In the aftermath of Joe Biden winning the United States presidential election, headlines across the western world began to make reference to a “resurgent” US that would return to its vacated throne on the global stage.
The Donald Trump interregnum was, the narrative goes,a period of diminished US authority over global affairs. Now that “America is back”, as Biden put it, business as usual can proceed when it comes to the foreign policy affairs of the world’s primary power.
But what exactly does this business refer to? Trump was certainly a despicable figure, a man with white supremacist and far-right leanings, making his presidency dangerous in many facets. However, his foreign policy initiatives were often a mixed bag, with his administration continuing the staple Washington aggressiveness towards socialist countries such as Venezuela, Cuba and China. He also significantly ramped up sanctions on Iran – in this regard actually going in the opposite direction than the previous Obama-Biden administration had.
At the same time, he denounced the concept of endless war, especially in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and finally put the US on footing to negotiate a settlement to end the Korean War. For these actions, he was denounced by the foreign policy establishment as someone acting anathema to US power – or even worse, a puppet of Moscow.
To be certain, US presence in the Middle East – as anywhere else – does not serve a progressive role, even as its motivations are always clouded in the rhetoric of humanitarianism and democratic values. If the war in Iraq of 2003 was waged with the pretext of bringing freedom to the long suffering Iraqi people, its presence in Syria has been justified by the very Islamist terrorism that it had helped to unleash during that Iraq debacle and the early stages of the Syrian war.
Biden as the most ‘Pro-Kurdish President’?
One of the often misunderstood and complicated aspects of US foreign policy has been – and will likely continue to be – the relationship of Washington to the Kurdish nation that finds itself split between Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran.
When Trump decided to pull US troops from northern Syria in October last year, he did so as an expression of goodwill with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, effectively greenlighting an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Kurdish region known as Rojava.
US troops were never there because of genuine concern for the Kurdish people, but to further the Pentagon’s own geostrategic interests in the region, especially given the absolute mess their preferred proxies in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had fallen into.
Kurdish forces in the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that received US weapons didn’t hold any illusions about the US role, but given the genocidal conditions they faced, were left with little choice but to engage in this “tactical military cooperation” that had started with the Battle of Kobane in 2014-15.
The 2019 Trump-supported Turkish invasion of Syria became a NATO war, even if it was denounced by many European powers and much of the US establishment, Biden included.
Since Biden’s victory, a number of articles have surfaced about his relationship to “the Kurds”. One piece, written by Aykan Erdemir and Philip Kowalski for the National Interest, proclaims that “Biden Will Be America’s Most Pro-Kurdish President”.
It would, of course, bear trying to understand exactly what it means to be “pro-Kurdish”, given that one saying they are “pro-Arab” or “pro-Latin American” would hardly qualify as saying much. The question still is what social forces the individual in question supports in those contexts.
The National Interest article points out that Biden is a close friend of the former president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, Massoud Barzani. It then goes on to mention that Biden lashed out at Trump after deciding to pull US troops from Syria, saying that the Commander-in-Chief had betrayed the Kurds. To be more specific, he meant that Trump had betrayed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the umbrella group led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The problem of being a friend to the far-from-monolithic Kurds begins here. The Barzani government (now led by his nephew, Nechirvan) and the YPG hardly see eye-to-eye. In fact, it would be more adequate to say that, in a general sense, they represent opposing political projects. This has taken the expression of the KRG imposing an embargo on the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North-Eastern Syria (AANES) for more than six years now.
For the US, this has meant playing a very unclear and delicate game of militarily working with the YPG and SDF, while refusing the grant political recognition to the Rojava project. Recognising Rojava would not only infuriate the KRG, but would also inflame Turkey, the country that in many ways – despite its deeply entrenched anti-Kurdish racism – is an enthusiastic supporter of Barzani’s collaborationist, hyper-capitalist entity.
It is evident the US is less than enthusiastic about supporting a project with socialist inclinations. This, however, has meant that the US has tried to influence the Rojava polity through various methods including “national unity” negotiations between the Democratic Union Party (PYD) –ideologically linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and which spearheaded the Rojava Revolution – and a number of liberal, centrist and reactionary Kurdish parties, most notably the Syrian branch of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
The plan for a liberalising of Rojava’s political project – that is, making any socialist-oriented governance simply part of the project and not a defining aspect, goes hand-in-hand with the strategy of trying to cut Syrian Kurdistan off from its fraternal comrades-in-arms in the PKK.
While the US tries to craft an “acceptable” regime in Syria, it is also working to “restore security” to the Sinjar region of Iraq, which sits close to the Syrian border, by providing the legal framework to dissolve the PKK-affiliated Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) and replace it with a joint KDP-Iraqi government security force.
Thirdly, the US remains committed to full-scale destruction of the PKK, assisting Turkey and the KDP in their war against the organisation.
These three areas, with regional rather than simply local implications, are key to understanding why – despite its pronouncements to the contrary – the US is not interested in truly assisting the Kurdish people.
The US is, in fact, engaged in a multifaceted effort to weaken revolutionary elements across the region, liberalising them and attempting to instrumentalise them for their own geostrategic objectives. By attempting to drain movements for change of their progressive content, Kurds can never truly be free, but will rather be cogs in a US sphere of influence that pushes neoliberalism.
The US wants to liberalise the Rojava project, delinking it from the PKK
The YPG-US relationship had always been fraught with contradictions, but the forming of the SDF in 2015 proved a valuable way of rebranding the Kurdish forces as more than just an offshoot of the PKK. This would push the YPG’s democratic confederalist ideology to simply became a faction – if still the leading one – within an ever-expanding umbrella of mostly Arab groups which have little regard for socialist-leaning politics.
On the political side, the forces gathered in the Kurdish National Council (ENKS) which have historic loyalty to the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, had dismissed the Autonomous Administration for being merely a dictatorship of the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Under US auspices, negotiations were fleshed out this year between the PYD’s Kurdish National Unity Parties (PYNK) and the ENKS in an attempt to reach ‘national unity’ that would end the hostile relations between the blocs.
It must be said that attempting to find national unity is certainly an admirable objective for Kurdish forces that have long been fragmented. However, as with any kind of unity, the question is always on what basis it will rest. Will it be one in which the ideology of the PYD – that is, of a cooperative economy rooted in grassroots democracy and communes, and giving expression to women’s liberation – dominates? Or one will it be the vision of ENKS, which wants the capitalist organisation of society with no role for women’s rights? These two projects would appear rather irreconcilable, especially as ENKS remains part of the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition body that has been utterly hostile to Rojava.
In a time of war, principles are often luxuries, and are as flexible as the conditions at hand. For Rojava’s revolutionaries, the conditions in which they are operating have always been thousands of miles from ideal. A blockade from the KRG is matched by one from Turkey, threats from the remnants of the Islamic State, and a Syrian government that has thus far made it clear that it has little interest in changing the chauvinist character of the state as part of a political solution. Combined with Russia’s reluctance to quell Turkish attacks that violate the 2019 ceasefire, this had had the effect of naturally making the AANES increasingly dependent on the US as a bargaining chip.
To the surprise of many, it was announced in August that the SDF had signed an oil deal with a small US corporation called Delta Crescent. The deal was apparently advanced by Republican lawmakers, and heralded by US Secretary of Defence Mike Pompeo.
The deal needs to be seen in the context of the suffocating conditions in which the AANES exists. Without political recognition, the Rojava administration is subject to US sanctions in the form of the Caesar Act that have a disastrous effect on its people, as they do the rest of the Syrian population. Despite the presence of the US in northern and eastern Syria, the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), effectively the guiding committee of the revolution, has resolutely opposed the Caesar Act for harming the Syrian people as a whole.
When I spoke to a minister for the economy in Amude, Syria in 2017, I was told that the administration would consider joint economic projects only if the majority of the project (at least 51%) was controlled locally, and it didn’t violate fundamental principles of the revolution, such as exploiting and degrading nature, or pushing for ownership models inconsistent with a cooperative economy.
At the same time, I was told that due to the embargo, all of the parts that were necessary for oil production had been painstakingly smuggled across the Iraq-Syria in backpacks over the course of months, or even years.
An oil deal signed with the US only has the effect of pushing Rojava further into the US orbit, and alienating many of progressive and leftist supporters the revolution has generated. Even though it needs to be seen in context, it isn’t a defensible decision – and it would appear that the PKK seems to think so, too.
In an interview with Sterk TV just days after the deal was announced, PKK executive committee member Cemil Bayik sharply voiced his disagreement with it, saying “Syria is an internationally recognised state. That is why all of Syria's underground and aboveground resources belong to all its people, and not to anyone in particular. I mean, nobody can take these things away… I don't know what is exactly happening in reality... [But] nobody has the right [to turn] these things into private property.”
Also hinting at other disagreements on policy, fellow PKK executive committee member Bese Hozat slammed the trajectory of the Rojava administration in September, in an interview also given to Sterk. In particular, she criticised the AANES giving priority to international peace talks which have been fruitless to date, saying “The talks in Geneva and Astana are theater. From time to time people come together to allegedly discuss a solution to the Syrian question … they are trying to impose a new design on Syria and the Middle East.”
Continuing, Hozat said, “In this context I also criticize the administration of Rojava. It takes this theater very seriously and constantly talks about Geneva… These are all games of the US and Russia. And in this chaos the war continues. In this war, Syria is wanted to be given a new design according to their interests, and that requires time. In this way the people are deceived.”
The oil deal and the attempts made by the US to pursue some kind of liberal democracy in Rojava that would push the PYD further away from a vanguard role in practice, is a worrying development. In theory, the democratic confederalist project opposes vanguard forces of the Leninist model, though I would argue that, in the main, the PYD had assumed something of this kind of leadership role from 2012 onward. Building the radical foundations for Rojavan society without it would have been largely the stuff of fairytales, and developing it further at this point without these revolutionary “politics in command” also seems rather unfeasible.
Political recognition of the AANES by the US may or may not take place under a Biden administration. It could be argued that such recognition would actually constitute a serious danger rather than anything meaningfully progressive.
Recognition under these conditions would almost certainly inflame the region, and most notably irritate and aggravate the Syrian government. Damascus would feel increasingly under threat from the imperialist occupiers, and this could deal a death blow to any prospect of a negotiated settlement.
Also, recognition by the US would mean that Washington has felt that it had significantly degraded and distorted any socialist-leanings of the administration to such a degree that it no longer constitutes a hindrance to its imperial ambitions. Moving from “temporary, transactional” military cooperation to political cooperation would essentially be the end of the road for the Rojava “revolution”, to instead be replaced by a liberal-reformist regime.
The US aims to delink Sinjar (Shengal) from the PKK
A second manner in which the US is waging its war on the Kurdish Freedom Movement is to be found in its handling of security matters in Iraq, principally in areas where the PKK has influence and areas of operation.
The Yazidi genocide of August 2014 at the hands of the Islamic State was allowed to happen when the Peshmerga military forces associated to Barzani’s KDP abandoned their positions. As a result, the protection of the community fell on the shoulders of PKK guerillas who came down from the Qandil mountains, as well as YPG forces that crossed the border from Syria.
In the aftermath of the genocide, the PKK and YPG trained up a new force that would provide security for the region. Taking on the ideology of democratic confederalism of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, the Sinjar Resistence Units (YBS) and the all-women’s force Sinjar Women’s Units (YJE), has been protecting the region since. According to both Turkey and its client KDP, however, the YBS and YJE are nothing more than rebranded PKK forces that need to not simply be moved from the region, but eliminated altogether.
The extent to which the US could clearly be seen as being insincere in its commitment to the Yazidi people was noticeable in August 2018, when a Turkish air attack – committed using US intelligence – killed Zeki Shengali, a Yazidi PKK commander who had been an active part of the defence of Shengal in 2014 and long-standing revolutionary.
Under US auspices, negotiations took place earlier this year between the KDP and the Iraqi central governmenton the future of Shengal. Most enraging was the fact that these talks happened without the consent of, or participation of, a single body representing the Yazidi people of the region.
The result of the talks was a security agreement unveiled in October, praised by the US State Department, which said “We hope the agreement announced October 9 will create conditions that foster the revival of Sinjar and the safe and voluntary return of those who were displaced by ISIS.”
The agreement means that the local security bodies – that is, most notably the YBS and YJE, are to be dissolved. Security – bizarrely – is entrusted to the same KDP that ran away from the Islamic State in 2014. The Shengal agreement, therefore, is a gift, brokered by Washington, to the KDP and Turkey.
The dissolution of the YBS would not only affect Shengal’s people, possibly opening themselves up to yet another genocide, but eroding the routes on the Syria-Iraq border that unite the Rojava entity with their comrades in Shengal. This could only work to push Rojava even more into a bind in which it sees the US as their only guarantee of a semblance of security.
The US supports Turkey and the KDP in its war against the PKK
Biden, who was one of the most enthusiastic backers of the Iraq war on the Democratic Party’s side of the aisle in Congress, once showed a similar degree of enthusiasm for the KRG’s reactionary Barzani family, saying in an address to the Erbil-based parliament in 2002 in the run-up to war that “the mountains are not your only friends”.
It is quite a puzzling statement to recall at a time in which the KDP is pushing military hardware and thousands of Peshmerga troops into PKK guerrilla-held areas of Iraqi Kurdistan. This is happening at the same time that Turkey is engaged in a war of annihilation against the PKK, so it isn’t a leap of judgement to assume that the two moves are almost certainly part of a coordinated and joint push.
It is the PKK’s HPG and YJA-Star guerrilla forces who truly know, understand and are one with the mountains -- yet Biden was unquestionably not referring to them when saying he was offering “the Kurds” his support. Biden has, in fact, been very vocal about how he sees the PKK. In a January 2016 visit to Istanbul as then vice president to Barack Obama, he told journalists and his Turkish audience that the PKK “is a terrorist group plain and simple. And what they continue to do is absolutely outrageous”.
This designation is unlikely to change during the course of Biden’s term in office that begins in January. Contrary to whatever pro-government Turkish newspapers have to say, his likely to be renewed support for the SDF and his opposition to the PKK will not be in contradiction – both will need to be seen within the framework of US attempts to influence and craft the policies of the forces it works alongside, the former to which it has been given an opening, the latter which is still a deemed non-reformable.
This should all bring caution to those who feel as if the US is on the verge of swearing in its most “pro-Kurdish” president. Again, it is vital to understand who these far from monolithic Kurds are. In Biden’s book, he seems to know who the “good” Kurds are (the KDP), who the “bad” ones are (the PKK), and who those straddling the divide are that could go either way (the YPG).
A future without US imperialist interference?
Earlier this year, the Syrian Democratic Council (Rojava’s political wing) led by Ilham Ehmed signed a memorandum of understanding with former Syrian deputy prime minister and leader of the communist People’s Will Party, Qadri Jamil. The agreement put forward a roadmap for a political solution to the Syrian crisis, which was endorsed by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov when it was signed in his presence in Moscow.
Part of the document spells out how the SDF is to be absorbed into the Syrian army after recognition of the country as a multiethnic and diverse entity in which Kurds, Turkmen, Armenians, Laz and other minorities have full rights, and autonomy is granted to the AANES.
In practice, the implementation of the document looks a long way from coming to fruition. The Syrian government is quite correct in condemning the presence of US forces in the country. For their part, the AANES has consistently said that intra-Syrian dialogue is decisive, and that all foreign forces should ultimately leave Syria.
Supporting the sovereignty of Syria, as well as self-determination for the region’s oppressed Kurdish population, are indispensable principles of socialist internationalism. This will be important to remember as Biden is likely to attempt to position himself as a long-time friend of Kurds. As usual, we should be in the business of asking exactly what that really means, and pointing out why he is no friend to revolutionary movements, whether in Kurdistan or anywhere else around the globe.