Recent events in Northern Syria seem, strangely, at once momentous and banal. President Trump’s decision on October 13th to withdraw American troops from the polyethnic Rojava region — governed since 2015 by the majority Kurdish, left-wing Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) — certainly met fanfare. Denunciations rang out from the editorial boards of both the Washington Post (“a strategic windfall to Iran and Russia”) and the New York Times (“History is littered with instances of one-time allies abandoned by Washington to their fate — the Bay of Pigs invasion; the fall of South Vietnam”). A bipartisan array of senators and several of America’s best respected war criminals, such as H.R. McMaster and David Petraeus, joined this chorus.
Yet, surely, these figures never expected the United States to maintain their presence indefinitely. Now that the U.S.-SDC alliance has nearly succeeded in exterminating the Islamic State, it has achieved its intended goal. The US has never had any long-term commitment to Kurdish nationalism or socialism. These are causes which the U.S. has, respectively, betrayed eight times in the past century and slaughtered millions to foil. Rather, in arranging that a large scale invasion by Turkey and its Syrian allies follow the withdrawal, the United States has ensured that its real long-term goals for the region remain unchallenged.
The subsequent hastily negotiated alliance between the SDC and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Republic seemed inevitable to many. Indeed, some observers, such as Grayzone journalist Max Blumenthal, had been predicting this development within hours of Trump’s announcement. Yet, it seems define a new era in both the material conflict in Syria and its symbolic function in global politics. Major issues remain, such as the degree of local autonomy to be granted to communities in Rojava, how that autonomy will be legally structured, and the role of the SDC or its successor(s) in the post-war national government of Syria.
But for the people of the region, the agreement — while still developing and lacking many vital details — reveals for the first time in nearly a decade a path to the peaceful reunification of a significant majority of Syria’s territory and population. For those international observers who have apotheosized the cause of one party or another to the severity of a moral crusade, the deal forces those still committed to the cogent analysis of present events to reconsider any perception of an eternal antagonism of these two parties, much less the universal significance of that antagonism.
The history of the region prefigures the capriciousness of the current situation. Northern Syria is ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse, home to large populations of Kurds and Assyrians. These are the two largest — of many — nationalities to have been denied statehood by the Great Powers upon the fall of the Ottoman Empire and have faced precarious franchisement as minorities scattered among different states ever since. The rights of such ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities in the Middle East have often been contingent upon rapidly shifting political circumstances for the region’s entire postcolonial history. Since 1963, when the nationalist Ba’athist Party seized power in Syria, government-sponsored Arabization programs have threatened minority civil, cultural, and linguistic rights. However, the Ba’athist government allowed the anti-Turkish Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) to train in Syria starting in 1980. This helped spur a movement for Kurdish rights with a general leftist tendency. Various secular factions of the Syrian Civil War formed the SDC in 2015 in the interest of establishing a polyethnic federation, and this goal has managed to persist beyond the chauvinism of any particular nationalistic movement. Indeed the majority within the SDC has officially claimed to never have been the establishment of a Kurdish ethnostate, despite the perception of many Western observers. The vision, rather, of a plurinational society — or a society free of the determinism of national identity — is much more compatible with the region’s diversity. The SDC’s deal with Damascus does not condemn this dream.
Historians will decide the final significance to be ascribed to these developments. For now, we must consider what stakes and factors remain for the long term. If final peace and prosperity is to be achieved, both parties must commit to actively building a more democratic and pluralistic Syria. One cannot fall down the same path that last brought it to civil war, all while protecting their recovering economy from the machinations of global capital.
Whatever state emerges from the reconciliation will have already weathered the imperial and possibly genocidal ambitions of Turkey’s right-wing neo-Ottomanist Erdoğan administration. But it will still need to confront another American-backed, irredentist, militant ideology: Zionism. Israel has occupied 500 square miles of internationally recognized Syrian territory in the Golan Heights since 1967. The Netanyahu administration has accelerated the construction of illegal settlements in the Golan, as they have in the occupied West Bank, including the recently unveiled planned community of Trump Heights. In March, this community’s namesake president made the U.S. the first and only nation to recognize, and attempt to legitimate, Israel’s incursion onto Syrian territory. Such actions should give Syrians little faith in the commitment of either the current U.S. or Israeli government to peaceful and just reconciliations.
While it is easy to dismiss Trump’s proclamations as merely the impulsive whims of a capricious and easily swayed leader, the general alignment of US-Israeli policy towards Syria seems to have remained intact. Both the Obama administration’s consistent support for the project of an independent government in Rojava and Trump’s sudden de facto endorsement of a Turkish invasion serve the same ultimate goal: keeping Syria either divided for as long as possible, or united in ruins. It is a short-sighted cliché of our moment to interpret crises of the first world, such as Brexit and various decisions of Trump’s, as the contractions of “dying empires.” In fact, the substance of these recent transformations makes clear that the American empire is quite significantly alive.