day are also being held in cities across the regime-held areas of Syria—bolstered by a Russian state media campaign. (The Independent)
This is the same Assad regime that availed itself of the expertise of Alois Brunner, former SS officer and world’s most-wanted Nazi fugitive, who died a free man in Damascus in 2010—after training Assad’s security and secret police forces in the fine arts of torture and interrogation. And also the same Assad regime that even now continues to avail itself of European neo-fascist volunteers to fight the rebels. But we have called out before the sinister phenomenon, exemplified by Assad’s patron Vladimir Putin, of fascist pseudo-anti-fascism.
We (blogging from the safety and comfort of New York City) are in no position to judge the Rojava Kurds for making hard choices in the face of powerful enemies bent on their extermination. But we are within our rights to point out the potential costs and contradictions of these choices—and the aims in Syria that we, as progressives in the West, must do our best to advance. Chief among these is a rebuilding of Arab-Kurdish revolutionary unity against Assad and ISIS alike—in spite of the cynical aims of the intervening superpowers.