With Barack Obama launching airstrikes against the forces of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq & Syria) and Western leaders like Tony Abbott expressing their readiness to take their countries into military action also, Left Flank joins the discussion on the Left about the alternative to more imperialist militarism.
The UK-based Counterfire website has run a good piece by John Rees outlining the history of the Kurdish Question since the 1916 Sykes-Picot division of the region, copper-fastened at Lausanne. I want to add a couple of further points and an argument questioning the necessary centrality and imperviousness to co-optation of the call for an independent, unified state of Kurdistan, which John advances in his piece.
As I’ll return to, none of this questions the legitimacy of the demand for an independent Kurdistan, nor is it arguing in some bad “ultra-imperialist” way that all national questions are now of necessity subsumed by one or other imperialist interest.
Raising the demand for a Kurdish independent state (particularly from within the imperialist powers) does not ally with imperialism. But is it wise? And is it a permanent sure-footing against sliding into that morass?
A few points:
1) The recent history of the Iraqi Kurdish political leaders is appalling. As John says, they have collaborated with the Turkish state against the Kurdish struggle in Turkey. In fact, between them the PUK and KDP have worked with the Shah, the Iranian state in the 1980s, Saddam and those before him, the Turkish state, Israel and the imperialist states against others and against one another.
They have long degenerated to be little more than the extensions of the Barzani and Talabani clans. They unite in repressing young and progressive Kurdish and other forces in the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) region they control in northern Iraq. Their heroic days are long gone. The old mountain trained cadre is in Gucci suits not guerrilla fatigues. Their revolutionary vigour has shrunk in proportion to their expanding waistlines. Nothing good will come of those forces. They are long gone from our side, broadly defined.
The PKK leadership is of course better. And the reality of oppression by NATO member Turkey has forced a certain path. But it too is not immune from the effects of the realpolitik it must practise. And the degeneration of elements of the party into cultism — under the pressure of horrific repression, we must never forget — should not be forgotten.
It is not now fighting for an independent pan-Kurdish state. It is a matter for it and its base what it fights for, of course. But this is the situation.
Until three years ago it made some progress in talks with Erdogan towards greater autonomy, national rights and so on. Then Erdogan abandoned yet another mark of distinction from the Kemalist establishment and renewed the madness of seeking a military solution to the Kurdish question.
That said, there is no force among the Kurds raising the call for a unified state as central. Indeed, many left-wing Kurds are deeply critical of the politics that have led to this impasse and are emphasising the common struggle of peoples across the region as central, with the national question to be dealt with through unifying that struggle, not as a revolutionary “detonator” for a second stage of social revolution (the old “Kurdish-Marxist” position).
2) Just as the position of Kurdish forces is malleable, so is that of Turkey and the now diminished states of Iraq and Syria.
Of course, they are opposed to Kurdish developments that damage them. But the game now is accommodating the idea of “Kurdistan” in a way that directs it more against their opponents.
So Erdogan’s Turkey is in favour of a stronger KRG against any Iraq that is close to Iran. And it has enormously increased trade with the KRG. It doesn’t want outright secession by Kurds in Turkey, of course. But no actual political force among the Kurds in Iraq or even Turkey is pressing for that. Raising a pure vision of an independent Kurdistan may appear to verbally cut through this, but no social force is pushing for it and there is enormous flexibility by imperialism over these questions. This is particularly so given the volatility of the whole region and when no material, fighting force is possessed of the slogan, it then floats free for others to play with.
The US and its allies said they would never arm the KRG directly as it would threaten the breakup of Iraq and potentially redound against Turkey. Until they did arm the KRG.
None of the imperialist powers gave a fig for national rights in Kosovo throughout the 1990s until… until they went to war in the name of Kosovan independence. Independence under NATO air power and tutelage was, many of us argued at the time, a sick joke. Some others believed in the magical, romantic power of the Kosovo question such that under any circumstances pursuing independence could be only progressive. It was not, notwithstanding the “right” to self-determination in principle. Upholding that right by socialists in Yugoslavia was hugely important. Believing you could exercise it in alliance with imperialism, as the KLA did at the very least, was to destroy the very notion of self-determination.
I see nothing inherent in the Kurdish question that makes slogans based upon it immune to the shifting policies of imperialism.
That’s all pretty speculative. Now to the concrete:
3) Sykes-Picot is breaking down. The two principals that delineated its borders, Syria and Iraq, are fragmenting. Whatever happens, they will not be put back together as they were.
A de facto threefold partition of Iraq is well advanced.
Forces railing against the Sykes-Picot division are not only we socialists or progressives. They include IS and all sorts or sectarian, particularist reactionaries.
It would be madness for socialists to defend the old lines on the map. Equally, we must recognise that the dominant political trends are towards the chauvinist, sectarian repartitioning of the region. In this, there is ample room for manoeuvre by the imperialist powers (even if it is a dangerous game). The Biden plan is one such playbook.
The Levant and Middle East have long shared a characteristic with the Balkans — they may be unified or redrawn from above or from below. From above has always meant ethnic displacement as one power expands at the expense of others. The direct presence of imperialism (especially its outpost Israel) has subtly maintained the divisions that amplify this prospect.
None of that means indifference to national oppression or to the right to self-determination. But it does mean recognising that they may be overcome/achieved successfully only through a radical struggle from below encompassing all peoples, firmly against imperialism (including Israel) and formulating a programme of national rights anchored in the internationalist defence of minorities in majority-other polities.
4) There is a deep sentiment across the region for such a universalist rebuff to all sectarianism and particularism (including where national consciousness is indeed a product of national/ethnic oppression — Kurds, Assyrians, Turcomen, Copts, Berbers, etc).
That sentiment informed the first wave of “constitutional” nationalism in the region; e.g. Egypt and Iran. But that political project was compromised by the narrow nationalism of nation-state building and by failure to consistently confront imperialism.
The second wave of radical pan-Arabism offered more hope. But it, in both Nasserist and Ba’athist registers, failed to draw in non-Arabs and succumbed to the petty rivalry of Sykes-Picot states it had raged against: the failure of the Egypt-Syria Arab union, the war between the Ba’athist states of Syria and Iraq.
Then the Islamists — Muslim Brotherhood and others — offered an answer transcending particularist identity and Sykes-Picot-truncated states. But they too have failed; most obviously with regard to non-Muslim minorities. Rabaa a year ago was a massacre. The removal of Morsi was a coup. But his government and supporters did ferociously attack the Copts, thus making the military coup all the easier as well as being utterly reactionary in itself. The Syrian disaster has heightened Islamist particularism — even sectarianism.
The old vehicles for promoting the radical struggle from below are still major features on the stage. But none can carry us forward as they once promised.
5) In these circumstances I believe we should champion a rejuvenated anti-imperialism which foregrounds the best positions of the early communist movement in the region. Of course it is criminal to oppose an independent Kurdish state if social forces fight for it against the wider apparatus of divide and rule.
But should our message not rather be: there can be no freedom under the twin gangs of Talabani and Barzani; none under Erdogan or the Kemalists; none as Kurds while the Arabs are playthings of those who robbed us in 1923; none while Palestine is occupied; none while the kleptocrats of the Gulf are in power; none under Sisi; none from the takfiris; none for me but not my brother — out with the imperialist powers and all the elites, equal rights for all the peoples through common struggle of us all — from Rabaa, to Ramallah, to Irbil.
For sure, there are many tactical and nuanced positions that then must be taken. Politics is not about declaiming socialism. An orientation left at that may become abstract. But in a situation where the breakdown of the old order threatens — as it always does — greater reaction as well as the prospect of great progress I believe we should champion our politics of revolutionary progress, while dealing with confused and partial struggles on that basis, not hoping that one of them or one national formulation and slogan will unlock the gate to the prison house and never fall into the hands of the jailer.