By Alex Callinicos
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Imperialists betray the Kurds—again

This article is over 2 years, 9 months old
Issue 2676
A protest in solidarity with Kurdistan in Glasgow, last Saturday
A protest in solidarity with Kurdistan in Glasgow, last Saturday (Pic: Andrew Mcgowan)

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have denounced Donald Trump’s decision to pull back American troops blocking a Turkish invasion of northern Syria as a “betrayal”. Of course they’re right.

The SDF were US’s main ally on the ground in the campaign to defeat Isis in Syria. Trump’s defence that the Kurds “didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy” is way beyond ridiculous.

How could a stateless people ruled by four different states and living three thousand kilometres from Normandy have sent a contingent to the D-Day landings?

Foreign Policy magazine interviewed a number of retired and serving US officers who operated with the SDF. “They were devastated by the news that the United States is standing aside to let the Turks massacre the Kurdish troops, and more than one expressed a deep sense of shame,” it said.

One officer said, “There will be a whole generation of US military that will never forget this betrayal nor stop apologising for it.”

The main task of socialists and anti-imperialists is to oppose the Turkish invasion, express their solidarity with the Kurdish people, and defend their right to national self-determination. But we also need to learn from what has happened.

It isn’t the first time that the US has betrayed the Kurds.

The historian Greg Grandin quoted on Facebook from his excellent book on Henry Kissinger, secretary of state to presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Grandin wrote that in the early 1970s, Kissinger had schemed with the Shah of Iran to destabilise Baathist Iraq by supporting the Kurds. Israel provided them with weapons supplied by so as not to alert the State Department to wage an insurgent war for independence in northern Iraq.

He wrote, “In December 1975, believing he had worked out a lasting pro-American balance of power between Iran and Iraq, Kissinger withdrew US support from the Kurds. Baghdad moved quickly, launching an assault on the Kurds that killed thousands and implementing a programme of ethnic cleansing. Arabs were moved into the region and hundreds of thousands of Kurds were rounded up and forcibly relocated.”


The Kurdish nationalists of northern Iraq nevertheless ended up as American clients. The Kurdish Democratic Union and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), at the heart of the SDF are a much more impressive movement.

The US officers interviewed by Foreign Policy are full of praise for their political administration of the areas they have liberated.

The YPG are allied with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a long armed struggle in the Kurdish areas of Turkey. It is this connection that has brought down on them the wrath of the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He and his allies in the Turkish military fear that if Kurdish self-governing areas were consolidated across the border in northern Syria the PKK would be stronger.

The SDF have operated in a military and political space created by more powerful forces. On the one hand, the murderous regime of Bashir al-Assad abandoned the Kurdish areas in Syria to concentrate on fighting the revolutionary militias and to divide its opponents.

On the other hand the US, first under Barack Obama and then under Trump, found the SDF useful allies against Isis.

Now, predictably, the US has betrayed them. One should avoid the temptation to focus too much on Trump here. Obama would probably have done the same.

The strategic intelligence website Stratfor explained the brutal logic behind this decision.“When push comes to shove, the White House has chosen to bolster a critical partnership with a strategic ally over defending a loyal, but relatively small, local partner,” it said. “While the Turks see the border region as an issue of critical national importance worthy of taking significant risks over, the United States had already been seeking to leave Syria and appears unwilling to risk a blow-up with Turkey over the issue.”

The space the SDF were able to operate in is closing. To stem the Turkish onslaught, they have now made a deal with the Assad regime.

It’s tragic that the mistake of relying on alliances with imperialist powers should cost so much suffering.

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