Saturday, December 22, 2018

My Intense Ambivalence on Syria

So Donald Trump has announced that we're withdrawing our troops from Syria, in case you somehow hadn't already heard. Just kind of came out of nowhere. I should say first, as a disclaimer, that I obviously don't take him at his word on this. I won't be surprised if he ends up walking his promise back or abandoning it altogether--this is Donald Trump we're talking about, and in general politicians haven't proven exceedingly reliable at keeping their promises to end military engagements. So, to be concise, I'll believe it when I see it.

But suppose he means it. I guess faithful, or even occasional, readers of this blog might be expecting me to celebrate. But I don't feel much like celebrating. When I first saw the news, my reaction was cautiously positive--if Trump actually follows through, I thought, it will be the end of one front of our Forever War in the Middle East. But the more I thought, and read, about it, the less positive I began to feel.

It's a very weird feeling for me, to be disquieted at the news of the US leaving a battlefield rather than entering a new one. In general, my view of our military interventions is highly negative: I think the Gulf War, the Kosovo intervention in the 1990s, the 2011 Libya NATO intervention, and for that matter most of our intervention in Syria (to name just a few of the less extreme and controversial examples of our interventions) have been completely unnecessary, counterproductive and deadly. I have long taken a skeptical view of our approach toward fighting ISIS, worrying that it could end up being another drawn-out affair that would end up producing a lot of dead bodies (a prediction which I think has panned out pretty well).

So, why am I not celebrating our (still hypothetical) withdrawal from Syria? Some background is necessary. The Syrian Kurds, who have acted as our allies against ISIS, have succeeded in establishing a relatively autonomous society (commonly known as Rojava) over much of northern Syria. It's a truly remarkable society, by all accounts: every government institution has two co-presidents or co-chairpeople, one male and one female, and women have been granted a slew of new rights (the right to divorce and equal rights of inheritance, to name a couple important ones). Journalist Patrick Cockburn writes that, after visiting Rojava, he "felt that it was the only part of Syria where the uprising of 2011 had produced a society that was better than what had gone before, bearing in mind the constraints of fighting a war."

It's an ambitious project that is striving to be directly democratic. "There are democratic assemblies ranging from the neighbourhood level to cantons," per Guardian columnist Owen Jones. "Quotas are enforced to ensure representation for women, as well as for ethnic minorities." Rojava draws its inspiration from the writings of Murray Bookchin, an American libertarian socialist who envisioned a society run on a highly decentralized, grassroots basis with face-to-face debates and decision-making. I won't paint too rosy a picture of Rojava: it exists in the midst of a horrific civil war, and accordingly it has its abuses and shortcomings. It's no utopia. But its successes should be an inspiration not just to the rest of the Middle East, but to the world.
Members of a women's militia in Rojava (Biji Kurdistan/Flickr)

Here's the thing: Turkey doesn't want Rojava to survive. Turkey has been at war with its own Kurdish population for decades, and views the Kurdish militia in Syria as a group of terrorists due to its association with the Kurdistan Workers' Party. Turkey has taken aggressive action toward the Kurdish city of Afrin earlier this year and made it clear it intends to stomp out Rojava at its earliest possible convenience. One of the major obstacles to that plan has been the presence of American troops in Syria, whom Turkey is eager to show the door. Turkey, for those unaware, has been trending toward increasing authoritarianism and Islamism in recent years due to its viciously tyrannical president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

These concerns were already on my mind when I found out that, according to the Associated Press, Trump actually first agreed to withdraw at Erdoğan's prompting during a phone call between the two. So Trump may now actually, as liberals have long worried, be acting as the servant of an autocratic ruler from a Eurasian country--just not Vladimir Putin. There's a strange sort of irony for you, if that's even the right word.

There is, of course, a lot to dislike about the American intervention in general, and troop presence specifically, in Syria. The fact we have thousands of troops intervening in a country thousands of miles away without congressional authorization is breathtaking, or ought to be. It's also more than a little questionable from an international law perspective. And one has to wonder what the future of Rojava looks like if it continues to be reliant on protection from the US--is the American government really going to let Rojava continue as a radically democratic, socialist society, or try to mold Rojava into its own little client statelet? The idea of having American troops remain in Syria, given all of this, is a very unappealing one. I do want us to leave--but if we're going to, I want us to first have done everything possible to keep Rojava from getting crushed out, and that's not what Trump appears to have in mind.

The idea of having American troops stay in a Middle Eastern country to try to defend democracy sounds pretty neocon-ish, I'm well aware, and the argument feels weird to me even as I make it. But it's certainly not an idea confined to the war hawks; even Noam Chomsky recently said in an interview that "it makes sense for the United States to maintain a presence which would deter an attack on the Kurdish areas."

As for me, I don't really know what the right approach to all of this is, but I have a feeling it isn't the sort of withdrawal Trump has indicated he wants. It's even less clear what will actually happen. If you've ever read Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (and if you haven't, do) this should all sound a little familiar. In the Spanish Civil War, Orwell writes, the anarchist and trade unions in Catalonia managed to form a highly decentralized, democratic society--a genuine workers' state, it seemed. But they ended up being stabbed in the back by their "allies" and the progress was erased. Ultimately, Catalonia and the rest of Spain ended up under the rule of Francisco Franco, a brutal dictator. Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself.

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