Strange bedfellows

Two groups from opposite ends of the political spectrum – U.S. Special Operations Command and the Syrian Democratic Forces (another name for Abdullah Ocalan′s PKK) – are making common cause in northern Syria. By Stefan Buchen and Karaman Yavuz

By Stefan Buchen & Karaman Yavuz

Chatting isn't really part of his remit. But on 21 July, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command clearly wanted to let it be known how he was pulling the strings.

General Raymond Thomas had taken up his place on the podium at a security conference held by the Aspen Institute in the U.S. state of Colorado. In a light and chatty tone, the conversation moved around the globe from one flashpoint to the next. After half an hour it arrived in Syria, or to be more precise the north of the middle eastern nation, scene of a war that has been going on for six years.

Here too, the much-decorated General has "special troops" under his command. It's no secret that they are there to fight IS. It's also a known fact that U.S. armed forces on the ground are also arranging support for a "Kurdish-Arab militia" known as the "Syrian Democratic Forces", formed as recently as 2015. Thus far, the U.S. military had made no public comment on just exactly who the members of this mysterious militia are. Even for dyed-in-the-wool Syria experts, up to this point the "SDF" had remained a mystery.

But in Colorado, to everyone's surprise General Thomas laid the cards on the table. Back in 2015, he reported, he met Kurdish political functionaries and PKK militia chiefs. "You need to change your brand," he told them. The General explained that the old name hadn't been communicable. If they were going to place too great an emphasis on the links to their past, to the PKK, then that was going to create problems, Thomas explained to the audience.

Kurdish People′s Protection Units in the Syrian town of Raqqa (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Political opposites attract: the Americans conduct bombing raids over Syria from the air, the PKK fighters, known officially in northern Syria as the People′s Protection Units (YPG), carry out the dirty work on the ground, supported by their own "special forces". The PKK is officially regarded as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the USA and Europe

The Turkish-based PKK is categorised by many countries, including Germany, as a "terrorist organisation". The Kurdish militia chiefs obviously understood the concerns of the American army commander. "With about a day′s notice, they declared that they were the "Syrian Democratic Forces"," said General Thomas, before making one further point: "I thought it was a stroke of brilliance to put 'democracy' in there somewhere," he said, to spirited laughter from the Colorado audience.

The absurd perplexity of the Syrian war

So the U.S. general revealed that "SDF" is in truth a code name for the fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK. Not exactly the most obvious alliance, bringing as it does the imperialist and capitalist global power that is the U.S., together with a left wing cadre organisation that adheres to Marxist ideas and that advocates a socialist co-operative economy. Moreover, the PKK is regarded as a subversive terrorist organisation by Turkey, a member of NATO and therefore a formal ally of the United States.

It is therefore not an exaggeration to say that in northern Syria, two opposite political poles have sealed an alliance. It could be viewed as an indicator of the absurd perplexity of the Syrian war.The fact is that the politically paradoxical alliance is scoring military success. Since 2015 the allies have been forcing IS back village by village, town by town. The division of labour is clear: the Americans bomb from the air, the PKK fighters who officially call themselves "People's Protection Units" (YPG) in northern Syria, do the dirty work on the ground, supported by some "special forces". "It's going well for us," emphasised General Thomson during the podium discussion in Colorado. "They've had thousands of casualties. We've only lost two soldiers."

Last May, the Pentagon announced it was supplying the "SDF" with firearms, grenade launchers and armoured vehicles. "I think that was the right decision," said Colonel Ryan Dillon, U.S. Armed Forces spokesman in the Middle East, in an interview with Panorama. "The SDF has turned out to be the only force able to effectively fight against and conquer Islamic State."

Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S. Armed Forces in the Middle East (photo: AP)
Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S. Armed Forces in the Middle East: "The SDF has turned out to be the only force able to effectively fight against and conquer Islamic State"

A few days ago, Kurdish militiamen advanced into the former IS capital Raqqa on the Euphrates. They made it immediately clear who has their political loyalty. On the city's central square, they unfurled a huge banner bearing the image of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, imprisoned in a Turkish jail for 18 years.

″Political affiliations pale on the battlefield″

We want to know from Colonel Dillon just how natural it is for the U.S. Army to cooperate with a Marxist cadre organisation. "What interests our soldiers is that our partners are capable of fighting," replies the U.S. officer. "The significance of their political affiliations pale on the battlefield."

But in reality, the political backgrounds and its pitfalls cannot be talked down. After all, the alliance is evidently presenting both sides with problems. "Ocalan is not a person worthy of respect," the U.S. embassy in Ankara tweeted in Turkish at the weekend. It is doubtful that this message is appeasing Turkish President Erdogan. In Syria, Kurdish fighters are not only holding Raqqa, which was a predominantly Arab city before the war, they have also captured oil fields in Deir al-Zour province in the southeast of the country, far from Kurdish areas in the north. New conflicts with the Arab population there are inevitable. Whoever conquers IS will not necessarily contribute to the stability of the nation.

And from the PKK perspective? In almost 15 years of ruthless interventionist policies in the Middle East, the U.S. military power has become the focus of a great deal of hatred. Those who join forces with America and reap territorial gains in the process, risk antagonising many groups and governments in the region.

So what happens when the day of reckoning comes? Will the United States then rush to help the PKK? And what about the political credibility of the cadre organisation? It is noticeable that the PKK isn't falling over itself to be particularly open about its alliance with American imperialism. When facing revolutionary-minded sympathisers, functionaries even appear rather embarrassed about it.

When Sinem Mohammed, the senior representative of the Syrian branch of the PKK in Europe, appeared in Hamburg, she spoke at length and in detail about female emancipation and the collective economy in "Rojava", the name given by the PKK to the territory it controls in northern Syria, but did not mention the role played by the U.S. in the successful campaign to oust IS. When questioned by Panorama, the political functionary conceded that her organisation is cooperating "militarily" with the U.S.. Which presumably means: there's no co-operation on any other level. But in a war, the military aspect is of course key.

Revolutionary nimbus reborn

"It's a dilemma, but it's an historic necessity," says Martin Dolzer, a representative of Germany′s Die Linke party to an audience in Hamburg. He recently took part in a protest against the prison conditions of PKK leader Ocalan. Demonstrators also celebrated the military successes in Rojava.

As always at such rallies, the Kurds were joined by Germans from the left wing. Some were carrying red flags, one with the hammer and sickle. "Up with international solidarity," chants the crowd. "I'm an anti-imperialist," asserts a young demonstrator with blonde hair. "But shouldn't you be grateful to imperialism right now? It's been helping the Kurdistan Workers' Party!" we point out. "At the moment it's right to work with the U.S.," says the young man. "But it does leave a bitter aftertaste. Of course, it's a contradiction."

For left-wingers in Germany and other European nations Rojava, liberated northern Syria, is like a new Cuba, almost like a reincarnation of the Vietcong. Sort of. If there wasn't this one distinction. Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh held their ground against U.S. imperialism. Rojava owes its existence to Washington.

The German PKK sympathiser with the hammer and sickle flag recognises the necessity of this co-operation with the Americans, but is under no illusions about the future: "When they no longer need you, they'll throw you away."

Stefan Buchen & Karaman Yavuz

© 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

This article was originally broadcast on 26 October 2017 as a feature on Germany′s ARD Panorama programme