In the past two weeks, a remarkable new development has taken place in Syria that bodes ill for the future of the so-called Islamic State group, referred to in Arabic as Daesh. Kurdish fighters from the northeast of the country have taken Tel al-Abyad, a key border town with Turkey through which Daesh smuggled arms and fighters. Now, under cover of American bombing raids, they have gone south to take an important army base only 30 miles from the city of Raqqa, the Syrian capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate. As with everything in Syria, these events are fraught with moral and ethical questions, but that they could be a game changer is not in doubt.
On Tuesday, it was reported that Kurdish fighters supported by Arab rebels of the Euphrates Volcano paramilitary took the town of Ain Issa from Daesh, as well as the nearby Syrian military base, Brigade-93, which had been overrun by Daesh. The Kurdish forces received aerial support from the United States and its allies, who conducted an intensive bombardment of Daesh positions and convoys. Reportedly, their formations were breaking up toward the end of the battle and the fighters were simply running away. The Kurds are now only 30 miles from Raqqa, the capital of the so-called caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the nom de guerre of Ibrahim al-Samarrai, a minor Iraqi academic). Could Daesh be on the verge of being largely pushed out of Syria?
Kurds speak an Indo-European language ultimately related to English rather than Arabic, the language of most Syrians, which is related to Hebrew. Kurds make up about 10 percent of Syria’s 22 million people, and inhabit three formerly unconnected enclaves in the north of the country, which they call Rojava, consisting of Afrin in the west, Kobane in the middle, and Jazira in the east, abutting Iraq. By far the most populous of these enclaves is Jazira, from which the current campaign was launched. It is spearheaded by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the paramilitary arm of the far-left Democratic Union Party.
Politics is making for very strange bedfellows here, showing how much geopolitics has changed since the Cold War. You would not have thought leftist Kurds a natural ally for bourgeois Washington, but the vicious theocracy of Daesh has managed to unite the two against itself. In the 1980s, the Kurdish left was dominated by the then-Communist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which turned to guerrilla violence against the Turkish state in particular and sought secession for the country’s Kurds in eastern Anatolia. A dirty war ensued with the Turkish military, with extensive war crimes on both sides, in which some 30,000 are estimated to have been killed. Washington strongly supported Turkey against the leftists then. The Syrian-Kurdish YPG was a sister organization of the Turkish-Kurdish PKK, which remains on Washington’s list of terrorist organizations (though the YPG is not).
The PKK says it has given up its Marxism and separatism and now just wants a federal system in Turkey with a Kurdish province. A few thousand fighters are now holed up on the Iraqi side of the border in Qandil, occasionally launching attacks on Turkey. As for the YPG, it does not have a command line to the PKK but is rather autonomous in Syria, and has announced an ideology of direct democracy for all ethnic and religious groups in its territory, equality of the sexes, and environmentalism. The Democratic Union Party also advocates a federal Syria after the war ends, with substantial states’ rights and a Kurdish province, Rojava. The YPG fields female as well as male soldiers, to the consternation of Daesh militants, who are said to be afraid that a male fighter killed by a female commando cannot go to heaven. Rojava’s elected assemblies have a quota for women and make a place for Christians and Turkmen. The Democratic Union Party ideals sound a little like the anarcho-syndicalism of Spain during the Spanish Civil War, for which George Orwell fought as a volunteer.