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The Internationalist
October 2019

Defend the Kurds! Drive Out U.S./NATO Imperialists!

Against U.S./Turkey Attack on Kurds:
For International Workers Action!

For Workers Revolution from Turkey and Syria to Iran and Egypt
For a United Socialist Kurdistan in a Socialist Federation of the Middle East

Syrian Kurds in border town of Ras al-Ain demonstrate against imminent Turkish invasion on October 9. 
(Photo:  Delil Souleiman / Agence France-Presse)

OCTOBER 14: An agreement has been announced between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and the government of Bashar al-Assad for the Syrian army to take border positions in the face of the Turkish invasion. This does not presently change the fundamental character of Turkey's occupation of northern Syria, with the backing of the White House, which is directed at the Kurds. We also defend Syria against the U.S./Turkish attack.

The long-expected Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria began on October 9, two days after U.S. president Donald Trump gave Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the go-ahead. The immediate target of the attack is the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) militia, along with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by the YPG. In reality, the entire ethnic Kurdish population of northeastern Syria, about 2 million people, is threatened with mass expulsion and massacres. Exactly that occurred when the Turkish army occupied the northwestern Syrian canton of Afrin in January 2018, forcing tens of thousands of Kurds to flee.

On the first day of the invasion, the Turkish military carried out 181 air strikes against targets in Syria, in addition to pounding the border towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain with heavy artillery. Some 100,000 people in Kurdish-held territory have fled their homes, according to the United Nations. The YPG/SDF vowed to resist the Turkish attack, and returned fire, sending rockets against the police station in the Turkish city of Akcakale. By the second day, hospitals were evacuated as Turkish warplanes and artillery pummeled Kurdish areas from Kobanê in the west to Qamishli 400 km. to the east. “The whole border was on fire,” an SDF spokesman said.

Turkey’s president Erdoğan has threatened this occupation for several years, citing “national security.” He labels the Syrian Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) and its YPG militia “terrorist” because of their links to the Turkish PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which is so designated by the United States and its allies in the imperialist NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) alliance. But the real terrorists are the Turkish governments, which for decades have terrorized the Kurdish population of southeastern Turkey, and the U.S. imperialists, who for the past five years have been terror-bombing Syria (as they did earlier in Afghanistan and Iraq).

The U.S. military has been reluctant to approve the Turkish invasion, having used the YPG/SDF as ground troops of its war against the Islamic State (I.S.) in Syria. Top Pentagon officials and U.S. envoys to the region have warned that without the Kurdish-led militia a resurgence of the I.S. is likely. But Erdoğan would never have proceeded with the occupation without the permission of the U.S., which Trump gave in his October 7 phone call. Besides, the U.S. president already announced last December that he was pulling U.S. forces from Syria and subcontracting the war against the I.S. to U.S. imperialism’s NATO junior partner Turkey.

Western media are portraying the fighting as a “clash between two U.S. allies,” in which the U.S. “stepped aside.” In reality, the U.S. has actively worked with Turkey in carrying out this attack. The New York Times (10 October) reported that “for the last few weeks, as Turkish military officials planned the assault, they received American surveillance video and information from reconnaissance aircraft. The information may have helped them track Kurdish positions.” In addition, “Turkish aircraft were given access to a suite of American battlefield intelligence in northeast Syria.” But now, “The United States military … has cut off all support to the militia.”

U.S.-Turkey joint military patrol earlier in September outside Tel Abyad on Turkey-Syria border. Pentagon helped Turkish military prepare the invasion, dismantling YPG border defenses and sharing reconaissance information about Kurdish positions. (Photo:  Delil Souleiman / Agence France-Presse)

The reality is that this latest war on the Kurds is a U.S./Turkey/NATO combined operation, which class-conscious workers and opponents of imperialism everywhere must oppose and seek to defeat. The Turkish invasion is aimed at forcibly transferring 2 million Syrian Arab refugees to Kurdish regions and pushing the Kurds into the Syrian desert – “ethnic cleansing” on a vast scale. It is also the predictable outcome of the devil’s bargain of the Kurdish bourgeois leadership in enlisting as mercenary troops for U.S. imperialism in its war against the Islamic State. Now the Kurdish people are paying the price.

The League for the Fourth International has since its inception called to defend the PKK against repression and championed the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination. The LFI calls for a socialist republic of united Kurdistan, as part of a proletarian struggle against the imperialists and their Middle Eastern satraps and Zionist allies. As besieged Kurds in Kobanê desperately fought off I.S. jihadis (holy warriors) five years ago, we wrote:

“Proletarian revolutionaries would defend the Kurdish areas against attacks by the Assad regime or the Free Syrian Army and certainly against the Islamic State whose victory would mean wholesale slaughter of Kurds.”

At the same time, as PYD/YPG leaders signed on with Democratic U.S. president Obama’s Syrian bombing campaign, we denounced this fateful step, warning:

“the U.S. and European imperialists will never accept Kurdish independence, or even real autonomy in northern Syria. That would threaten the Ottoman ambitions of the Islamist Erdogan and the Turkish nationalism of the army. And NATO Turkey is a linchpin for Western imperialist domination of the Middle East…. [W]e call to expel U.S. imperialism from Syria, Iraq and the entire region.”
–“Syria: Defend the Kurds, Defeat U.S./NATO Imperialism!” in “For Workers Action to Defeat Barack Obama’s Iraq/Syria War,” The Internationalist No. 38, October-November 2014

The Kurdish People Victim of Imperialist Carve-Up of the Middle East

Civilians fleeing Turkish bombardment of Ras al-Ain, Syria. (Photo:  Delil Souleiman / Agence France-Presse)

The Kurdish people, numbering over 40 million spread over a contiguous, largely mountainous area of the Middle East, is the largest nation in the world without a state. As the victorious Allied imperialist powers dismembered the defeated Ottoman Empire following World War I, they held out the promise of an independent Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sèveres. However, that promise was ripped up in the 1924 Treaty of Lausanne, which carved up the Kurdish nation, leaving them an oppressed minority in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, all of which have bitterly opposed Kurdish independence, or even autonomy.

Turkey prohibited the Kurdish language, or even mentioning the words “Kurdistan” or “Kurdish,” while subjecting Kurdish regions to decades of brutal military occupation. Iraq expelled Kurds from oil-rich areas in the north. Iran crushed a Kurdish republic allied with the Soviet Union in 1946, at the onset of the Cold War, and persecuted Iranian Kurds ever since, both under the shah and the mullahs. Syria under Hafez al-Assad (father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad), also banned the Kurdish language, denied Kurds citizenship and “Arabized” Kurdish regions by resettling tens of thousands of Bedouin Arabs along its northern border.

Facing a leftist Kurdish insurgency of the PKK led by Abdullah Öcalan, since the late 1970s Turkish rulers, both the army with its “secular” Republican allies and the Islamist Erdoğan, have waged a war of extermination in the southeast, killing tens of thousands of Kurds. Now the authoritarian Turkish president, who cited “Hitler’s Germany” as the kind of “unitary state” he seeks to construct with his constitutional reforms, wants to restore the “glory” of the Ottoman Empire. He intends to “resettle” millions of refugees from the Syrian civil war in a “security zone” occupied by the Turkish army and policed by Turkish-backed Syrian Islamist militias.

Turkish army fields U.S.-made M60 tanks north of Mambij on October 14, preparing to assault city formerly held by YPG/SDF, now defended by the Syrian army.  (Photo: Aref Tammawi / Agence France-Presse)

To realize his grandiose dreams, the would-be sultan of Ankara vows to clear northern Syria of “terrorists,” i.e., to expel the Kurds en masse. This recalls Ottoman Turkey’s annihilation of over a million Armenians in World War I. Objecting to the term “genocide,” last April Erdoğan defended the 1915 mass deportations and massacres as the “relocation of the Armenian gangs and their supporters,” and “the most reasonable action.” Eerily, Ras al-Ain, now under Turkish attack, was the site of a concentration camp to hold Armenian deportees prior to a death march into the Syrian desert around Deir ez-Zor, where Erdoğan wants to push the Kurds today.

Whether he is able to do so is another matter. The Kurds have an army of 60,000 hardened fighters, with some heavy weapons. While they can’t hope to outgun the 350,000-strong Turkish army with its armor (tanks and artillery) and air force, the YPG/SDF could be an effective guerrilla force. It could endlessly harass Turkish positions and pick off Turkey’s Syrian puppet militia, the remnants of the CIA-backed “Free Syrian Army.” The “FSA” was never an effective fighting force, spending most of the war lounging in Turkish hotel lobbies, massacring villagers of the Alewite religious minority1 and posing for photo ops with U.S. politicians like John McCain.

Meanwhile, seeking to displace 2 million Kurds with 2 million Sunni Arab refugees is a recipe for wholesale communal bloodletting. Many of those refugees were urban dwellers who would be lost in the fields of northern Syria, and relatively few are from that area: they will have to be “resettled” at gunpoint. The Kurdish population has stood up to repeated attempts to push them out, by the Assads and the I.S.; their youth are armed and battle-tested, and they have nowhere else to go. The stage is set not only for massacres by the Turkish occupiers and their mercenary thugs but for turmoil that could spread to Kurds and Alevis2 in southern Turkey.

The YPG’s Strange Bedfellows

The late Republican senator John McCain with “Free Syrian Army” thugs in 2013.   (Photo:  Mouaz Moustafa / AP)

Trump’s sudden action has met with cries of “shame” and “betrayal” from Democrats and Republicans in Congress, the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department and virtually the entire foreign policy establishment. Official Washington is worried that his rhetoric rejecting “endless wars” and talk of handing over policing of “their neighborhood” to Turkey could be a blow to U.S. imperialist hegemony globally. They are concerned that “abandoning our Kurdish allies” will make it much harder to win others to join “coalitions of the willing,” which have been the vehicles for the U.S.’ role as world policeman in the 21st-century “new world order.”

Trump responds that the Kurds “were paid massive amounts of money and equipment” to be U.S. allies. This is hardly the first time the imperialists have left their proxies in the lurch. Recall the CIA’s “secret army” of Hmong guerrillas in Laos, or the “Harkis,” anti-independence mercenaries who fought with the French colonial army in Algeria. But for the Kurds this is one more stab in the back from U.S. patrons, as in 1975 when the CIA cut off funds to the guerrillas who, under longtime leader Mustafa Barzani, were fighting the Iraqi government, resulting in 200,000 Kurdish refugees; or in the 1991 Gulf War, when the U.S. encouraged a Kurdish uprising in the north and then abandoned the rebels to Saddam Hussein’s repression.  

A host of Western leftists, particularly anarchist liberals and social democrats, have hailed PYD rule in the area of northern Syria the Kurds calls Rojava (or Western Kurdistan), notably for its secularism and promotion of women’s rights. Many talk of a “Rojava Revolution.” They have downplayed the YPG’s role as foot soldiers for U.S. imperialism, and are conspicuously silent about it today. Yet the biggest boosters of the PYD/YPG in Washington are the CIA, the Pentagon, right-wing Republicans and Obama Democrats. Internationally, the Israeli Zionists look to forge (and finance) alliances with Kurdish groups as a counter to Arab nationalism.

So in this situation where everyone from the New York Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Committee to war hawk Republican senator Lindsey Graham, former chief of the U.S. Central Command general Joseph Votel and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu are denouncing the Turkish invasion and calling to support the Kurds, we Trotskyists insist that it is necessary to call to defeat and drive U.S./NATO imperialism from the Middle East. Yet despite Trump’s stab in the back, the YPG is calling for the U.S. to enforce a “no-fly” zone over northern Syria to keep the Turkish air force out. Implicitly or explicitly, they want to reestablish the U.S. alliance.

Today we defend the Syrian Kurds against an imperialist attack that threatens their very existence. But the fatal role of the YPG in doing the dirty work for the U.S. imperialist war on the Islamic State should not be forgotten. The monitoring group Airwars has tabulated some 1,600 civilians killed during the brutal four-month U.S./YPG assault on the I.S. “capital” of Raqqa in 2017 (The Intercept, 15 April; Airwars, 7 August). Using what former U.S. defense secretary James Mattis called “annihilation tactics,” the city was leveled, with 11,000 buildings destroyed and 150,000 survivors barely eking out an existence amid the rubble.

The YPG has also acted as jailers for the U.S. imperialists. The YPG/SDF forces that cleared Raqqa rounded up thousands of Sunni Arab residents off the street and shipped them off to concentration camps in the desert. It is reported that almost all the 1,000 I.S.-linked prisoners held in dungeons at the Ayn Issa detention camp have escaped as a result of Turkish bombing, passing over the fact that there were 11,000 others being held there. Conditions at the Al Hawl camp, which confined upwards of 70,000 “displaced persons” in tents exposed to bitter cold and 120° heat, were described by the International Red Cross as “apocalyptic.”

In 2015 we warned, “While defending the Syrian Kurds, Assyrians and other minorities under attack by the Islamic State, we have warned against any alliance with imperialism, which would use them as pawns, to be discarded when convenient” (“International Perspectives of the League for the Fourth International,” The Internationalist No. 40, Summer 2015). But when the YPG acted as mercenary troops for the Pentagon occupying Arab regions, we wrote that the LFI:

“has from the start called for the defeat of the imperialists and to drive them from the region, as well as declaring any blows against imperialist intervention and domination, even by ultra-reactionary forces such as the I.S., to be in the interests of the working class and oppressed peoples of the world. But it is now necessary to go beyond that and call for defense of Raqqa against the attack by imperialism and allied forces including the Kurdish-led YPG/SDF.”
– “Defend Raqqa – Drive U.S./NATO Imperialists Out of Syria and Iraq!” The Internationalist No. 43, May-June 2016

Middle East in Turmoil, Everyone Against the Kurds

Turkish president Recep Tayipp Erdoğan and U.S. president Donald Trump meet during United Nations General Assembly in 2017.   (Photo: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Under siege from his own supporters, the megalomaniacal U.S. president Trump tweeted that “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” What those limits are was not specified. This demented and empty bluster was then repeated by U.S. treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin. Meanwhile, facing a possible impeachment trial in the Senate, the unhinged U.S. president managed to unite Republican and Democratic senators into preparing a joint resolution for imposing sanctions on Turkey.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Britain, France and Germany put aside tensions over Brexit to write a joint statement against the Turkish invasion, threatening to cut off future sales to Turkey of arms that could be used in Syria. But that won’t stop the Turkish army from using its 350+ German-made Leopard 2 tanks and its 1,000+ French-made ERYX and Milan missiles to mow down Kurds. Erdoğan responded to the hypocritical European statement by threatening to “open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way.” As world leaders trade schoolyard taunts, the only one who might make good on his threats is the megalomaniac in Ankara.

As for Syrian ally Russia, Erdoğan met last month with Russian president Vladimir Putin and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani  at a tripartite summit in Ankara on “regional issues.” They discussed Turkey’s plans for a “safety zone,” which “could host up to 3 million refugees currently living in Turkey if extended from Turkey’s border to Deir al Zor and Raqqa” far south of the border (Reuters, 16 September). They agreed on the “Astana format” of talks between the Syrian government and opposition (excluding the Kurds)3, and that the U.S. should withdraw its troops from northeastern Syria forthwith.

Meanwhile, mass protests in Baghdad by unemployed young men have plunged the Iraqi capital into turmoil. The government responded with heavy repression (over 100 dead so far). To date there is no recognized leadership, but if one emerges it could shake the regime, which is a client both of Washington and Tehran. And now, while pulling U.S. troops from Syria in order to supposedly “end the endless wars,” Trump has dispatched another 1,000 troops and Patriot anti-missile systems to eastern Saudi Arabia, where they will act as a tripwire to trigger a U.S. attack in case Iranian-backed forces again attack Saudi oil installations, as they did last month.

In this scenario in which the entire region is again thrown into turmoil, the principal regional actors are lined up against the Kurds, actively or passively. The PYD/YPG/SDF will likely be obliged to negotiate with the Assad regime under Russian sponsorship, but the government in Damascus will never agree to regional autonomy for Rojava, particularly with the Kurds having their own army, and much less Kurdish independence. The only way to defend the Kurds’ right to self-determination is through a revolutionary struggle going well beyond the borders of Syria. And in that scenario, as we wrote in our 2014 article, the “Turkish Proletariat Is Key.”

Permanent Revolution from the Middle East to the Imperialist Metropoles

Ottoman dreams: Erdoğan’s grandiose presidential palace in Ankara.  There will be no democracy for the oppressed in the Middle East short of socialist revolution, only one or another authoritarian regime.
(Photo: Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times)

As Leon Trotsky noted in his theory and program of permanent revolution, and as was confirmed in the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, in the imperialist epoch of decaying capitalism, even the gains of the classic bourgeois revolutions, including national emancipation, democracy and agrarian revolution, cannot be achieved without the working class taking power and extending socialist revolution internationally. Nowhere is this more true today than in the Middle East, a pivot of imperialist world domination, where the national boundaries arbitrarily drawn at the end of World War I have produced a century of national oppression of the Kurdish people.

There will be no democracy for the oppressed in the Middle East short of socialist revolution, only one or another authoritarian regime, whether Islamist like Erdoğan’s or “secular” military-based regimes like Assad’s in Syria, Egyptian governments before and after the “Arab Spring,” and earlier Turkish governments. The fight for workers revolution – which alone can liberate the myriad oppressed nations, nationalities, peoples and ethnic/religious communities in the Middle East – must be international in scope. The 10-million-strong Turkish working class, along with millions of Egyptian, Iraqi and Iranian workers, is key to the struggle for revolution in Syria.

The Turkish working class has the power to defeat the invasion from the rear. At present, when all reports indicate that the war on the Syrian Kurds is widely popular in Turkey, and as the government is detaining hundreds of people just for making critical comments on social media, calling for workers strikes against the war may not be immediately feasible. But Turkey is experiencing a sharp economic crisis, and class-conscious Turkish workers would fight against any efforts to subordinate their struggles to the war, as well as to mobilize against the war to the extent possible, and to defend democratic rights under wholesale attack by the regime.

Today the focal point for carrying out working-class struggle against the war is in Europe, particularly in Germany where well over a million Turkish workers and several hundred thousand Kurdish workers have for years formed a significant part of the multiethnic proletariat. This is where Turkish-Kurdish working-class unity can be forged. Trade unionists from IG Metall and other unions have demonstrated in the past against Turkish attacks on the Kurds. Now is a key time when work stoppages and industrial action against the Turkish/NATO invasion are urgently called for, but instead the union tops are calling on the European Union imperialists to pressure Erdoğan.

Vital to any struggle to defeat the imperialist assault on the Syrian Kurds is a revolutionary internationalist leadership, cohering the nuclei of Leninist communist parties on the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution – socialist revolution extending from the Middle East to the imperialist metropoles. The League for the Fourth International and its national sections, from the Internationalistische Gruppe in Germany and the Nucleo Internazionalista d’Italia to Brazil, Mexico and the United States, seek to help forge this vanguard in the heat of the class struggle. ■

  1. 1. The Alawites are a religious sect comprising roughly one-sixth (17%) of Syria’s population, concentrated in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast. Nominally Muslim and claiming to be a branch of Shia Islam, the Alawites are considered apostates by many Sunni, the dominant religious group in Syria. Alawite beliefs include a number of Christian elements, and since their theology is largely secret to all but a tiny clergy and they have no places of worship, the Alawite population is in many ways functionally secular. Alawites achieved a prominent position in the military under French colonial rule, and constitute the hard core of the military-based Assad regime, in power since 1970.
  2. 2. The Alevis are often confused with the Alawites, and like them are a syncretic sect embodying elements of different religions, although more identifiably Islamic. Based in southern Turkey and constituting up to 20% of the Turkish population, Alevis are a persecuted religious minority. Hundreds were killed before, during and after the 1980 coup.
  3. 3. Since the end of 2016, there have been indirect talks in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, under U.N. auspices, with Iran, Russia and Turkey as guarantors of a ceasefire between the Syrian government and some of the Islamist armed opposition. These talks have been discussing a draft constitution of a federal “Republic of Syria” proposed by Russia. The political representatives of the YPG/SDF were explicitly not invited to the talks.