US must choose between Turkey and anti-ISIS fight

The Syria "peace" talks have opened in Geneva—without the participation of the Syrian Kurds. Those rebel leaders in attendance will not actually meet face-to-face with Damascus representatives, and are pressing their own demands. Salem al-Meslet, spokesman for the opposition's High Negotiations Committee, uniting most of the rebel factions, told Al Jazeera: "We came here to discuss with the special envoy UN Resolution 2254; lifting the sieges and stopping the crimes done by Russian air strikes in Syria." Syrian opposition activists have taken to social media with a campaign to boycott the talks, which they see as legitimizing a genocidal regime, using the hashtag #DontGoToGeneva. (Middle East Eye, Jan. 26)

View the talks as legitimate or not, but the failure of the US to go to bat for the participation of the Syrian Kurds costs Washington good will with its most effective Syrian partners in the fight against ISIS. This good will is further eroded by Washington's complicity in the Turkish state's horrific counter-insurgency war against allied forces within Turkey's eastern territories, which has led to some 200,000 internally displaced since a ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) broke down last year.

Debbie Bookchin—daughter of Murray Bookchin, the late American anarchist thinker who has been a key influence on the Kurdish revolutionary movement—has a welcome article in The Nation calling the US out of its connivance with Turkey's counter-insurgency. But the piece has a highly misleading title: "The Feminist, Democratic Leftists Our Military Is Obliterating." We can only assume this misleading headline is the work of some clueless Nation editor, and not Debbie Bookchin. "Our" military is not obliterating but assisting the Syrian Kurds. What they mean is that the Turkish military is attempting to obliterate the revolutionary Kurds within Turkish territory, and this military receives US aid and is a NATO member. Not quite the same thing. But for Nation readers, it can only be about "us."

The wonks at the Wilson Center also take note of this dilemma, in an analysis entitled "Is America Losing the Kurds?" They write: "Washington's unabashedly cynical policy of feting the Syrian Kurds as partners while treating their counterparts in Turkey as outlaws was flawed from the start. It has poisoned relations with a critical ally, Turkey, while creating unrealistic expectations among Syria’s Kurds, which Russia is only too happy to exploit."

One of the most frustrating things about Washington's betrayal of the Kurds is that it makes Russia look like a more appealing ally in Kurdish eyes. Russia took the facile move of pressing for Kurdish participation in the Geneva talks—obviously hoping to cultivate the Kurds as a pawn in its power game with regional rival Turkey. But with Russia waging its own grisly counter-insurgency campaign against Syria's Arab rebels on behalf of the Bashar Assad dictatorship, a Kurdish alliance with Moscow could be a disaster on the ground in Syria: undoing all the progress that has been made in building Kurdish-Arab unity against both the regime and ISIS.

There would certainly be an irony to any Kurdish alliance with the allies of Assad. The Assad regime's representative in Geneva told independent Kurdish news agency Rudaw that Damascus would show zero tolerance toward any claim for federation or autonomy by Syria's Kurds. Bashar Jaafari, the regime's UN envoy, said: "Take the idea of separating Syrian land out of your mind… We have said before our theme for these talks is Syrians in Syria and our precondition is to protect the unity of the land and Syrian nation. It is to protect sovereignty of Syria. This is very clear and we have this principle in all the 13 decisions discussed by the Security Council." He added that "anyone thinking of departing Syria" should be cured of the illusion. Of course, these comments dishonestly conflate "federation or autonomy" with separatism. In fact, adhering to Bookchin's principles of democratic confederalism, the Kurds are seeking self-rule within a multi-ethnic Syria—not an independent state.

In any event, the Syrian Kurds are also at war with the Damascus regime, even if they view ISIS as the greater enemy (if only due to the fact that it is the "Islamic State" that is threatening their territory). The People's Protection Units (YPG), military arm of the Syrian Kurds, on Jan. 29 attacked a regime check-point in Aleppo governorate, killing several troops. The YPG leadership said in a statement that the attack was in retaliation for regime "barrel bomb" air-strikes on a market on the YPG-controlled Kurdish district of Sheikh Maqsoud in Aleppo's provincial capital. "Any group attacks peaceful civilians should face justice. All pro-Assad troops will be a target if they continue striking Kurdish areas with barrel bombs or other weapons,” said the YPG statement. (ARA News, Jan. 30; ARA News, Jan. 28)

  1. Turkish dissident: West must end blank check to Erdogan

    Turkish dissident scholar Behlul Ozkan has a very refreshing op-ed in the New York Times Feb. 3, "The West Must Stop Giving Turkey a Free Pass," noting how Erdogan has beocme a liability to the anti-ISIS effort. He acknowledges that Turkey is a traditional "strategic partner" of the US, which places pressure on Washington to accommodate Erdogan's crimes. But:

    The diplomatic balancing act cannot go on indefinitely. The Syrian Kurdish group known as the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., a branch of the P.K.K., is an American ally on the ground against the Islamic State and has received American military aid. Meanwhile, Turkey continues its attempt to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad by supporting Jaish al-Fatah, a Syrian rebel group that includes the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's Syrian branch.

    He concludes:

    With the Middle East ravaged by religious radicalism and sectarianism, the European Union and the United States can’t afford the Turkish government’s brutal military efforts against the Kurds or its undemocratic war on academics and journalists. Only a secular, democratic Turkey that can provide a regional bulwark against radical groups will bring stability to both the Middle East and Europe. As Mr. Erdogan seeks to eliminate all opposition and create a single-party regime, the European Union and the United States must cease their policy of appeasement and ineffectual disapproval and frankly inform him that this is a dead end.

    It's great to see this in New York Times, but it is hard to believe that such enlightened attitudes will prevail… However, if Erdogan succeeds in pushing through his constitutional changes to establish a de facto dictatorship, the contradiction for Washington's policy will be considerably heightened.