kurdish refugees syria turkey kurds
Kurdish families flee their home following Turkey's offensive in northern Syria (Image: EPA/Stringer)

Political punditry, if you don’t keep your eye on the prize, can easily get you confused; a piece of self-reproach as much as anything. This writer dislikes those who criticise everything Trump does. Equally, the propagandist notion of the US as a force for freedom is also irritating.

But then comes something like Trump’s sudden withdrawal of US special forces from Rojava (Kurdish Syria), and it’s the temporarily pro-Trump “left” who are wrong. Let’s deal with the alleged inconsistency of supporting US forces from the left in a moment. This is a ghastly act, conceived as either distraction from impeachment, or masking State Department realpolitik, or Trump being played by Turkey’s President Erdogan like a cheap hurdy-gurdy, or a mix of all three.

To take Trump being done over by Erdogan as part of consistent withdrawal from the US’ “forever wars” is to let this symbolic but consequential act substitute for genuine demobilisation. The small US contingent was there as a place marker, primarily: to make it impossible for Turkey, Russia or Iran to nip off territory. Yes, no one is fooled by US interest in the Kurds. Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava were being gussied up to serve as a useful little US base should they achieve some sort of independence.

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But there are more things no one is fooled by: Sunni Turkish denials of support for Sunni ISIS, when Ankara was allowing them to supply from Turkey; the fact that the Kurdish YPG is… erm… very close to the PKK, which mounts violent guerrilla attacks in Turkey; or repeated US claims that they did not directly support the PKK in northern Iraq, for years after 2003. It’s a mess, but for the fact that the Rojavan Kurds have built something worth defending out of two decades of horror. The dismantling of ISIS and the prospect that elements of it could reassemble — its Turkey-Syria supply and command lines restored — should surely give anyone pause.

Trump’s sudden withdrawal of the special forces obviously has nothing deliberate to do with honouring his never-consistent “end foreign wars” election rhetoric. Nothing in the series of White House confidential now pouring out suggests that he has much cunning at the foreign policy level; he assumes the shape of the last person who sat on him. When John Bolton was appointed, Trump was all ready to go to war with Venezuela. It was only Bolton’s hubris that finely riled Trump to sack him.

Having warned Erdogan that he could destroy Turkey’s economy if the Kurds were harmed, he has now parroted a Breitbart-esque article about the fleetingness of the US-Kurdish alliance and taken a rhetorical flourish as literal, bizarrely announcing that the Kurds “didn’t help in Normandy”.

(I know I should ration myself on these things, but if you want to see a real neocon farrago of a treatment, check out Greg Sheridan’s account of this in the Oz. From his sudden conversion to troop withdrawal, his adoption of the official, blatantly false PKK/YPG division, the fake Obama comparisons and, in a first draft that disappeared overnight, included something like: Trump’s actions are usually smart, however they appear; it is difficult to see how this is. Has the word gone out that this is too stupid even for News Corp to defend?)

But that is perhaps irrelevant to the question of the Kurds themselves. Some of the left support for the quasi-independent entity of Rojava — with its modernising revolution, sexual equality, self-managing “cantons” — has always relied on selective blindness. The Rojavans/YPG and PKK won the fight against ISIS, but only with US air support, YPG fighters directing the bombing of Kobani from the ground. Support for this seems politically unproblematic to me, an extension of the principle at play in Libya in 2011 — US involvement isn’t always the worst thing (arguing which I’m happy to pile on in the comments section).

There is probably still a fair bit of Marxism-Leninism beneath the Kurds new-found anarchism. But they destroyed ISIS — the group whose radical evil, we were told, affirmed the truth of Western civilisation blah blah, I didn’t see the Ramsay Centre forming a brigade — while building a modern but still-Islamic society at the same time. Which is of course one other reason why Erdogan wants to crush Rojava: it is a standing rebuke to his de-modernising, de-Ataturkising Islamism, by showing that religion and rights can co-exist.

With unerring aim, Trump has removed one of the few garrisons doing any good, while leaving the real “forever war” in Afghanistan to grind on. As we leave the Cold War fully behind, and as a multipolar world emerges, the reflex to demand the US get out will have exceptions — not perhaps that many — and simply keeping silent when that’s the case won’t be enough.

The American empire has not been stood down by this; this is a crappy brain-fart of an action. Or yes, I know, simply realpolitik, repeating the Ford-Kissinger betrayal of the Kurds in ’75, and with Trump’s clown act as cover for the State Department and mustering all the futility and funk that has become Trump’s signature in the world.

The Rojavan Kurds represented humanity for a time; as did those from elsewhere — including Australians — who saw something worth fighting for, joined them and died there. There are forever wars, and then there are those that have to be fought, and it’s important not to get confused.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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