I’d like to thank Point Zero for putting together this incredibly well researched and insightful piece. He is perhaps a bit more pessimistic than I am about the Rojavan project, if they do manage to maintain genuine democratic institutions in the civil war and beyond they will have accomplished something that has perhaps not been seen since the days of ancient Athens, and succeeded where many communist revolutions have failed. They would have achieved nothing short of the class domination of the poor and working class over all others. If they remain bourgeois, as they are now, it would be in the sense of bourgeoisie institutions of private property and market exchange, not in the sense of bourgeoisie state control.
Regardless, I deeply believe the events of the Syrian Civil War will have a massive impact on the international left for decades to come, which makes this analysis all the more important.
Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O LORD, make haste to help me!
— Psalm 70:1
It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.
— Deuteronomy 31:8
The war in Syria has raged now for 6 years. It is the responsibility of those with some distance between them and the carnage to be mindful of the forces which have sustained it. This is no easy task. The Syrian ‘civil’ war is covered with the fingerprints of multiple foreign nation-states. The usual focus is what drives their intervention. The usual answer is ‘national interest’. Common sense often comes up short in matters such as these. The underpinnings of the modern state are its social relations and forces of production; their integration in the system of global capital; the rise and fall of the rate of profit; the production and redistribution of surplus-value; and the competition of the world marketplace. The current economic situation remains that of recession. Capitalism requires the devaluation of commodities, for the groaning excesses to be wiped away, in order for new investment and production to take its place. Syria is not isolated from this process.
Engels, writing in the Anti-Dühring, stated that “[e]very conquest by a more barbarian people disturbs…economic development and destroys numerous productive forces”. Before Syria was ransacked by one lot of barbarians, Iraq was invaded by others. The barbarians who conquered in that instance were none other than Westerners. They arrived in Iraq in 2003, though not for the first time in recent Arabic history. There they set about destroying “numerous productive forces”, after which a decree was issued disbanding not only the armed forces of the former Ba’athist state but targeting many of those who had served the regime in some innocuous official capacity, such as teachers. It was named “de-Ba’athification”. The effective functioning of the Iraqi state and economy was broken. It was after this period that a form of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism stepped out from the shadows, emboldened by the chaos of the occupation. The superpower and its accomplices had created the preconditions for barbarism in Syria.
Barbarism in Iraq eventually spilled over into Syria. After suffering the brutality and humiliation of invasion and occupation, the Iraqi people endured the bloody agony of inter-communal sectarian violence. It was stoked by those aforementioned fundamentalists who had everything to gain from the bitter recriminations and reprisals. The operations of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which did not begin until after the occupation, generated their opposite in Shi’ite forces who conducted their own campaigns of vengeance. Coalition forces stood by, unable to intervene in a situation for which they were responsible. The quantitative increase of violence was so great it threatened to collapse Iraq into a full-blown civil war. It was narrowly prevented by the Sunni Anbar Awakening. Nonetheless, a new quality emerged. It crossed the border into Syria as the fires of civil war began to burn in 2011. After numerous developments it eventually called itself ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fīl-ʿIrāq wa’sh-Shām—shortened by its opponents, pejoratively, to Daesh (trampler; oppressor).
Al-Sham to Islamists is something geographically larger than the current Syrian nation-state, more or less the size of the contemporary Levant. Like Islamist ideology itself, al-Sham refers to an earlier time in the region’s history. The most successful national offshoot of al-Qaeda, though supposedly no longer officially affiliated, goes by the name Hay’at Taḥrīr al-Shām, or HTS, designating their ultimate regional ambitions. The most successful in the Syrian civil war were those with a unifying ideology, and a willingness to cajole, threaten, and destroy their smaller, less organized, and more fractious opponents. No wonder, then, the Syrian war has been largely defined by the fortunes of two major Islamist organizations. Fruitlessly, the CIA backed various “moderate” Islamists—a large secular opposition movement never emerged despite some wishful thinking—many operating under the umbrella of al-Jaysh as-Sūrī al-Ḥurr (Free Syrian Army), a loose faction known for cooperating extensively with Turkey. Between the CIA and the Pentagon, the latter found more success.
As is typical for American foreign policy, intervention in any conflict becomes an episode of the perennial competition between the Pentagon and the alphabet soup, particularly the CIA, for supremacy in the White House. If Obama’s motto during his administration was “[t]he CIA gets what it wants”, then Trump’s motto could in turn be “the Pentagon gets what it wants”. Those are the choices facing any POTUS, present or future. That the current administration is a Pentagon administration was best summarized by John Pilger: “The three generals running Trump are its witness”. The line between the two organizations, once sharply defined during the Cold War, have long-since begun to blur. The Pentagon was recently backing its own indigenous force in the al-Tanf region of southeastern Syria, until it was completely outmaneuvered by forces loyal to Assad. Despite this failure, the Pentagon are not out of the game yet—unlike the CIA, whose schemes have lost funding from a Pentagon-backed administration.
It is at this point the Kurds enter the picture, though to claim their role begins here would be a gross inaccuracy. The struggle for autonomy and national recognition of their rights as an ethnic group stretch back, in the context of the region’s modern history, to the Sykes-Picot demarcation of the former Ottoman Empire. This imperial carve-up ultimately ignored the Kurds, sparking a long-term conflict that has, in recent times, created an ongoing insurgency in Turkey; Daesh terrorism in Iran; a vote for independence in an Iraqi Kurdish referendum; and, of course, helped shape the course of the Syrian civil war. The Kurds are pointedly international in orientation, seeing as they are spread across no less than four nation-states, but by no means are they united politically. The most significant division is whether they are ideologically affiliated with the movement founded by Abdullah Öcalan—or not. Significantly, it is only in Syria that the movement has gained some international legitimacy.
Öcalan was captured and imprisoned by the Turkish state with the help of the CIA decades ago. It is no small irony that the US government, through the Pentagon, is now helping Syrian Kurds under the aegis of the Hêzên Sûriya Demokratîk (Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF). When the Assad government largely abandoned northern Syria early in the civil war, a gap of possibility was opened for Tevgera Civaka Demokratîk (Movement for a Democratic Society), or TEV-DEM. Unable to fully organize under the iron heel of Assad, his absence was not lamented or for a moment wasted. By 2014 this movement had carved out three separate Cantons in Syria’s north, with the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (Democratic Union Party), or PYD, at its head. In one of these, Kantona Kobaniyê, a battle of critical importance bound Syrian Kurds to the Pentagon. Between October 2014 and January 2015, Kobanî was besieged and almost destroyed by Daesh. US intervention turned the tide.
Military historians may yet attribute the outcome of the battle for Kobanî as a major turning point in the war. Daesh lost thousands of fighters to the maw of US air power and the grit of Kobanî’s defenders, those being the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (People’s Protection Units), or YPG, and the Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (Women’s Protection Units), or YPJ. The sole armed forces of the Cantons form the core of the aforementioned SDF. Of the two, the YPJ deserve particular attention. Not only the armed forces of the Cantons, ideologically the YPJ consider themselves to be the armed forces of women everywhere. A vanguard of women’s liberation, and the clearest expression of women managing their share of everything in society, even military service. “Apoism” could broadly describe Ocalan’s movement, but Jineolojî—a feminist aspect of his thought—has been militantly embraced by Kurdish women within it. The fight against patriarchy in Kurdish—and Syrian—society is their particular aim.
While the YPG and SDF fight Daesh, the YPJ are fighting a two-front war. In stark contrast to women in Daesh, who assist their husbands while they rape captured and enslaved women, the YPJ and other women’s organizations within the Cantons are dedicated to abolishing such barbarism. Arrayed against the Jineologists is the collective weight of Arab tribalism, Islamism, and the patriarchal traditions of their own Kurdish culture. It is through Jineology that the ‘Rojava Revolution’ can be seen for what it is: a cultural revolution. Here the vestiges of Maoism ingrained within Ocalan’s thought can be seen. Jineology has been realized in various stages in the movement for over 30 years, but the most decisive turn in the otherwise highly Marxist-Leninist organization can be attributed to the impact of Murray Bookchin’s writings on Öcalan. It is here—and only here—that any kind of progressive characteristic can be assigned to the Apoist movement in northern Syria. Women stand at the forefront.
Öcalan’s bushy mustache can be found adorning public and private spaces all over the Cantons, and patches bearing his face are worn by fighters in the YPG. Wherever the YPG/J treads, TEV-DEM and Apoism follows in its wake. Military councils are set up prior to military operations in any particular governorate—as an example, the Deir ez-Zor military council was founded before operations finally commenced, ahead of schedule, in September of 2017. Once significant territory has been seized a civil council is established, with co-chairs and committees to manage the necessary civilian aspects of governance in secured territory. Aiding this expansion of the Cantons is none other than—the Pentagon. Without that support Kobanî would have fallen; the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) would have never been formed in March 2016; the SDF would not be a battle-winning force; and Raqqa would have remained out of reach. The significance of the Pentagon’s cooperation cannot be overstated.
American imperialism, in the loose sense, has thus taken on and temporarily accepted the struggle of the Kurds in northern Syria in order to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Daesh. In that sense, then, the Pentagon is aiding a genuinely progressive force—a definite exception to the rule. This was not a planned development. Instead, the Pentagon found in the YPG/J the sole force capable of realizing its strategic aims in Syria. Either Daesh was halted, the tide turned at Kobanî, or all hope of exercising any influence on the outcome of the civil war from the White House would be gone with it. The CIA’s efforts have turned up nothing but embarrassment. As it stands, the State Department is pleased with the results of Pentagon cooperation with the SDF. There is similar enthusiasm on the ground, amongst the Special Forces operators who form the human element interacting with the SDF. Finally! An indigenous force which is militarily competent. But not all is well.
Turkey is the obvious spoiler in this otherwise functional relationship. Being a NATO ally and—most importantly of all—a nation-state, there has been constant friction caused by the successes of the SDF in northern Syria and their enabling by US forces. The Turkish armed forces were happy to watch from across the border as the YPG/J wrestled with Daesh in a life or death struggle, but US intervention changed things utterly—prompting an intervention of their own. This further complicated an already difficult civil war. It also served to block the Kurds from territoriality uniting their Cantons—a goal they have not rescinded as of yet. To add more strain, the SDF in conjunction with the Arabic Deir ez-Zor military council have advanced and captured territory around the governorate’s capital, including the largest gas field in Syria. While the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) have been happy to ignore the SDF until now, that is no longer possible. Tensions are consequently high.
What comes after Daesh is territorially destroyed is uncertain. Undoubtedly, Daesh will continue to exist as an insurgency, physically and cybernetically—potentially erupting in the gaps that appear in either the Assad regime or the DFNS’ governance, in the frictions of tribal politics, and indeed any dispute it can leverage to its own advantage. No longer, however, will the organization determine the actions of the major forces left standing on the ashes and rubble of Syria. What all sides will need, regardless of ideology or territory, is Capital. The Syrian Arab Republic is already far ahead in terms of its preparations, having interested parties keen to reap the benefits of a reconstruction effort slated to cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The DFNS is at a significant disadvantage here: it remains a part of Syria and as such cannot negotiate as an internationally recognized government. In this respect, its fate depends heavily on external factors it cannot control.
The DFNS’ problems do not end with finance. For an instructive example the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will suffice. Similar to the DFNS and Damascus, the KRG are reliant on the Baghdad. Instead of financing, which the KRG has been able to finesse from oil-related deals with international trading firms backed by Russia and Turkey, it is arms which cannot be purchased independently. Similarly, the SDF are heavily reliant on the Pentagon to supply arms, matériel, and other necessary supplies for the war effort against Daesh. Facilitating this relationship, as leaked by Turkish intelligence, are at least two US airbases on DFNS territory. Undoubtedly this is an irritant to the Assad regime as well as Turkey, but the latter has been more vociferously against the arrangement as it considers the PYD a terrorist organization. A black market solution to any Pentagon supply deficit is possible; whether the DFNS has the finances is another matter. Suffice to say it is unlikely.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the latest offensive by the SDF lunged for the natural resources of the Deir ez-Zor governorate. If keeping them in the long term is not possible, they may perhaps be exchanged for concessions from Damascus in any future settlement for autonomy. The Assad regime has already signaled that such an arrangement is not impossible. The DFNS is not without its advantages after wresting so much territory from Daesh’s bloody hands, and the SDF have certainly bled in turn for their efforts and victories; that much may be recognized in Damascus. Much else, however, remains uncertain. What communists and anarchists should be aware of, and indeed some have been for some time now, is that Apoism is geared more towards the necessities of the Kurdish struggle for autonomy in an ethnically and religiously diverse region than any focus on negating capitalism. Cold War-style national liberation this is not; nonetheless, it has severe limitations.
The most pressing of those limitations are the pressures that will be placed upon the DFNS after Daesh finally vanishes from the world as an ‘Islamic State’. Territory in the Deir ez-Zor governorate is easily the most strategically important yet liberated by the SDF but is not without its challenges. Namely, the heavily parochial and pragmatic tribes of the governorate are united only in their disdain for the Assad regime; whatever advantages the SDF have end there. Added to that is the sheer devastation of 6 years of war. Much of the burden of destroying Daesh fell to Iraqi and SAA forces yet the SDF have still struggled, especially in Raqqa and Kobani—both urban battles. Once again, without Coalition air power that fight would not have been possible. The rubble left behind has to be cleaned up and some semblance of order maintained. Such an environment is not conducive to much beyond maintaining stability over newly liberated territory.
Civil wars have typically been the graveyards of revolutions. From a communist perspective there was no revolution to begin with. Being a largely rural territory, northern Syria experienced no movement for the negation of capitalism. Instead, Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (Kuridstan Workers’ Party, PKK) cadre entered from Turkey in the Spring of 2011 and built, from the ground up, their own revolution. The DFNS has severely limited its ambitions vis-à-vis bourgeois social relations by constructing a market-based “social economy”, so it is unlikely any further progress will be made in that direction. The fact that women are not treated as currency, as they are in the rest of Syria, is not a social revolution—Jineology alone is not enough. The roots of bourgeois class society remain untouched, with a few progressive changes; changes as fragile as the stability of the DFNS’ gains; changes which would not exist if it were not for the beneficence of the Pentagon. Or the weakness of the Assad regime.
Returning to the bigger picture, what can be said? The Syrian civil war remains highly contested. The most brutal of the fighting will soon be over, but a long period of anxiety looms. Immense destruction has now been wreaked in Syria, and it has joined Iraq as a state in dire need of decades of capital investment to recover. Socially, it has been devastating. The details scarcely need recounting. Syrian society will be scarred for generations, and as in Iraq the result may be further bloodshed. A cultural revolution has also begun, which may result in autonomy for Syrian Kurds within the Ba’athist state. A social revolution this is not, nor may it ever be. Much detail is missing from this account; only the broad contours have been sketched. In general, communists and anarchists cannot hope for much. A healthy skepticism and critique in the coming months, perhaps years, will be necessary. The DFNS remains bourgeois; for some, that says enough.
Point Zero is an infrequently updated blog project by an independent communist. The author can be reached via twitter (
@pointzeroblog) or email: email@example.com
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