Kurds drive back IS amid West's shifting alliances

October 19, 2014
Sydney rally in solidarity with the Kobane resistance, October 7. Photo by Peter Boyle.

“Iraq is our main effort, and it has to be, and the things that we’re doing right now in Syria are being done primarily to shape the conditions in Iraq,” General Lloyd Austin, the US commander overseeing the air strikes against Iraq and Syria told an October 17 Washington press conference.

However, the first significant victory against the official enemy in the latest US-war in the Middle East ― the ultra-violent terrorist group that calls itself “the Islamic State” (IS) ― is being won in the Kurdish town of Kobane on the Syrian-Turkish border.

But this victory was not won by forces allied to the US, but by the People's Defence Units (YPG) and Women’s Defence Units (YPJ). The YPG/YPJ is led by the leftist Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is ideologically aligned with the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The PKK has been in conflict with NATO-member Turkey since 1984 and is listed as an illegal terrorist organisation in the US, the European Union and Australia.

The Western intervention in Iraq is officially at the request of the Iraqi government. However, the US not only created the current Iraqi state after its 2003 invasion destroyed the previous regime, but US influence was decisive in the replacement of Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki on August 15 with Haidar al-Abadi.

This move was a recognition that the post-occupation Iraqi state was dysfunctional and based on sectarian Shia militias, whose violent repression of Sunni communities was a significant factor in the rapid IS advances in northern Iraq in June. However, the nature of the regime has not changed.

The US’s latest war in the Middle East began with air strikes in Iraq on August 8. The US has officially limited the role of its own forces and that of its allies to air strikes. This is an effort to forestall domestic opposition to the war.

To control Iraq after the 2003 invasion, the US-led occupation forces fomented a religious sectarian war. By pitting communities against each other, the occupiers stymied the emergence of a united resistance and were able to force armed groups on both sides of the sectarian divide to rely on the US-led forces for protection.

However, when it officially ended the occupation in 2011, the US left behind a state that relied on Shia forces. These groups are close to Iran, a Shia theocracy and the major regional rival of the US.

The US occupation of Iraq replaced a regime hostile to Iran with an Iranian ally. But elsewhere, US diplomatic policy in the region continued to focus on maintaining an anti-Iranian alliance of Arab states, in particular Saudi Arabia.

The US also continued to fight its “war on terror” against anti-Western Sunni fundamentalist groups in places as disparate as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

For the US to ensure control over the oil-rich Middle East, military power is essential. Therefore, it is crucial to overcome domestic hostility to direct military involvement.

The exposure of the lies behind the 2003 invasion, however, have made this hard. This was demonstrated by Obama’s back down from threats to intervene in Syria after dictator Bashar Assad used chemical warfare against opposition fighters and civilians in September last year.

The IS’s ultra-violence provided the US with a pretext for intervention. For the time being at least, however, this does not include ground troops.

However, these forces consist of demoralised conscripts and corrupt officers. Their most militarily effective units are Shia militias whose violent sectarianism alienates the Sunni Arab population.

The forces of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, which has controlled Iraqi Kurdistan with US support since 1991, are slightly better.

But while they lack the religious sectarianism of the Baghdad government forces, they are also plagued by corruption, political partisanship and ethnic chauvinism.

PM Tony Abbott eagerly announced Australian participation in the US-led adventure before the US had even begun assembling a coalition. An Australian air-force contingent was rapidly deployed to the United Arab Emirates but Australian air-strikes against Iraq did not begin until October.

The Western powers who have joined the US-led coalition ― nine NATO members and Australia ― are limited to air strikes in Iraq.

However, the IS is more strongly established in Syria. Since September 23, the US and five allied Sunni monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, have been conducting air strikes in Syria. But finding allies on the ground in Syria is even more problematic for the West than Iraq.

The Russian-backed Assad regime is a historical enemy of the US ― and since the 2011 uprising has lost control of most of the country.

On the political and diplomatic terrain, the West has backed coalitions of anti-Assad exiled politicians. Since 2012, this has been the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which the West recognises as the legitimate government of Syria.

Officially the SNC controls opposition military forces although, in reality, no opposition armed groups accept its authority.

On the military terrain, Western support has been considerably less consistent. Non-lethal and covert military aid has been supplied at levels sufficient to keep the opposition fighting, but insufficient to win.

Most of the military aid has been channelled through Sunni chauvinist regional proxies ― in particular Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey ― and has ended up with Sunni sectarian groups in Syria. This has dovetailed with the Assad government’s strategy of turning an anti-regime revolution into a sectarian civil war.

Initially, opposition military forces fought under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). However, the FSA has never moved beyond being an uncoordinated network of autonomous brigades.

By 2012, several groups had left the FSA for more openly Sunni Islamist coalitions. These include the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front.

The IS originated as the al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq. With the withdrawal of Western soldiers from Iraq and the eruption of religious civil war in Syria, they crossed the border seek to take over the Nusra Front. This caused the IS to break with Al-Qaeda and project its self as a new global force of Sunni Islamist militancy.

There are local revolutionary committees throughout Syria that reflect, to varying degrees, the democratic values of the 2011 uprising. But these committees are generally uncoordinated.

The situation is different in the predominantly Kurdish Rojava region. In mid-2012, the Assad regime was forced to withdraw troops from Rojava, allowing the PYD to create a democratically-run liberated zone.

Despite civil war conditions, impressive advances in democratic self-management, gender equality and economic justice have been made.

Just before US air strikes on Syria began, the IS massed their forces for an all-out assault on the YPG/YPJ-controlled border town of Kobane (also known as Kobani). Until October, no US air-strikes hit these forces.

The SNC applauded the US attacks, but FSA groups opposed them. Some FSA groups have since aligned with the YPG/YPJ while others have aligned with the Islamists.

The US, meanwhile, has stated it does not see the FSA as a partner in its latest war.

Meanwhile, Turkey closed its border to the Kurdish forces while allowing access for IS forces, to whom they also gave logistical and material support.

At the same time, Turkey negotiated with the US to enter the anti-IS coalition and established a zone of occupation inside Syria under the pretext of providing a “safe haven for Kurds”.

However, the tenacity of the YPG/YPJ’s resistance meant that Kobane has not fallen, defying expectations.

Protests erupted in Kurdish communities throughout Turkey, in which more than 30 people have been killed. The global Kurdish diaspora staged worldwide protests demanding Turkey end support for the IS and open the border to allow Kobane’s defenders to resupply.

As Kurdish resisters held out and the contradiction between the stated US support for the Kurds and its blind eye to Turkey's IS complicity grew, US policy finally shifted.

US air strikes on IS forces around Kobane began at the start of October. Initially, Kurdish leaders complained these were ineffective due to the US refusal to communicate with Kurdish forces.

PYD representative Gharib Hassou told the October 6 L’Humanité: “We are beginning to doubt the objective of these strikes. I just cannot understand how it is that the most powerful army in the world, who can target a single man hiding in the desert, is now unable to hit a single IS tank.

“Kurdish fighters were even killed last week when a US strike missed its target … There was besides not the slightest contact between Kurdish fighters and the US staff.”

However, by October 14, the US was coordinating its attacks with Kobane’s defenders. YPG spokesperson Polat Can told the October 14 Radikal: “We can clearly state that, had these attacks started a couple weeks ago, ISIS would not have been able to enter Kobane at all. ISIS would have been defeated 10-15 kilometers away from the city, and the city would not have turned into a war zone.”

However, the US still refuses to arm the YPG/YPJ, despite calls from the Kurdish resistance for weapons. Turkey also continues to stop Kurdish fighters from crossing the border to procure arms.

The PKK also remains criminalised as a “terrorist” group, while McClatchy Newspapers reported on October 15 that the US plans to create a new Syrian force from scratch.

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