SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 191 September 2015

Kurdish leaders and the Assad regime

The massive air campaign by the Turkish regime of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan against Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) bases, and the subsequent reactions of the PYD (Democratic Union Party), a sister organisation of the PKK in northern Syria, have raised important questions in relation to revolutionary strategy, in a sharper way than ever before.

Since the summer of 2012, the PYD has been overrunning several patches of Kurdish-majority territory in the north of Syria, following the withdrawal of Syrian troops from these areas. This was engineered by the Bashar al-Assad regime to concentrate its military power against the advance of armed Sunni groups in other parts of the country, thus allowing the PYD to fill in the vacuum.

This change of power into the hands of the PYD, a political force attuned to the plight of the Kurdish masses, and the party’s control of what has now come to be known as the Rojava cantons, created a wave of enthusiasm among the Kurdish population in Syria and internationally. This was a welcome development for many Kurds who had been suffering under the iron fist of the Assad dictatorship for years, denied basic rights such as not being allowed to use their own language in public.

Since then, the armed units of the PYD (the YPG and YPJ) have caught the imagination of millions due to their undisputed bravery in the fight against ISIS’s reactionary rampage, and thanks to their militant women’s battalions. Their stated attempts to build an alternative system of governance, arguably based on harmony between various religious and ethnic communities in the middle of a sectarian war zone, also had an electrifying impact on many young people, left and Kurdish activists around the world.

From the start, however, there has been a grey area when it came to the PYD’s stance towards Assad’s regime. It should be remembered that for around two decades after its creation in 1978, the PYD equivalent in Turkey, the PKK, enjoyed a cooperative relationship with the Assad regime, receiving funds from it before the regime eventually turned against the PKK. Although the exact nature of the relation between the PYD and Assad’s regime in the last few years has remained cloudy, it is clear that the PYD’s armed units have so far preferred to stay out of any confrontation with the Syrian army.

In some parts of Rojava, such as Qamishli and Hassakah (among the largest cities of the area), while the Assad regime did pull back most of its security personnel, it has kept government services under its charge, continuing to pay the wages of state employees, providing local administration with public resources and running some administrative offices. The school programmes have even remained the same as under Assad, with high-school students still studying curriculums approved by the previously ruling Baath party.

At the same time, as ISIS grew, military collaboration was established last year between the PYD and US imperialism. While not making military aid in itself a matter of principle, especially in the context of the killing spree by ISIS fanatics, the CWI warned of the political dangers behind such collaboration from the outset. In particular, the perception it would create among the millions in the Middle East who have suffered, and continue to suffer, from the bloody interventions of US imperialism.

We wrote: "No illusions should be created in the role of western imperialism, whose actions will only further religious sectarian divisions… The history of the Kurdish people has shown many times that the imperialist powers and capitalist elites are no friends of the Kurdish people’s long-standing struggle for national liberation". (Kurdistan: The Battle for Kobanę, 2 October 2014)

More generally, we argued against a strategy of trying to accommodate with the ‘goodwill’ of external capitalist powers, rather than of reaching out to working-class communities across borders with a clear class appeal and a socialist programme, based on the independent mobilisation against those powers. It is not possible to try simultaneously to bring about social emancipation and multi-ethnic solidarity, while cooperating with forces which exacerbate sectarian warfare across the region and, through their actions, drive persecuted Sunni Arabs into the hands of ISIS. The leniency towards the PYD by western imperialism and by Assad’s rule was the product of circumstances more than anything else. Rojava benefited from a precarious balance of forces because the ruling elites in the region and in the west had a bigger fish to fry, in the form of ISIS.

More recently, however, important changes have taken place that potentially could alter this precarious equilibrium. In particular, the US has decided to turn a blind eye to the Turkish government’s military escalation against PKK bases in Turkey and northern Iraq. The American silence was purchased by Erdoğan’s offer of allowing the US to use airbases on Turkish soil for its campaign against ISIS.

This latest manoeuvre demonstrates, once more, that US imperialism is using the Kurds as mere pawns in its power game, ready to stab them in the back at the first opportunity. Exhibiting its nauseating hypocrisy, the US government has unilaterally called on the PKK to ‘stop the violence’ in Turkey, while justifying as ‘self-defence’ the Turkish army’s intensive air assaults on PKK targets, which have already killed a number of civilians.

It is in this context that several officials from the Syria-based PYD have publically stated that Assad’s government could be contemplated as a collaborator. The co-chairman of the PYD, Salih Muslim, declared that, "under the right conditions", the YPG "could join the Syrian army". Idriss Nassan, a senior PYD official from Kobanę, said that his party could ally with Assad’s regime, "if it commits itself to a democratic future". In anticipation of the possibility that its relations with the US could be put under serious strain following the recent events in Turkey, the PYD leadership is tentatively leaning back towards Assad desperate, it seems, not to gamble on one horse only.

But if the struggle of the people of Rojava is to secure the critically needed popular support across the sectarian divide and beyond Rojava’s boundaries, this move by the PYD leaders is a strategy doomed to failure. These appeals to Assad are unlikely to go down well, in particular among the millions suffering under Assad’s bombs or being tortured by the notoriously vicious Shabiha militias. In the Kurdish community, too, many have not forgotten that before the war Assad’s regime had been violently oppressing the Kurds and denying their identity within Syria for decades.

The American socialist, John Reed, once said: "Whoever takes Uncle Sam’s promises at their face value will pay for them with blood and sweat". This is something the Kurds learnt the hard way many times before. However, what Reed said of ‘Uncle Sam’ remains equally valid for pro-capitalist, sectarian and butchering regimes such as Assad’s. If and when Assad gets the upper hand, he will no doubt go back to brutally subduing the Kurds again. What will the PYD leaders do then?

It would not be wrong in and of itself to try and exploit the divisions between different ruling powers in order to reinforce mass struggle. But any tactic should be subordinated to a clear strategy, with the conscious goal of exposing the enemies for what they are at every stage, without nourishing the slightest illusions in their intentions. Socialists rely on independent mobilisation from below as the primary factor for change. Unfortunately, the PYD leaders’ approach is a totally different story.

They have a short-sighted policy of balancing between different capitalist powers, all of whom have consistently shown their utter disdain for the interests of the Kurdish masses. This represents a major mistake and an objective obstacle in building cross-sectarian solidarity with all the populations under assault outside of Rojava, whether from Assad’s regime or from US air power. It runs the risk of exacerbating sectarian tensions. Only a strategy having at its core a consistent programme for united working-class action and for democratic rights of all the peoples of the region, investing no faith whatsoever in imperialist powers and regional authoritarian rulers, has a fighting chance of securing a way out of the current catastrophe.

Serge Jordan

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