Dancing with the Devil: Turkish Nationalism vs Rojava’s Revolution

By Dr. Thomas Jeffrey Miley

The battle for Kobane was a turning point for ISIS, its first big defeat. It marked as well the beginning of the collaboration between Rojava’s revolutionary forces and the US military in the war against ISIS. The YPG and YPJ cum SDF provided the crucial boots on the ground to stop ISIS and push them back, and eventually even to “liberate” Raqqa from ISIS control. The Kurdish fighting forces would prove well-trained, and most importantly, they possessed an ideological commitment to the struggle. They were fighting for something they believed in, for revolutionary ideals. They thus possessed the courage of their convictions. In this respect, they could match ISIS, whose soldiers were fighting for ideals of their own.

It was in this context in which what Darnell Stephen Summers calls the “dance with the devil” began. The war against ISIS brought together the US military with Kurdish revolutionaries (YPG and later SDF) in Syria. This collaboration infuriated the Turkish state, at the same time that it arguably compromised the Kurdish forces vis-à-vis the Assad regime, which had withdrawn from the north east of the country without bloodshed and was itself in conflict with the jihadis but nevertheless objected to American encroachments on its sovereign terrain.

In this curious alliance between the US military and the SDF we can glimpse how some of the many contradictions of the terminal crisis of capitalist modernity are playing themselves out. There is an analogy that is often made between ISIS and fascism. The argument goes that just as the struggle against fascism brought together revolutionaries to fight alongside “liberal democracies” in an antifascist front, so too has the fight against ISIS served to join the left and the center against the far right. The analogy is a complicated one; among other reasons because ISIS is in some ways inspired by an anticolonial thrust. Even so, its treatment of women and of Shiites and Christians, not to mention Yazidis, clearly distinguishes ISIS as an ideological enemy of both the center and the left.

In geopolitical terms, ISIS stands in opposition to the expansion of Shiite influence in post-invasion Iraq, and as such, needs to be understood in relation to the tectonic shifts that have been occurring in the so-called “Middle East” ever since the illegal, indeed criminal, Iraqi invasion of 2003. Two decades on, the Hobbesian war of all against all that was induced by the American neoconservatives continues to bear strange and bitter fruit. When viewed through this optic of imperialism, the idea of the US as a somehow “centrist” force would seem to make little sense. The Kurdish minorities in both Iraq and in Syria have managed to align themselves with the US, thereby reproducing their regional reputation as pawns of the world’s still dominant, if perhaps fading, imperialist power. Though the PKK’s war against the Turkish state, incorporated into NATO since 1952, certainly militates against the interpretation of the Syrian Kurds as mere pawns in the Americans’ game. To the contrary, they would seem to be playing a game of their own, one in which American control of the sky overhead serves to protect their project in Rojava from Turkish incursions. Though they would be well to be warned, as Darnell Stephen Summers has put it, that when you dance with the devil, you are bound to get burned.

Now the Americans seem willing to look the other way, to let Turkey have its way in Rojava. This in the context of the unfolding war in the Ukraine, which has increased the leverage of Turkey over its NATO partners. The Erdogan regime, looking froward to the upcoming elections, has decided to seek favor with its fascist governing partners in the MHP, and to play to Turkish nationalist sentiment, through an assault on the revolution in Rojava. It is difficult to predict how far this assault will continue, whether an all-out invasion is perhaps in the works. But the difference between Rojava and Qandil is clear; the mountainous terrain is much more difficult to defeat. A stalemate like the one that the PKK has managed with the Turkish state against its rebel forces in the mountain is unlikely to be repeated in the north-east of Syria. Which goes to prove the wisdom of the phrase that the Kurds have no friends but the mountains.

This could well be the end of the revolution. A decade-long experiment in radical democracy, always up against formidable odds, may come to a tragic end. The geopolitical lessons of the prospect of this defeat are worth highlighting. The war in the Ukraine opened up another flank in the unfolding of inter-imperialist rivalry. The negative dialectic of tyranny and chaos that has been engulfing the so-called “Middle East” for close to two decades now spreads to the East of Europe. The Biden administration in the US seems concerned not to alienate any further its NATO partner, and thus would appear willing to look the other way while Erdogan’s forces go on the attack. Meanwhile, the Russians argue for a return of full sovereignty to Assad.

For those of us interested in the fate of the revolution, and in the more theoretical question of what is required to transcend the global system of the capitalist nation-state, the lesson is indeed a grim one. The self-determination of the Kurdish revolutionaries in Rojava finds itself suffocated, cancelled out, by the question of who controls the sky. We caught a glimpse of this lesson already, back in 2019, in Afrin. We now brace ourselves for an invasion of the iconic Kobane; its fall into the hands of the Turkish state would be a most devastating blow. The triumph of a stateless democracy, or, should we say, of democracy against the state, ultimately depends upon ephemeral opportunities opened up by contradictions in the broader global system. And since there is no such thing as an anarchist air force, at least not yet, the self-determination of the Kurdish revolutionaries would appear ephemeral, too. Destined to be overruled, its fate overdetermined by the machinations of global and regional inter-imperialist and sub-imperialist rivalries. Here is where the logic of self-determination comes crashing down, and is destroyed by realpolitik and overdetermination.

If we follow Öcalan’s re-articulation of the idea of self-determination along the lines of determining the social conditions that influence our lives, thereby entailing a radical democratization of social relations, the Rojava revolution’s conditions of existence were always quite challenging ones. For the revolutionary regime came into being as a result of state collapse, associated with the dynamics of the ongoing Syrian civil war. It had not built up a dual power of alternative direct democratic assemblies before the revolution; rather, these spread as a result of the revolution. It was the guerrilla, in coordination with the organization of militias, that spread the revolution, not the other way around. This meant that, from the outset, the revolution had something of a top-down, militarist bent.

Moreover, the attempts to transform the economy, through the proliferation of cooperative ventures, have always been subordinated to the brutal realities of a war economy, in the context of an ongoing embargo. The emergence of direct democratic assemblies could only offer very limited in-roads in relation to the exigencies of the war economy. Even worse, given the revolution’s ideological commitment to ecological justice, the dependence on oil revenues, combined with the vulnerability in relation to water supply, have both rendered Rojava’s social-ecological credentials aspirational at best.

But lest this dose of pessimism of the intellect produce a pessimism of the will as well, let us also stress importance of the revolutionary flame lit in Kobane. That flame cannot be extinguished. For it has produced a resuscitation of the revolutionary imagination amongst many people around the globe, from Canada to Kenya. For all its limitations, the Rojava revolution still stands out, as a really-existing alternative, both viable and desirable, to the terminal crisis of capitalist modernity. Out of the carnage of the Syrian civil war, there has emerged an experiment in radical democracy, against the state, that has helped to light the path and to show us the way forward, towards a democratic modernity. Like all revolutions, this revolution must spread if it is to survive. It is up to us to help make it spread.


  • Thomas Jeffrey Miley

    Dr. Thomas Jeffrey Miley is a lecturer of Political Sociology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. He received his B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles (1995) and his PhD. from Yale University (2004). He has lectured at Yale University, Wesleyan University, and Saint Louis University (Madrid) and he has been a Garcia-Pelayo Research Fellow at the Center for Political and Constitutional Studies in Madrid (2007-2009). His research interests include comparative nationalisms, the politics of migration, religion and politics, and democratic theory.

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