Erdogan, Trump, Assad and the Imperial Game in Syria
The onslaught of the Kurds is another phase in the dismantling of Syria.
As Turkish troops advance into Syria, Kurdish forces have now called on the Assad government to intervene on their behalf in a desperate attempt to protect themselves from the ethnic cleansing which awaits.
The conflict in Syria has seen alliances shift and balances turn. All regional powers had invested in the conflict, with the Saudi-American-Israeli-Turkish axis hoping to topple the Assad regime, backing all sorts of questionable jihadi groups, spawning the horrors of ISIS (amongst others) and whipping up sectarian fears in attempts to extend their influence in Syria whilst weakening Assad.
On the other side was of course Assad himself — the brutal dictator — who responded to the rumblings of the Arab Spring and the revolution against his dictatorship by barrel-bombing civilian centres of unrest, divide and conquer tactics and the whipping up of sectarian divides that had long been a legacy of colonialism. Hezbollah and Iran fought alongside Assad, whilst the Russians seized the opportunity to tip the balance in favour of their long-time ally who had for so long provided the Russians with their access to the Mediterranean.
In the midst of all this, the Kurds of Rojava, whilst fighting for their own self-determination had carved out a semi-autonomous region, where the principles of Abdullah Ocalan’s democratic confederalism were experimented with, gaining the Kurds much sympathy with progressives worldwide as a beacon of hope in a region convulsed in horror and death. Their calls for international solidarity beamed brightly and illuminated the fate of the displaced millions in camps around Syria or on their deadly journeys to fortress Europe. They also drew attention to the historic fate of the Kurds, a minority people scattered amongst four nations (Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria), shedding light on the imperial legacy of Middle-Eastern borders.
But the Syrian revolution and the Rojava social experiment became embroiled in the revolving door of regional geo-politics and the high stakes involved transformed the Syrian uprising from a revolution to an armed conflict, inevitably favouring the centralized power of state actors and heavily armed militia. The stateless Kurds, who sought to build a social structure without a state, placed themselves at the mercy of the most powerful state in the world, only to be ‘stabbed in the back,’ a phrase pregnant with the ominous flavours of history. Having lost US protection, they have now made their pact with the devil presenting the world and the region with a looming confrontation between the Syrians and the Turks. Will the Russians continue to stand by Assad?
According to UNHCR hundreds of thousands have already fled Northern Syria. Meanwhile, Erdogan pledges his determination to ‘push on,’ whatever that might mean. Turkish state propaganda will have us believe that the region will be cleansed of ‘terrorists’ — in another ominous echo from history. NATO’s second most powerful army is apparently not invading Syria and anyone who dares suggest it can anticipate millions of refugees to be unleashed upon them. Refugees continue to be Erdogan’s bargaining chip in dealing with the EU. He has repeatedly used Syrian refugees to strike favourable deals with Europe and now they are his pretence for expansion into Syria and the punishing of the Kurds. Where will the ‘fresh’ refugees of his latest military escalation go?
And Trump? He has framed his withdrawal of American troops as consistent with his policies of ‘ending endless wars.’ Is he just deflecting the attention of the world from the impeachment proceedings he faces at home? He certainly wouldn’t be the first American president to act thus. American troops are definitely not being withdrawn from Saudi-Arabia. In fact, the American presence in the Middle East has increased with 14,000 troops since May. Rather than protecting the stateless Kurds, they are bolstering the autocratic Saudis, who are of course involved in a much longer running conflict with their Iranian rivals and slaughtering Yemeni civilians in the process.
So the Syrian war has been re-ignited and the imperial game continues. Turkey has moved centre stage and the beneficiaries of its operations might well be the Saudis and the Israelis, although we could also see a revival of ISIS and similar formations which thrive on misery and chaos. On the other hand, Assad could further bolster his position, strengthening Iran, Russia and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It’s hard to see how any of this will benefit the Kurds or the wider population in the region. Once again, they see forces beyond their control emerging, determined to thwart the self-determination and liberation that the Arab Spring once inspired. Trump’s withdrawal of a few American special forces from Syria has deepened divisions and sown the seeds for more, not less wars.
Syria’s neighbour, Iraq, is in serious turmoil. Although at peril for becoming equally embroiled in the imperial game that has swallowed up much of the region, the anger gripping the Iraqi movement is genuine and bottom-up, potentially transcending the sectarianism encouraged by competing states and imperial interests which have so far dominated the escalating tensions across the region. It reminds us of the uprisings of the early Arab Spring, which toppled dictators but were subsequently hijacked by the forces described above.
I will therefore not be lulled into the false contradiction which encourages us to choose between Turkey and Syria. Both Erdogan and Assad represent illegitimacy and repression whose victories would be drenched in blood. Alternatively, I hope the uprising in Iraq and the self-determination of the Kurds will survive this onslaught. Perhaps their survival could continue the legacy of the early Arab Spring to rid the region of the violence wrought by dictatorship and imperialism.