New U.S. Policy: Kill the Kurds
The continuing incoherence, insanity, and ultimate inanity of US policy in and around Syria was highlighted brilliantly, albeit perhaps inadvertently, by Vice President Joe Biden on a state visit to Turkey August 24, when he threatened the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State – the Kurdish militias – with American punishment if they didn’t play nice with the Turks, who have spent years supporting the Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL), attacking “bad” Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, and who are now attacking “good” Kurds in Syria.
This is not quite as complicated as it is stupid, self-defeating, and ultimately deceitful. Let’s review the bidding:
- The Turks are a NATO ally whose reliability is an on-and-off thing unrelated to Turkey’s actual treaty obligations. The only reason Turkey is part of NATO is because somebody during the Cold War thought it would be a good idea to counter the USSR. With the USSR gone, Turkey is more like a dagger pointed at the heart of NATO, hence the delicate psycho-diplo-military dance NATO nations have had to follow for years, unwilling to cut Turkey loose from NATO, even now, as the Turkish government devolves toward authoritarianism and tighter ties with Russia. Putting it in perspective, Turkey’s longstanding, abysmal record on political and human rights is a prime reason that the European Union continues to deny Turkey EU membership. Turkey is not a truly modern state: Turks waged a genocidal campaign against its Armenian citizens a century ago, but it’s still against the law to mention that genocide in Turkey (by comparison, Americans can talk freely about the greater American genocide against native peoples, but the progress toward anything like justice is about the same in both countries).
- The Kurds are for the Turks, metaphorically, the 21st century Armenians. The Turks exhibit all the signs of wanting to wage genocidal war on the Kurds but they are held off by multiple factors, not least the current taboo on genocide upheld by NATO and the EU, at least publicly, most of the time. The Kurds are also more militarized than the Armenians ever were, and the Kurdish home territory is a mountainous region that has resisted invaders for centuries. Also the Kurdish region is spread over four countries, so any Turkish genocide of the Kurds would work only if it included attacks on Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Each of those countries has also gone through periods of Kurdish repression, so there is always the theoretical possibility of an allied genocide of the Kurds. Right now, the Kurds in Turkey, having survived an attempted Kurdish genocide in the 1930s, continue their low level conflict with the Turkish military, punctuated by periods like the current high level conflict. The Kurds long for their own country, a Kurdistan, and no one else wants them to have that for reasons that are obscure and chronically destabilizing. (A similar situation keeps Afghanistan unstable, where the Pashtun are spread across southern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, and no one wants them to have their own Pashtunistan, either.)
- The US has no vital interests in any of these places. To be clear, the country of the United States has no vital interests. The empire of the United States is a different, undemocratic, self-directed global power structure that sees vital interests in faraway yurts in the most distant desert. That part is not up for debate. But the distinction between the US as a country and the US as an empire helps to understand why the country is pushed into doing things that are stupid, self-destructive, and planet-threatening on behalf of the empire. Everybody pretty much knows, even if they won’t admit it, that with a nod from the US the Turkish genocide of the Kurds could begin tomorrow, if not sooner. That is the context for the creative tension within which the US VP makes his not so veiled threats.
Biden to Kurds: defend yourselves from the Turks and we will hurt you
August 24, the day that VP Biden was talking tough in Ankara, was the same day the US and Turkey went to war against Syria, although it mostly wasn’t reported that way. It was advertised as Turkey finally responding to pleas to fight ISIS. Some called it an “escalation” and some called it an “incursion,” echoing official lines in Viet Nam, but it was an invasion. As invasions go, it was pretty small potatoes, unreported in detail, but involving probably a few hundred troops with heavy artillery support, and maybe dozens of tanks and aircraft. This was not the first Turkish attack on Syria, but it’s the first to seize and hold territory, and to do so with US sanction and air support (even though US special forces are on one of the other sides).
The reality is that Syria is still a sovereign country with a legitimate government still in place. No matter what may be true about the Syrian government or the all-but-uncountable forces arrayed against it and within it, the government remains legitimate, which is why the US and others keep calling for its overthrow. The Syrian government is fighting a very complicated, five-year-old civil war against combatants both Syrian and foreign, some of whom control significant areas of Syria, over which they’re fighting with the Syrian government and each other. As civil wars go, this one is particularly messy, not only because Syria was made up all along of different ethnic groups. Since Syrian citizens took up arms against their government, they have enjoyed, if that’s the right word, outside support of various kinds and quantities of fighters and materiel from the US, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, and probably Jordan (which, with Turkey, has sheltered millions of Syrian refugees).
Even so, when the Turkish military with US air support crosses the border and captures the town of Jarabulus (population around 26,000), that’s a new thing in this war where other countries mostly use proxies to fight for whatever they think they’re fighting for, not their own armed forces. Russia is an exception, fighting for the Syrian government at the invitation of the Syrian government. Every other combatant is an uninvited guest. When the US-backed Turkish military crossed the border and captured Syrian territory, that was an act of undeclared war (like the US war with the Saudis on Yemen).
So who is the target, who is the enemy, and are they the same?
Billed as “a significant escalation of Turkey’s role in the fight against the Islamic State” (New York Times), the Turkish attack seems more seriously directed at the Kurdish citizens of Syria who have lived there right along. The Syrian Kurds have proved the most effective fighting force in Syria opposing ISIS, other than the Syrian government. And the Syrian Kurds enjoy the support of several hundred US Special Forces, who now find themselves facing the prospect of being attacked by a NATO army supported by their own country.
Jarabalus is on the west bank of the Euphrates River, which separates it from the Kurdish-dominated region of northern Syria. In 2013, ISIS forces took control of Jarabalus and have held it until recently, with little objection from Turkey. ISIS used this Turkish-Syrian border town as one of several crossing points for fighters and supplies with little interference from the Turks. In 2015, Syrian Kurdish forces threatened to attack ISIS in Jarabulus. Turkey’s President Erdogan warned the Kurds that such an attack would be met by the Turkish military, securing ISIS control of the town for another year. Now it’s the US vice president warning the Syrian Kurds not to interfere in their own country. Referring to the Kurdish desire to control that part of Syria where they live along the Turkish border, Biden said there would be no Kurdish “corridor” (as fragmentarily reported in the Washington Post):
"Period. No separate entity on the border. A united Syria…. We have made it absolutely clear to … the YPG [Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Syria] that … they must move back across the river…. They cannot, will not, and under no circumstances will get American support if they do not keep that commitment. Period."
The “corridor” referred to by Biden is a hypothetical area that, if controlled by the Kurds, would connect western “Kurdistan” near Aleppo with the rest of “Kurdistan” in northeastern Syria. The Turks are dead set against this, as they consider all Kurds “terrorists.” The US has gone along with the Turks calling the Kurds in Turkey terrorists, but the US considers the Kurds in Syria non-terrorists, mostly because of their success fighting ISIS. Part of that Kurdish success was working with US Special Forces to take territory south of Jarabulus (Manbij and surrounding towns). According to Biden, that operation was carried out under a Kurdish promise to go back across the Euphrates and leave the area to Syrian rebels (who had been unable to take it on their own).
Turkey has long been shelling Kurdish communities in Syria, killing civilians with indifference, since Turkey’s main objective vis Ã vis the Kurds is ethnic cleansing. Now, with US blessing, Turkey is using its invasion of Jarabulus to attack Kurdish settlements to the south, killing dozens of civilians in attacks on Jub al-Kousa and al-Amarna. These are not Kurds who should have gone back across the Euphrates, these are Kurds who live in those towns.
There are roughly two million Kurds in Syria and about 30 million in the region. The Kurds have been subjugated and marginalized in all the countries where they live at one time or another. They have long been restive in Turkey. Then the chaos Americans brought to Iraq gave Iraqi Kurds some independence. In Syria, the Kurds earned greater independence by fighting ISIS more effectively than anyone else.
Having invaded Syria to fight ISIS, Turkey is now joining with Syrian rebels (of some sort) to attack Kurds. This is American policy at work. In effect, VP Biden has said: Hey, you Kurds, you’re subjugated people, you’ve been subjugated people long enough to be used to it, and you’re gonna stay subjugated, OK, so suck it up.
So we leave the Kurds to the mercy of their perennial persecutors, and for what? Some dim hope that Turkey will improve its human rights record and stop torturing prisoners? Or perhaps our wishful thinking is that if we abet the Turks in their darkest whims, maybe they won’t cozy up to the Russians so much? Whatever the Obama administration is thinking – assuming there is any thinking going on in this secretive government – American policy seems politically incoherent, as if it’s enough to say: This is what the American empire requires, don’t ask questions. But it is more than politically incoherent. American policy toward a people yearning to be free is morally repugnant.