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Map of Syria showing cities of Manbij (orange pointer) and Afrin

U.S. and Turkey agree on joint control of Manbij, Syria, violating Syrian sovereignty and confounding claims by Western corporate and alternative media of ‘Russia-Turkey collusion’

Agreement between the two NATO allies highlights wrongheaded analysts in corporate and alternative media in the West who have played up ‘U.S.-Turkey conflict’ over Syria and falsely argued that Russia is backing Turkey’s anti-Kurdish violations of Syrian sovereignty.

The United States and Turkey reached agreement at talks between their foreign ministers in Washington on June 4 to “remove” Kurdish self-defense forces from the small city of Manbij and surrounding region in north-central Syria. The following day, the Kurdish YPG self-defense forces, which are allied with the U.S. military, announced a withdrawal of the last of their military advisors from the city.

The city remains nominally under the control of the Manbij Military Council, a multinational entity including Syrian Arabs and Turkmen. It has vowed to resist any Turkish military or political presence, but the U.S. and Turkey are taking further moves to assert their control of the city and region of Manbij. The two countries announced on June 14 they had agreed to a ‘Manbij Implementation Plan’ following talks in Germany. Details were not announced.

Map of Syria

Map of Syria showing cities of Manbij (orange pointer) and Afrin.

Turkish media outlets report on June 18 that Turkish military forces have moved into Manbij region, in cooperation with the U.S.

Manbij city and region had a pre-war population of some 100,000. It has a majority-Arab, ethnically diverse population.

Manbij city is located 30 kilometres west of the Euphrates River in Aleppo province. It lies just south of the northern strip of Syria that has been militarily occupied by Turkey since it launched its ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ military campaign in August 2016. The Turkish-occupied area lies between the northwest Syrian province of Afrin and the Euphrates River along the northern Syria border. Turkey had been threatening to extend its occupation zone south to include Manbij but has held off as it worked out plans with the U.S. for the two countries’ continued, illegal presence in Syria.

Turkey’s illegal occupation zone in Syria was extended by a military intervention into Afrin in January 2018. There, Turkey has installed right-wing ‘Syrian’ paramilitaries in quisling governing bodies. Most of the estimated population of 300,000 Kurds in Afrin fled to refuge in Syria. Many of their properties are being seized by the Turkish authorities and turned over to pro-Turkey, non-Kurdish incomers.

Turkey-U.S. conflict in Syria?

The agreement between the U.S. and Turkey over Manbij flatly contradicts what corporate, alternative and left-wing media in the West have been saying for more than a year, a time frame coinciding with the deepening of Kurdish collaboration with U.S. occupation forces in the south and east of Syria. These media have spoken of serious policy ‘conflict’ between the U.S. and Turkey, even now as U.S.-Turkish plans for control of Manbij are rolling out. Al Jazeera reported with a straight face on June 18, “The issue of Manbij had become a major flashpoint between the two NATO allies.”

These media have played up the theatrics between the two NATO-member countries pretending to have sharp differences over attitudes to Kurdish military and political forces in Syria. Even Russia-friendly media such as RT and Sputnik have fallen for the act.

Turkey says it objects strongly to the alliance between the U.S. military and the military forces of Syrian Kurds. Turkey is indeed worried that an example of Kurdish autonomy in Syria will strengthen the morale and determination of Kurds in Turkey who are similarly struggling for political autonomy. But complaints by Turkey with its NATO ally are far outweighed by the common interest of the two NATO members in weakening sovereignty and democracy in Syria while simultaneously keeping Kurdish national aspirations in check.

For example, the U.S. has maintained close ties with the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq with no objections from Turkey. The KRG is a conservative government opposed to the left-wing expressions of Kurdish national aspirations that are dominant among Turkish and Syrian Kurds.1

The manipulative character of U.S. relations with Kurds was on full display late last year when the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) held a referendum vote in favour of Kurdish independence in northern Iraq. The vote passed, but the Iraqi government rejected the vote and sent its armed forces into the region to enforce central government control. The U.S. raised no objections, confounding KRG hopes that its erstwhile U.S. ‘ally’ would defend the referendum outcome.

Today, a comfortable standoff prevails between the Iraqi government and the KRG. The latter also maintains comfortable relations with Turkey.

The Washington Institute For Near East Policy reports the very different approach taken by Russia towards the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan:

Russia took a more nuanced position on the referendum, stating at the time that it “respects the national aspirations of the Kurds” and believes that disputes between Baghdad and Erbil “can and should be resolved through constructive and respectful dialogue with a view to devising a mutually acceptable formula of coexistence within a single Iraqi state.” Although Washington made very similar statements, it also actively lobbied against the referendum, while Moscow remained publicly neutral. Russia’s approach played to its favor, giving it greater flexibility with the Kurds in the vote’s tense aftermath…

Syrian Kurds say their alliance with the U.S. and reliance on its military assistance have been essential for the defeat of ISIS. They also hoped that an alliance with the U.S. would stave off a hostile Turkey.

Syrian Kurds number approximately two million of the Syrian population of app. 18.5 million. The CIA Factbook estimates the overall Kurdish population in the Middle East at some 29 million–14.5 million in Turkey, six million in Iran, five to six million in Iraq and some two million in Syria. In addition, the Kurdish diaspora is estimated at 1.5 million people, about half of whom reside in Germany (Wikipedia).

Like the Palestinians, the Kurdish people have been betrayed and denied a homeland by the Western imperialist powers whose dominance in the region dates back more than 100 years.

Alternative media

An example of left-wing media’s misrepresentation concerning the situation in Syria was on display on the Baltimore-based The Real News Network on June 5. TRNN host Ben Norton interviewed Turkish political analyst Ekrem Ekici, who is a co-editor of the newly launched online magazine Rupture.

Norton and Ekici shared the view saying that Russia is entered into a close military and political alliance with NATO-member Turkey. Part two of their interview is headlined, ‘Closer Turkey-Russia relations are built on fossil fuels and arms sales’.

Part one of the interview looks back at the aforementioned Turkish military intervention into Afrin. Ekici tells Norton, “So we cannot say the Afrin operation was conducted on, against the will of NATO, or against the will of Russia. On the contrary, this operation was controlled and monitored by those two powers.” To which Norton replies, “That’s a great point. And not only did Russia allow Turkey to use the airspace it controls under the deconfliction agreement, also it’s true that Russia removed its military forces from around the areas near Afrin to prevent Russian casualties during the Turkish assault. So you’re absolutely right that it was both approved by NATO and Russia.”

This argumentation is similar to the one presented in a published article in the Australian Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal on May 9 (appearing also in Green Left Weekly, on May 30.) On May 12, I published a critical analysis of that article, here: Australian socialists play the ‘blame Russia’ card in Syria while ignoring U.S. and NATO betrayals and crimes.

Other similar argumentation can be found in Western alternative and left-wing media. The Trotskyist ‘Fourth International Bureau’, for example, wrote in a statement issued on June 4:

It is clear that Moscow and Washington’s support to YPG at different times, such as YPG’s support to the Russian military and air campaign alongside Assad’s regime launched in late September 2015 around Aleppo, did not prevent Ankara’s military aggression against Afrin.

The statement recklessly condemns “all foreign military interventions” in Syria, making no distinction between the interventions by Russia and Iran at the invitation of the Syrian government as opposed to the Western and Arab states interventions aimed at the violent overthrow of the Syrian government and the destruction of Syrian sovereignty. It also gives credence to the murderous Western sanctions against Syria by its call to “refuse [the Syrian government’s] relegitimisation internationally”.

What proof have such writers and commentators offered for their accusations? None. The reader or the listener is expected to share anti-Russia prejudice and that’s that.

We are told that Russia ‘betrayed’ the Kurds because it failed to make a military stand against Turkey’s incursion into Afrin. But the Kurdish forces that Russia was supposed to defend are allied with Turkey’s fellow NATO member the United States. Syrian Kurdish forces declined Russia’s and Syria’s proposal that they take a united stand to defend Afrin, not to speak of Syrian sovereignty, against Turkey. So none of the armchair generals’ words make sense. Sensibly, and fortunately for the Syrian people and the people of the world, Russian generals declined the foolhardy calls that they get their military into a tangle over Afrin with two powerful NATO militaries.

In my aforementioned May 12 article, I pointed to an additional side to the Western media story, which is the self-censorship it exercises in declining to report on Russia’s extensive political initiatives aiming to convince the Syrian government to ammend the Syrian constitution to recognize national rights of Kurds and other minorities in Syria. As I wrote on May 12:

For more than one year, Russia has proposed changes to the Syrian constitution that would provide for autonomous political and cultural rights to Syrian Kurds. And prior to the Turkish intervention into Afrin, the Syrian and Russian armed forces proposed to the Kurdish leadership in Afrin that it accept the entry of Russian and Syrian armed forces into the region to join Kurds in defending the territory.

The Kurds declined the offer of joint defense. They preferred a Turkish military occupation into Afrin, complete with a predictable ethnic cleansing of its Kurdish population, over a re-assertion of territorial sovereignty by the Syrian government. No doubt they were cognizant that their U.S. ally would not look well upon the Kurds entering into any kind of understanding with Syria and Russia. Hence the Kurdish decision to sacrifice Afrin…

Russia’s advocacy of Kurdish national rights extends into Turkey. For example, in late 2015, Russia’s foreign ministry hosted an official visit by Kurdish political leaders from Turkey and Syria, including then-HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas. The delegation also included Salih Muslim, co-chairperson of the Democratic Union Party of Syria.

Historic struggle in Turkey against increasingly authoritarian rule

The media self-censorship too often combines with a troubling failure to report the harsh political repression by the Turkish government against its Kurdish population.

An historic struggle is taking place in Turkey to defeat the right-wing government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Kurds are a very large presence and factor in that struggle. They constitute about 18 per cent of the Turkish population of 80 million.

In the presidential and legislative elections to take place in Turkey on June 24, the Kurdish-led, left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is set to return to the legislature with a large representation that may well help deny the AKP a legislative majority. And in the presidential election, Kurdish voters could be part of upsetting the re-election of strongman Erdogan.

The HDP presidential candidate is Selahattin Demirtaş. He has been in jail since November 2016 on trumped-up charges of supporting ‘terrorism’, namely the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged armed self defense for decades. (For the latest on the forthcoming vote on June 24, see: Opinion polls only deepen uncertainty of Turkey’s June 24 election, published in Turkish Minute, June 14, 2018.)

The AKP government under Erdogan has carried out ferocious repression of the country’s Kurdish population and its political leadership in the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). HDP leaders have been jailed and entire cities in eastern Turkey have been attacked and suffered heavy damage at the hands of the Turkish military.

The Kurdish region of north-eastern Syria, meanwhile, is threatened by Turkish military intervention attempting to destroy the region’s experiment with Kurdish autonomous and socially progressive governance. And Turkey is intervening in northern Iraq to try and destroy the autonomous zone under the control of the PKK’s armed forces.

Western governments and media are predictably silent in the face of their NATO ally Turkey’s domestic police and military aggressions.

Openings for peace created by Russian diplomacy in Syria and the Middle East

Why is there so much disorientation and misrepresentation of facts taking place in Western alternative media? At least two factors are at play.

One is the unfortunate succumbing of many to the anti-Russia torrent unleashed by the Western powers during the right-wing coup in Ukraine in early February 2014 and the referendum vote one month later in Crimea to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. Anti-Russia prejudice is a hallmark of the new cold war commenced in 2014. A large part of the Western left has simply proven unable or unwilling to understand the extreme danger to peace and progress of this new cold war.

Two is a weakness in historical memory by the same left. Whenever lesser capitalist countries, leave alone socialist countries, decide to stand up to the diktats of imperialism and chart an independent course, this creates opportunities for oppressed peoples or countries to defend themselves from the worst ravages of imperialism. This was true for decades during the existence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and it is true for the capitalist Russian Federation. The 20th century is replete with examples where left-wing forces sided with movements for national independence or social justice regardless of that they thought of the leaderships or objectives of any given struggle. This memory, this experience, of defending national or social rights movements has eroded over the decades. (The reasons for that erosion are beyond the scope of this article; I have explored them in published articles, including several listed below.)

In 2002-03, to take a recent example, the world protested an impending war against Iraq, saying that the Western powers had no right to dictate to the Iraqi people who should and should not be their leaders. Yet today, many left-wing voices are echoing the calls by Western imperialist government for the violent overthrow of the Syrian government and they are seemingly indifferent to the threats and economic sanctions being made against Russia (and its Crimea region), Venezuela, Iran and other countries. U.S. writer Danny Haiphong has recently analysed this troubling phenomenon in a commentary published in Black Agenda Report on June 13: The fake left at the Left Forum in New York City.

Below is a list of recently published reports and commentaries concerning Syria that offer insight and a path forward for building a global antiwar left to fight for peace in Syria and the Middle East. Concerning the present situation in Turkey, The Real News Network has broadcast and published a very informative interview on June 18 with guest Baris Karaagac, a lecturer in international development studies at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, and host Ben Norton.

Note

  1. Turkey also complains that the U.S. has not complied with its demand dating from 2016 that the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen be extradicted to Turkey from his residence in Pennsylvania. Turkey wants him to stand trial for treason. It accuses Gulen and the supporters of the social/religious movement that Gulen leads as masterminding the failed military coup in Turkey in July 2016. The government calls Gulen’s supporters the ‘Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization’.The Erdogan government has conducted a vast purge of alleged Gulen supporters from jobs in government, police and military departments. Thousands have been detained and sentenced to prisons. Media outlets deemed insufficiently beholden to Erdogan and his government have been seized and hundreds of journalists have been detained or sentenced to prison. (For background on Fethullah Gulen and the movement he leads, see this Wikipedia entry.)

Postscripts

* As Iran, Russia and Turkey meet in Geneva, questions loom over Syrian constitution, by Anton Mardasov, Al-Monitor, June 21, 2018
* As conditions shift in Syria, Kurds open to talks with Damascus, by Fehim Tastekin, Al-Monitor, June 21, 2018


Related news and analysis:
* Russia’s take on the deal between the U.S. and over Manbij, Syria is wait and see, by Maxim A. Suchkov, Al-Monitor, June 12, 2018
* Torture, starvation, executions: Eastern Ghouta civilians talk of life under terrorist rule, by Eva Bartlett, published in the ‘Op-Ed’ feature of RT, June 10, 2018 Also published on her website In Gaza and beyond.
* The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – funded by Britain’s Foreign Office, report by Media Lens, June 4, 2018
* The character of the war in Syria and how peace may be won, by Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, May 29, 2018
* Israel continues aggression against Syria while playing the victim, by Zak Witus, Truthout.org, May 21, 2018
* An Iranian viewpoint on the battle for Syria, by Rick Sterling, Consortium News, May 17, 2018
* The rebuilding of Syria, eyewitness report by Jeff Klein, Consortium News, May 16, 2018
* The unrecognized U.S. contribution to bloodshed in Syria, by As’ad AbuKhalil, Consortium News, May 15, 2018
* War propaganda firm Bellingcat continues lying about Syria, by Caitlin Johnstone, ‘rogue journalist’, published on her website, April 30, 2018
* Former weapons inspector Scott Ritter refutes U.S. chemical weapons claim in Syria, interview with Scott Ritter, on ‘Flashpoints Radio‘, KPFA station, with host Denis Bernstein, April 23, 2018 (Transcript of the interview is published here on Consortium News, April 27, 2018)
* Syria and chemical weapons: Debating the regime-change war in Syria, by Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, April 24, 2018 (with postscripts)
* ‘False flag’ incidents just pretexts for conflict, by Scott Taylor, published in his ‘On Target’ weekly column in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, April 22, 2018
* ‘The U.S. is not at all interested in the welfare of the Syrian people’: Interview by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting with Gregory Shupak, interview broadcast on ‘Counterspin’, April 20, 2018
* U.S. out of Syria, by Greg Shupak, Jacobin, April 18, 2018

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