Trump and Rojava: Can US Imperialism be "Anti-War"?

Turkey is ready to foot the bill for a war in the northeast of Syria, and the US, headed by Donald Trump, is only to happy to sell.

Is Trump “pulling back”?

Confusion reigns on much of the left around the world as Donald Trump, a US president befitting the current zeitgeist of deepening economic crisis and a decaying neoliberal order, has announced that the US military will be withdrawing from border areas of the northeast of Syria (in fact maintaining troops in the country, just beyond Deir ez-Zor) on the request of the Turkish government. Is Trump limiting US foreign military involvement? Surely the left around the world, and particularly in the Middle East region, ought to be be celebrating this?

What’s more, “established” voices within the US state apparatus, such as Brett McGurk, who oversaw the interim (read: occupation) legislation in Iraq following the US invasion of that country, have reacted furiously to Trump as failing to live up to the lofty expectations of a US Commander-in-Chief, which, if history is any indication, ought to include such noble acts of leadership as carpet bombing civilian areas with chemical weapons, as former Commanders-in-Chief have done in countries from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, always under the liberal-friendly pretext of spreading or defending “democracy” (in years past, from the spectre of communistic “tyranny”, in more recent years, from a vaguely defined threat of “terrorism” and its “state sponsors”).

If fans of the massacre in Fallujah are jumping up and down in outrage at a military withdrawal from Syria, surely the defenders of peace and the region’s peoples ought to be jumping for joy?

The facts on the ground, however, and not our immediate instincts based on the headlines, will determine that for us. US imperialism’s role is not merely the (rightly) headline-grabbing carpet bombing campaigns, as its culpability in death and destruction, oppression and exploitation, across and beyond the region, cannot be reduced to its officially declared military campaigns.

What do Trump and Erdoğan have planned for Syria?

Let us turn first to the White House’s own justification for this “stepping aside” to let Turkey do what it will in the region of Rojava/the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria: Trump has long since taken credit for the defeat of ISIS, credit which of course belongs not to whichever washed-up careerist sits in the Oval Office fancying himself world emperor, but to the fighting power of the peoples of the region (organised under the Syrian Democratic Forces in Rojava and its environs, and the Syrian Arab Army elsewhere). In a statement that would be laughable if its real implication were not so sinister, the White House attempted to centre the discussion in its press release on handing over “responsibility” for “captured ISIS fighters” to the Turkish state.

Any Turkish person not already cheerleading invasion, regardless of their views on Syrian or Kurdish politics, can tell you what the AKP-MHP government’s relationship is to ISIS:

  • Cumhuriyet, a respected mainstream and centrist newspaper has been repressed by the government ever since it reported on shipments of weapons to ISIS to arm them in their fight against the Kurdish PYD and its allies. Can Dündar and others spent months in jail for exposing this, and Dündar has been effectively forced into exile by an assassination attempt following his release.

  • On the 10th of this month, Turkish progressives will remember the attack in the middle of Ankara by ISIS which left over 100 dead as they marched for peace (a sadly expected event at the time, as it followed a similar, smaller attack in Suruç in which Turkish socialists delivering aid to Kobanê were cut down). After this cowardly attack by ISIS, Turkish police blocked ambulances and gassed and beat marchers as they picked up the body parts of their friends. As the dust settled, AKP officials giggled their way through a press conference as they answered in the negative when asked if there had been a significant security lapse which bore investigation.

  • And through all of this, while the Syrian Arab Republic’s government was condemned as illegitimate (how much more legitimate is the Turkish government, which ignores elections results and appoints trustees whenever it is displeased?) and the Syrian Democratic Forces were constantly reduced to “terrorists” by any media outlet in Turkey which doesn’t wish to be labelled “terrorist” itself, let us not forget that not only al-Qaeda affiliates hiding behind the banner of the so-called “Free Syrian Army”, but even ISIS are referred to by AKP officials as being the wronged party, “reacting” to the violence of others!

Indeed, many of these facts are well known even to foreign observers with even the slightest critical stance against the Turkish government: it is clear that in its quest to crush anything that reeks of Kurdish self-administration and as a threat to its regional influence, the Turkish government has no qualms about encouraging ISIS to operate freely. The US government has struck a deal with Ankara not to lessen US influence, but to use US influence to allow Turkey to revive ISIS, and use them as death squads against Kurds and other minorities in Syria. How can we imagine a greater threat to regional peace than this?

What is the real role of US imperialism?

Let us return now to the condemnation of Trump by Brett McGurk, Trump’s former envoy in the fight against ISIS. It is of course true that Brett McGurk represents a very mainstream stance in his country over the past decade and then some, the so-called “War on Terror” period in US politics. Does this mean that Trump is acting contrary to the interests of US imperialism?

In ousting Brett McGurk from his position earlier this year, Trump replaced McGurk with none other than James Jeffrey, who cut his teeth in the region in the 1980s being wined and dined by the Turkish fascist junta officials as they forced Kurdish villagers out in the name of “counter-terrorism” operations. The Turkish state’s refusal to even legalise the speaking of the Kurdish language, let alone the rightful demands of the Kurdish liberation movement for recognition of the Kurdish people, Kurdistan as a territory, and the right to a vote on their political future, resulted in a long and bloody war which has yet to end, and which has claimed thousands of lives within Turkey alone, to say nothing of the “spillover” elsewhere in the region, and even in Europe. Jeffrey, like his masters in Washington, had not the slightest to say against this, and indeed, encouraged and armed the Turkish state every step of the way in an unwinnable war at massive human cost.

The US did not do this out of some particular sympathy for Turkish nationalism or some particular “Kurdophobia”, nor out of some perverse bloodlust for its own sake, but for a much more mundane motivation: as is the case with all capitalist states, and as is especially obvious due to the powerful reach and influence of the imperialist powers, the US operates in the hopes of safeguarding its complex economic interests. These interests are many, and sometimes in contradiction with one another, one can easily list new markets to dominate for the sale of their own commodities, cheap labour at the global peripheries to produce said commodities, natural resources (including, notably in the Middle East region, oil), but one which is particularly noteworthy for the imperialist powers (particularly the permanent members of the UN “Security” Council), is the sale of arms. And for the US, Turkey, as the second largest NATO army, is a major customer.

It is easy to observe a massive spike in arms sales and aid to Turkey by the US as war heated up in Turkey itself during the years Jeffrey was being wined and dined. In the 1980s, all anti-imperialists understood perfectly well what the role of the US arms trade was in imperialism. It is precisely this tendency of imperialism, a return to how the US dealt with the emergence of the PKK, that is reasserting itself in the Syrian border as we speak, at the potential cost of thousands of lives, principally those of Kurds and other minorities who will come face to face with ISIS in all of its murderous, rapacious former “glory”.

US imperialism can have no real anti-war form, because not only is imperialism aggressively expansive by nature of protecting its own direct interests, but as a stage of capitalist development, imperialism is in the service of the profit motive and the production and exchange of commodities, and cannot give up on that most shockingly valuable of commodities: war. Turkey is ready to foot the bill for a war in the northeast of Syria, and the US, headed by Donald Trump, is only to happy to sell.

What alternative can we imagine to imperialism and fascism?

The Kurdish liberation movement never had any illusion about the long-term partnership with imperialism but, conjuncturally, necessarily had to work with an imperialist power against a fascist army (an army which was, in fact, a result of the conditions of the imperialist world order). But the Kurdish liberation movement from the beginning rejected proposals to be part of a “regime change” project headed by US imperialism knowing that, in the final instance, this “betrayal” could come.

It is of course, correct for socialists to try to prevent this war by whatever means possible. Thus are the masses marching against the warmongering by the Turkish state (backed by the US) in the northeast of Syria, and in Turkey, too, are pro-peace and democracy activists on the march against this warmongering. In the west, in the east, everyone who is able should stand up for peace and against this joint plot by imperialism and its fascist clients.

But there is a concrete limit to the politics of protest: in defence of their interests, eventually the imperialist powers will find some outlet, and activist fatigue sets in when asking the broad masses to protest for each individual cause across the whole, blood-drenched globe. If the Kurds do not suffer, some other people, in some other sad corner of the globe, may well suffer the same fate.

To shout back at imperialism is good, and correct. To actually stand in its path, and stop it, is what is ultimately necessary. This can only be achieved by organisation.

So long as we are ruled, across the globe, by regimes of capital, and in the interest of profits, it is hard to imagine imperialism being actually weakened. To replace these regimes with popular power, with a real revolutionary democratic will: this is the real anti-imperialist stance, and the first step towards constructing socialism on its real social basis: the proletariat as a whole and conscious political class.

And this is precisely why we demand that foreigners turn their eye to Rojava even if this particular attack is thwarted (through whatever means necessary). While war grabs headlines, the real story is behind the guns of the guerrillas: a new social order can easily be built under these conditions. Popular democratic forces, popular assemblies, this revolutionary democratic moment provides the social conditions, the potential for socialism.

Instead of a regime ruled top-down by business interests, the Kurdish liberation movement and its allies attempt to put the people in power as much as possible. Thus we have a challenge to the patriarchal order normative in the region in the form of co-chair positions and women’s councils, not only by the PYD in civil life, but even in the defence initiative of the YPJ; thus we have linguistic and cultural protections for small minority groups usually of no interest or use to the capitalist state in regions under the influence of this revolutionary movement.

Follow the example of the young revolutionaries in Turkey: who see their reflection in the downtrodden Kurdish people, rush to their defence in Syria as in Turkey itself, and also, crucially, try to build a popular politics among their own people which can unite with other peoples against the capitalist state.

Anti-imperialism is not about reminding everyone habitually that when bad things happen across the globe, imperialism has its bloody hands within. It is about uniting all the victims of the capitalist system which has reached its highest stage in imperialism, and bringing them to political power. If these oppressed and exploited peoples can remake their own lives, in their own social context, against the diktats of capital, if they can come together to seize the whole Earth as capitalism has done, only then can we bring down imperialism and bring forth a free and united humanity in its place.


Muhsin Yorulmaz

Muhsin Yorulmaz is a writer and translator with Abstrakt, a Marxist internet magazine.