The Slatest

The Foreseeable Tragedy of Rojava

The Kurdish enclave in Syria was probably doomed from the start.

A Kurdish People's Protection Unit rests a base camp at the outskirts of the destroyed Syrian town of Kobane in 2015.
Two Kurdish fighters rest at a base camp on the outskirts of the destroyed Syrian town of Kobane in 2015.
Ahmet Sik/Getty Images

It appears to be the final days of Rojava, as the unique Kurdish political experience in Northeastern Syria is known. Moving rapidly after President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement that U.S. troops would not stand in the way of a Turkish offensive in Syria, Turkish troops quickly overwhelmed Kurdish positions. Videos of atrocities are beginning to emerge. Kurdish leaders have reached a deal with Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in order to gain the protection of the Syrian military and block the Turkish advance. The deal involves inviting Syrian troops to enter Kurdish-controlled territory and patrol the border. It probably marks the end of the de facto independence the Kurds have enjoyed for around five years.

It would have been impossible to predict this particular scenario. Trump’s entirely unnecessary announcement was the final stab in the back, but in all likelihood, Rojava was doomed from the start. If this is truly the end of the Kurdish political experiment, it’s a tragedy, and not just for the Kurds. Surrounded by authoritarians, sclerotic failed states, and genocidal fundamentalists, Rojava—for all its significant flaws—suggested that another kind of politics was possible.

Rojava—which means “west” in Kurdish, as in the western portion of an aspirational Greater Kurdistan that includes parts of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran—was formed in 2014 when the government’s authority collapsed and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) established itself as the dominant political force in a region about the size of Switzerland with a population of about 2 million.

It was always the unlikeliest of political stories. The PYD is devoted to the political ideology of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned founder of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government and is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Öcalan’s ideas are, in turn, heavily influenced by Murray Bookchin, an obscure American anarchist philosopher.

This was an odd partner for the U.S. military. And yet, from 2015, PYD’s military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) were the U.S. military’s closest allies in Syria. This happened mainly out of practical necessity: the U.S. considered the Kurds the only effective trustworthy allies on the ground in the fight against ISIS, and this was even more the case after the successful battle of Kobane in 2015, ISIS’s first major battlefield defeat. But with their secular, democratic ideology and devotion to gender equality, they were also an easy group for Americans to get behind. They always got great press, with particular attention focused on the YPG’s “badass” female fighters. Rojava was a rare cause that Lindsey Graham and Noam Chomsky could both get behind. A number of American volunteers travelled to Syria to fight with the group.

Rojava sometimes didn’t live up to the hype. Critics of PYD’s “democratic” policies were often imprisoned on arbitrary charges. (In Northern Iraq in 2016, I met Syrian Kurdish refugees who had fled not ISIS or Assad, but a Kurdish government they didn’t agree with.)  And the group’s devotion to Öcalan, whose face appeared everywhere in Kurdish controlled areas, verged on a personality cult.

All the same, considering its birthplace in the midst of a literal warzone and the dictatorships and genocidal fundamentalists that sounded it, what Rojava built was impressive, and worthy of international support.

But from the beginning, there were glaring warning signs that the experiment was unlikely to last. For one thing—and this in no way justifies Turkey’s actions in recent days—the links between the YPG and the PKK aren’t a Turkish government fantasy or conspiracy theory. At the very least, the two groups share ideological goals and a fair number of fighters. The level of cooperation is likely deeper than that.

Trump has groused this week about the Obama administration putting him in his current position by tying America’s ISIS strategy to a group that its NATO ally Turkey found unacceptable. But at the time, there weren’t many alternatives on offer and the Trump administration has, until now, continued the policy of working primarily through the Kurds to fight ISIS. The U.S. tried to assuage Turkish concerns by backing the formation of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella organization that included both the YPG and Arab rebel groups. But the YPG was the dominant partner in the coalition, and as of 2017, the Washington Post reported that the Arab fighters in the group had Ocalan’s ideology included in their training.

The Turkish government was only going to tolerate this state of affairs for so long, and in 2016, it sent troops into Syria for the first time to contain their advances, the start of a process that led to this week’s events.

Another inconvenient fact about Rojava was its relationship with the Assad regime. On paper, the PYD was leading a rebellion against that regime. The Kurds’ language and culture have been suppressed by Assad, many were denied citizenship, and demonstrations were put down, often brutally. But over the last five years, Rojava and the regime have operated under an unofficial non-aggression pact. With limited resources, Assad was happy to let the Kurds and the Americans fight it out with ISIS in Eastern Syria while he focused—with Iranian and Russian support—on putting down the rebels in the west. The relationship had only gotten closer since last year, amid signs that Trump’s support was beginning to waver.

Assad’s truce with the Kurds was temporary and pragmatic. The dictator who has vowed to reclaim “every inch” of Syrian territory wasn’t going to tolerate an autonomous ethnic pseudo-state controlling the eastern third of his country indefinitely. Assad might not have known that the Turks would deliver the Kurds into his waiting arms with an assist from the Americans in quite this manner, but he has once again shown—as he has time and again over the last eight years—that there’s strategy behind his brutality.

The Rojava Kurds had hoped to show that they were something more than just another ethnic separatist group. Citing Öcalan’s Bookchin-derived model of “libertarian municipalism,” the YPG maintained that it did not seek a new state, but to challenge the very idea of the nation-state itself. Post-war Rojava would not be an independent country, they said, but a semi-autonomous region with links to both the Syrian state and the Kurdish regions in other countries. In an interview in 2016 at Rojava’s de facto embassy in the Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, a YPG representative told me, “The unique experience of Rojava will improve all ethnicities and religions…We are against the division of Syria. Just raising the idea will be a cause for more conflict or more fighting.”

It was unclear how that was going to work in practice. Rojava’s leaders had no intention of giving up their arms or submitting to Syrian government authority. There’s a term for countries where multiple armed groups assert authority over different regions: failed states.
Rojava’s leaders argued this was outmoded thinking, based on stale and destructive political assumptions. (“Fascism is the purest form of the nation-state,” Öcalan states in his prison writings.) But for now at least, we still live in a world dominated by nation-states, and those states have little tolerance for this sort of territorial ambiguity. It’s not just the Syrians and the Turks who were wary of Kurdish aspirations for autonomy. In March 2016, when the Kurdish provinces of Syria voted to seek autonomy—not full independence—State Department spokesperson John Kirby condemned the move, saying, “We don’t support self-ruled semi-autonomous zones inside Syria. We just don’t.”

This gets to the painful history of U.S.-Kurdish relations. American administrations from Woodrow Wilson, to Richard Nixon, to George H.W. Bush, to Obama and Trump have been willing to back the Kurds when it was politically expedient, while always stopping just short of backing Kurdish aspirations for independence. The pattern has repeated to the point where it’s become a cliché. (After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Slate’s Timothy Noah ran a recurring feature called “Kurd Sellout Watch.”) Exactly two years ago, the pattern repeated in Iraq, where the Kurdish Regional Government organized an independence referendum only to see the U.S. stand aside as Iraq, Turkey, and Iran cooperated to crush the movement and retake disputed territory.

The best-case scenario for Rojava was something along the lines of what happened with the Kurds of Northern Iraq. But that was a very specific anomaly. In the wake of the U.S. victory in the Gulf War, the first Bush administration came under heavy criticism for abandoning the Kurds to be slaughtered by Saddam Hussein’s government after having encouraged them to rise up against him during the war. The U.S. and its allies began enforcing a no-fly zone and clearing the Iraqi military from Kurdish areas, allowing for the establishment of a Kurdish Regional Government still in place today. In the process, “Washington unwitting had become the midwife to a de facto Kurdish state, something it certainly never desired,” wrote journalist Quil Lawrence.

U.S. foreign policy is very different in 2019 than it was in 1991, and the U.S. role in Syria is much different than it was in Iraq. Another president would not have sold out Rojava to Turkey quite as blatantly as Trump did, but probably no president would have been interested in making America’s sponsorship of a Kurdish autonomous enclave in Syria permanent. At a certain point, the rug was going to be pulled out.

The Kurds embraced their partnership with Washington, well aware of all the history, because they had little other choice. With the spread of ISIS starting to spiral out of control in two countries, the U.S. turned to the Kurds because it had little other choice. It was unlikely to last forever. But the fact that this tragedy was so foreseeable doesn’t make it any less tragic.