One American’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist

Abdullah Öcalan

The Middle East is complex. I tried to get at that with my post The Islamic State Is Right About Some Things. Of late I have noticed the peculiar tendency toward soft-tinted reportage of the PKK-affiliated YPG and the nature of life in Rojava. Typical of what you see in the American media is this piece, On the Road in Syria, Struggle All Around (here is a more gritty take, Fried Chicken and Skulls of ISIS Fighters in The Daily Beast). Scott Atran, author of one of my favorite books, was actually in northern Iraq in Kurdish areas last year during an offensive against ISIS, and he reported (on his Facebook) first-hand the gratitude that the Yezidis in refugee camps felt toward the YPG militias, who saved them at great risk to their own lives when the Iraqi peshmerga fled and left them for dead. It’s not just propaganda, the YPG does care about Kurds and minorities to further their goals. They have Asabiyyah. So does ISIS. So does Hezbollah. The Alawites with their backs against the wall supporting the Assad regime probably have it as a matter of survival at this point. Most of our “allies” on the ground in Syria and Iraq, not so much.

Today we are reading that the coordinated push to retake the road supplying Mosul that goes through Sinjar seems to be a success, at least for now. But even this glowing report can’t suppress the reality that there are tensions between the various Kurdish factions. This will likely cause issues in the future, but it is also important to look back to the past. The PKK is basically an extension of the ideas of the imprisoned Kurdish nationalist, Abdullah Öcalan. In the context of the Middle East Öcalan is a genuinely heterodox figure. He began as a Marxist-Leninist, and to this day remains an atheist. But today his movement seems to promote some sort of Left-wing anarchism. The PKK has a long history in Turkey, and has been labelled as a terrorist group, not without some reason, though one can admit these designations are to a great extent political acts.

Though the YPG units are clearly on the side of justice, it is important to remind ourselves that the point of comparison here is ISIS. Even conservative Arab villagers with no sympathy toward Kurdish nationalism and suspicious of the aggressive secularism and gender-egalitarianism of the YPG units and seem to be welcoming them as liberators. For now. There is a history of Left-wing anarchist Utopian movements, and it does not terminate in an “end of history”, where all is sugar plums and good-fairies.

The Obama administration is catching a lot of flack for its handling of the crisis in the Middle East. There are liberal internationalists offering their critiques, and of course the whole American conservative establishment is chronicling every misstep. Some Europeans are even trying to point the finger at the American lack of intervention in the Syria war as the reason for their refugee crisis. Many of these criticisms have some validity. But they always seem to presuppose that their alternative solutions would be like magic fairy dust, and render the whole morass soluble. The fact is that this may be one of those scenarios where the world is going to muddle on for years, and there is no obvious solution. Fifteen years ago the George W. Bush administration decided to take an “all-in” approach, and go big. How did that exactly work out? I for one am not happy with the American policy in the Middle East. But I’m also terrified about the negative consequences for our nation, and the world, of too aggressive a stance which overplays our hand and explodes in our faces.

As a practical matter the Kurds in Syria and Iraq are our allies. The government of Turkey will never abide by that. I support Kurdish self-determination, but the idea that the YPG will enact a regime of of non-sectarian anarchistic amity when it is ascendant is a total fantasy. There are no good choices, and there are no angels. We are united by the devil before us, ISIS. That is all that is clear to me.

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