With the newly-launched Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) offensive aimed at pushing Daesh (Isis/Isil) out of its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, the world has seen perhaps the closest cooperation yet between the USA and armed forces from Rojava, raising the question: is such a development good, bad, or neither?
First, some context
Originally, Rojava was completely isolated – and effectively rejected – by a USA which seemed much happier to support chauvinist forces (whether Islamist or nationalist) in Syria. Two years after Rojavan autonomy from the Assad regime in 2012, however, the vicious Daesh assault on Kobani brought the revolutionary experience of Rojava into the international limelight (if the impressive rescue of Yezidis from Sengal in Iraq had failed to do that a month earlier).
With Rojava’s defence forces – the YPG and YPJ – heroically resisting Daesh advances on Kobani, the USA could no longer keep looking away (primarily because the media was on the Turkish side of the border watching as Daesh advanced and the US-led anti-Daesh coalition did nothing). As a result, there was increased strategic cooperation between Rojavan ground forces and US-led air forces from late 2014 onwards.
Some international supporters of the secular, gender-egalitarian, and directly democratic revolution of Rojava began to feel very uneasy about this cooperation, particularly as the USA has for many decades been the number one imperialist power in the world, doing its best to destroy any movement that smelt even slightly like socialism. This wariness, therefore, was completely justified.
But the main issue was always how much influence the USA would actually have on Rojava. Would the superpower push the region into compromises in its radical political project? Or would it only cooperate with Rojavan forces in a temporary alliance based entirely on defeating Daesh (which its own allies (and possibly even its own secret service) had embarrassingly had a hand in creating in the first place)?
It’s in this context that we can determine the value (or lack thereof) of US special forces being on the ground during the current Raqqa offensive.
Good, bad or neither?
Rojavan territory is still isolated by both Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish blockades, meaning that without the arms and air support that the USA can provide, the revolution’s hopes of surviving would decrease significantly – although Russia has also shown an interest in Rojava in recent months, and could potentially step in if US support dried up. While an alliance with the USA may be far from ideal, then, it may be simply a matter of life or death.
Meanwhile, the fact that sections of the US establishment have deemed Rojava worthy of military support – temporarily at least – definitely boosts its chances of coming out of the Syrian conflict intact. And unless its progressive political process deteriorates significantly as a result of the strategic alliance, its survival must be seen as a positive.
The chances of the USA, given its woeful historical foreign policy record, just ‘letting the Rojava Revolution be’ are low. While the extent of interference will depend on a number of factors, Washington will almost certainly try to encourage the Rojavan administration to undertake certain political compromises in exchange for its support. If Rojavan leaders conceded such ground to the USA, it would clearly be a negative for any supporter of radically democratic politics.
At the same time, US presence in Syria also gives both Daesh and Assad the chance to say: ‘Hey, look! The Kurds are puppets of the imperialist pigs!’ The propaganda benefits of this for both nationalist and Islamist forces in Syria could be very significant.
Another point is that some less-informed forces on the ground may begin to believe that the USA is intrinsically a force for good in the region, which it most definitely is not. We only need to look at the anti-Kurdish war crimes being committed by the superpower’s NATO allies in Turkey – who are also attacking Rojava – to realise that US policy is at its heart both hypocritical and self-interested. The fact that a number of countries (including Russia) have opened representative offices for Rojava and the USA has not is also a strong indicator of the USA’s reluctance to support Rojava politically.
As Kurdish Question has recently pointed out, the declaration of the Federation of Northern Syria–Rojava on 17 March 2016 was rejected by almost all major players in the Syrian conflict, apart from Russia. And the USA was one of these players. American officials have made it clear that they won’t back the project politically, which is ironic (to say the least) given the fact that the USA is itself a federal country. The big reason for shunning the experience in this way is that Washington still wants to maintain its close alliance with Turkey – which is heavily opposed to any type of Kurdish autonomy (whether at home or in Syria). Ankara’s recent criticism of US troops wearing YPG insignia in Syria, for example, forced a US military spokesman to point out that American troops had not been authorised to do so, and that they had been ordered to remove them. This is a strong indication of Washington’s commitment not to get on the wrong side of Ankara’s increasingly authoritarian regime too much.
Weighing up all of these factors, there are both strategic positives and strategic negatives, so it’s difficult to call US-Rojavan cooperation either good or bad. Essentially, though, the presence of a few dozen US special ops troops on the ground is likely to make very little difference anyway.
The vast majority of fighting will still be done by the SDF. The rebuilding of communities after liberation from Daesh will still be done by people influenced or inspired by the Rojava Revolution. And the glory of defeating Daesh will still go to the SDF. Any attempts by the USA to take the credit for any of these things would be incredibly arrogant, and anyone with any sense would see straight through them.
One final point. It is very possible that the USA is only helping the SDF for propaganda reasons – to show that the Obama Administration does care about defeating Daesh and that the President is taking the clear but limited military action which many Americans want to see. That may be Washington’s main focus. And the long-term effects that a temporary US presence might have on Rojava may turn out to be minimal. At the same time, Rojava could really benefit from this strategic support – regardless of Washington’s true intentions.
Whatever happens in the coming months, this strategic alliance is definitely a development we need to be aware of, and whose progress we need to follow very carefully. But there is also cause for a very calm and measured analysis of the situation, as jumping to conclusions could see some of Rojava’s international supporters turn their backs on one of the most progressive political processes ever to develop in the Middle East, and even the world.