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Green Left Weekly's coverage of Syria and the swamp of 'third campism'

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It was very disappointing to read Tony Iltis' new article in Green Left Weekly (Feb 20) on the war in Syria. The article situates Green Left Weekly (Australia) with one foot planted firmly in the "two imperialisms fighting it out" swamp of the various "third camp," "plague on all your houses" analysts of events in Ukraine and Syria.

Tony begins the article by declaring the existence of a "global rivalry" between the U.S. and Russia which supposedly explains events in Ukraine and Syria. He returns to the same theme later in referring to the two countries as the "two superpowers" in today's world. This presentation of Russia is very much at odds with the world as it actually exists, as Renfrey Clarke and Roger Annis argued in some detail in a recent essay in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, "Perpetrator or victim? Russia and contemporary imperialism."

Tony writes: "The war in Syria is a multi-sided civil war and regional war, which involves brutal conflict between proxies of the rival global and regional powers, as well as their growing direct involvement."

This argument is a combination of inaccuracy, vagueness and downright error. It avoids the one, central thing which must be said by any serious analyst of the situation in Syria, which is that the key driver of Syria's descent into warfare has been the regime change agenda of the large imperialist powers allied with reactionary regional powers including Saudi Arabia.

Yes, the government of Bashar Al-Assad bears responsibility for the carnage of the past four years in Syria. It has a history of suppressing authentic, popular, political forces, not least the Kurds. It has a history of collaboration with imperialism and its grossly unequal and undemocratic social and political order in the Middle East, including the ongoing denial of the national rights of the Palestinian people. But today, any hope of change to this legacy of imperialist domination in the Middle East requires vigorous opposition to the political and military interventions that have wrecked the countries of the region ever since the Iraq war of 2003 and before that. The false line of the Syrian civil war as a front of a battle of the two supposed imperial titans, the U.S. and Russia, is a barrier to building such opposition.

Russia does not run with the pack of imperialist predators. There is a reason why it is in imperialism's target sites, and that's because it is a country capable of standing up to imperialist diktat and defending its interests if not those of its allies. Understand this is not a repudiation of the class struggle. It does not deny understanding of Russia as an unequal, capitalist society, or that it is a major contributor to the global ecological crisis (and let us not forget that recognizing Russia's role in the global climate crisis means that Russia must be won to solutions to this same crisis). On the contrary, it is recognition of the class struggle on all its levels, forms and dimensions in the best traditions of the lessons and experiences of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Communist International in Lenin's time. Call it "thinking dialectically and rejecting formulaic simplification of epochal class struggles."

Failure to recognize the real intricacies of the anti-Russia imperialist offensive, linked as it is to regime change wars to preserve U.S. domination in Western Asia and North Africa, explains the indifference of many far-left thinkers to the progressive importance of the shift from a unipolar, U.S.-dominated world to a multi-polar world. This stance leads to many serious errors, such as dismissing the enormous value of anti-imperialist initiatives in Latin America such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) or the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA -- Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América). After all, many left purists claim, these are merely just another form of collaboration between capitalist regimes.

Tony also writes: “The U.S. attitude towards the Rojava revolution remains ambiguous. While coordination of U.S. air strikes with YPG/J ground assaults against ISIS has been effective, the US and other Western powers have accepted NATO member Turkey's blockade of Rojava. US provision of light arms and ammunition to the YPG/J has only slightly mitigated this — being considerably less than the weapons provided to the Islamist militias.”

There is nothing ambiguous about the U.S. stance on Kurdish national rights. U.S. policy and strategy is consciously deceptive and manipulative. There is an important revolutionary dynamic to the struggle of Kurds in Syria and those of its Kurdish allies in Turkey and Iraq. Washington easily recognizes this and intends to undermine it. It does so simultaneous to the bloody military offensive of U.S. NATO ally Turkey against Kurds in that country and Turkey's threats to attack Kurds in northern Syria and Iraq.

Furthermore, Washington is not interested in a peaceful compromise in Syria. Its agenda for Syria is the same 'regime change' agenda with which it has destroyed much of the Middle East. The U.S. is not interested in stabilizing the Middle East, only in dominating the region no matter the human and ecological costs. Western imperialism is indifferent to the national and social aspirations of Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Persians, and other peoples in the region. The partition of Iraq and Syria with the emergence of new, Saudi-type petro states (including regions currently held by ISIS) is likely its preferred outcome to the chaos it has inflicted on that part of humanity. Washington’s supposed support for the Syrian Kurds is a tool it can bring to bear in pursuit of such policies.

Russia's intervention, in alliance with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah of Lebanon, and increasingly de facto with Kurdish forces, is undertaken explicitly to counter the imperialist regime change agenda. It has thwarted U.S. plans, something which only third camp diehards fail to see and welcome. This is underlined most recently in an interview with Syrian Democratic Council (MSD) Co-President İlham Ehmed, published on ANF News on Feb 22, 2016 (part two of an interview; part one was published on Green Left Weekly). She explains that the Kurdish movement in Syria would be satisfied with a federal political arrangement for Syria and that the recent, parallel military gains of the Syrian government and Kurdish movement hold out the possibility of such a political solution in for the country.

Tony is correct to argue against his fellow third campers that Kurdish forces in Syria have the right and the duty to accept military aid, including from the U.S., as part of the struggle for Kurdish self-determination. But this policy will come at a very high price if they become dependent on U.S. aid. Of course, their leaders are clearly aware of this danger, as evidenced by their increasing collaboration with the Syrian army and with its close ally, Russia.

Tony has written separately, "There is not an alliance between YPG and Assad forces", throwing in a flippant comment about armchair "'experts' of the Western left". He provides an unsourced, undated and out-of-context one-sentence quotation to make his argument and then complains that his argument is failing to convince. But the Turkish and international press is full of examples of statements by the YPG of tacit agreements with the Syrian government and armed forces. Today alone features concerns expressed by Britain and by Turkey of what seems obvious to everyone but Tony. His description of the struggle in Syria against regime change and the battering ram of the rightist and fascist militaries backing the overthrow of Syria's government as being marked by a "militarily useless" Syrian military and a spontaneous stepping into the breach by Kurdish (YPG) forces is laughable.

How does Tony's thesis saying there are no tacit alliances square with the recent decision of the YPG to open an office in Moscow and to give the event much publicity in its press? Why does he choose to ignore this? The YPG decision parallels that of the HDP, which also opened an office in Moscow, in December 2015. It did so, moreover, with even greater bravado by opening it in the aftermath of the shooting down of the Russian fighter jet by Turkey on November 24. The HDP stood in solidarity with the Russian government on the matter, enduring enormous, resulting pressure from the right-wing regime in Ankara, including threats to lift the Parliamentary immunity of the HDP's elected deputies. This is another fact conveniently ignored by Tony and Green Left Weekly.

Here is a news item from six months ago that Tony can use to brush up on his facts (or he can check today's news) from Al Jazeera, Aug 15, 2015:

A Syrian Kurdish official has told Al Jazeera that the government of President Bashar al-Assad could be a partner if it commits itself to a democratic future.

Currently involved in battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria, Syrian Kurdish fighters, known as the YPG, have long denied links with the Damascus government. However, the two sides could have a much more collaborative road ahead.

We could provide Tony with many examples of how a 'collaborative road ahead' has come to pass between the Syrian government and Syrian Kurds (ever so delicately, of course, due to Syria's past record of repression of the Kurdish national movement). But we're kind of pressed for time, what with keeping up with the encouraging news of imperialism's humiliations and frustrations of regime change plans in Syria as possibilities for ceasefire and political negotiations grow.

We appreciate very much the review by Nick Fredman on the Green Left listserve of the article appearing in February 9, 2016 in Red Flag, the publication of the Socialist Alternative in Australia, 'The politics of the Kurdish struggle'. We reproduce that below.

This article also appeared on Roger Annis' blog, A Socialist In Canada. Extensive coverage of the unfolding political situation in Syria and Turkey is provided on the website The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond.

* * *

[GreenLeft discussion], Sun Feb 21, 2016, posted by: Nick Fredman, re: 'The politics of the Kurdish struggle', published in Red Flag (Socialist Alternative, Australia), Feb 9, 2016

I don't want to take up the details of who's doing what to whom and what source to trust or not in northern Syrian, but more general points about what this Red Flag article purports to be about: The Kurdish struggle as a whole, and not the Syrian struggle or the Kurdish aspects of it. I particularly want to take strong issue with Mike's claim on Facebook that the article is "balanced".

This is the first thing about the Kurdish struggle in Red Flag or Socialist Alternative's previous publication that they've produced in 20 years, apart from a reprint of a pretty good US Socialist Worker article last year on the bombings in Turkey and the HDP. For a long-running national liberation struggle of a nation of 35-40 million people, that has drawn millions into activity, that's centrally important to the future Middle East, that has a radical leftist current hegemonic within it, that has a large diaspora in Australia, we might question the balance of this meagreness of coverage, but I'll focus on this article as such, and make several general points.

  1. Turkey. The article is 1800 words long. It has 40 words on the current situation in Turkey, and 780 on the current situation in Syrian. As the article outlines, 40% of Kurds reside in Turkey, and about 5% in Syria. The article makes no mention of the HDP and barely alludes to the mass struggle and repression happening in the country obviously central to the Kurdish question, and doesn't mention who's leading the resistance. This is totally lacking in balance not to mention basic solidarity.
  2. Balance of Kurdish and leftist views. The article quotes 190 words from Syrian-Kurdish anarchist Shiar Neyo on how repressive and reactionary, "in the same vein as the Baathists" the system in Rojava is. There's no indication, however, of how representative or reliable this person is, no sourcing of his claims about repression. (Red Flag unlike many publications including Green Left never seems to link to anything to allow readers to investigate its claims for themselves, by the way). There are no quotes from the PKK-led current except for one quote purporting to indicate how nationalist is the PYD. That quote is unsourced and I cannot seem to find anywhere. This is totally unbalanced.
  3. "Ethnic cleansing". This term is blithely tossed around by many, including on the left and including unfortunately by Mike. It's an extremely serious charge akin to genocide. To accuse fellow socialists of it one should be extremely careful. A faux objective "there are reports of", without any reference to what and where those reports are, let alone to the detailed refutations of them, isn't at all balanced.
  4. Solidarity activity. Armstrong crosses himself with a statement that socialists should oppose the terrorist listing the PKK and the repression in Turkey. But as far as I can see, Socialist Alternative haven't lifted a figure to support the solidarity rallies, the petition agasinst the listing of the PKK http://liftthebanonthepkk.org/ or the open letter to defend Turkish academics http://australiansforkurdistan.org/2016/01/20/open-letter-of-support-for.... Modest efforts though these are, they are basic solidarity, which people who don't "uncritically cheerlead" the PKK or anyone else can find a little time for. In Melbourne these include serious, widely respected leftists such as Colin Long, Rob Stary and John Tully. To piously announce what socialists should "of course" do then not do any of it, isn't very balanced.
  5. Maybe most fundamentally, "No road forward". To Armstrong the PKK-led current aren't socialists who might be making some mistakes in a complex struggle, or socialists who've adopted an unexpected theoretical basis in Murray Bookchin's ideas that might lead to some problems; even that they've socialist who unfortunately haven't yet had the benefit from the revolutionary wisdom of Mick Armstrong. To him, they've nationalists who have no value at all. Nothing to learn from building a mass base of millions of people in four states. Nothing to learn from building the most successful mass left party in Turkey in decades. Nothing to learn from experiments in mass self-organisation in Rojava. For someone who leads a few hundred people in one of the richest and most stable countries in the world to categorically announce this is idealist dogmatic sectarianism of the highest order I'd suggest, not balance.

I can only conclude that this article isn't really about the Kurdish question at all, but to reinforce Socialist Alternative's self-appointed role as the only heroic defenders of the Syrian revolution, at one with their contact railing against the western supporters of Assad, a virtually non-existent category in Australia. Socialist Alternative does some good work and can organise a big conference, but they unfortunately have an instrumentalist, highly sectarian position on some questions, seemingly designed to steel and inoculate their cadres; their frankly crazed position on violence against women a case in point. It's unfortunate Mike is so taken in by them on this question. [end]

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