A Primer on Northern Syria

Our series of longform primers attempt to take apart dense issues, while going into more historical and economic depth than the news. 

Northern Syria, also known as the NES (Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria) or by its Kurdish name, Rojava (the west), is often in the news for all the wrong reasons. This week, Turkish troops and their local Islamist allies crossed the border in the name of protecting Turkey from Kurdish-led militants it denounces as terrorists. The US, ostensibly an ally of the Kurds, has granted Turkey a free hand to bomb the region at its leisure, and has assisted Turkey by closing off the border crossings with Iraq, and along the Euphrates.
To understand the conflict holistically means we need to go far back into history, before capitalism, and before the ethno-nationalism it fostered could tear the region apart.

Pre-Capitalist History

Prior to the spread of Islam in the 600s, the region known as The Levant, or Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, was home to a number of competing religions. Greek Orthodox Christianity, Syriac Christianity, and Zoroastrianism (an ancient precursor to modern monotheistic religions) were all practiced across the region, along with smaller religions that can be traced back to the earliest human cities in Mesopotamia, such as the Yazidi religion. Most of these religions are still practiced by minorities in the region today, with the exception of Zoroastrianism which has been reduced to tiny enclaves much farther east.

In pre-capitalist times, humans have understood cultural differences quite differently to how we do today. It’s hard for many to understand now, but race and ethnicity were concepts that would only come into play later. Religious and cultural practice was a much more important and tangible aspect of identity. When Islam spread across the region, many Levantine peoples welcomed it because of its similarities to local forms of Christian iconoclasm (meaning religious opposition to figurative representation of the divine).

Map showing the spread of Islam under successive Caliphs.

Islam brought with it a renaissance period where Levantine peoples led the world in the arts and sciences. The conservative institutions of the Byzantine orthodox church, and Sassanid Zoroastrian fundamentalists were swept aside by a new wave of Islamic scholars and thinkers, whose rationalist approach now seems extremely modern compared to other cultures of the time. Islam was led by Caliphs, ideally philosopher-king descendents of the prophet, far removed from the more sinister modern use of the term.

By the late Middle Ages, the Caliphs were no longer direct descendents of the prophet, but rather powerful sultans who took on the title themselves. By the 1400s the Caliphs were a Turkish dynasty from central Anatolia, the Osmanolgu family, better known as the Ottomans. The Ottomans ushered in a second Islamic renaissance, and despite their brutal methods of warfare, were relatively fair administrators who allowed a great deal of autonomy for minorities. Christians, Jews and Muslims cohabited peacefully, to the point that whole cities were granted to minorities, such as the Jewish-led city of Salonica (Thessaloniki) in Greece.

Map showing the spread of the Ottoman caliphate.
Map showing the spread of the Ottoman caliphate.

However, this second period of peace wouldn’t always last. As the centuries passed, the Ottomans found themselves in direct competition with European powers, whose absolute monarchies and mercantilism proved to be a much stronger economic and political base. By the time of the Industrial revolution, the Ottomans were referred to as “The Sick Man of Europe.” A vast, but ultimately weak power, that could be easily divided up between the emerging European colonial powers. 

The Ottomans adapted to this by adopting European-style cultural, political and economic practices. They experimented with colonial practices, beginning Turkish colonies across their provinces, and attempted to impose aspects of modern state power, like standing armies and police forces. These reforms were not enough, and the Ottomans found themselves being eaten alive by European powers. Napoleonic France took Egypt, Russia took Crimea, and Britain took Cyprus. 

Capitalism reaches the Levant

This crisis led to growing anxiety amongst the emerging Turkish bourgeoisie. They feared that the Empire wouldn’t modernise fast enough to avoid disintegration, and that the Sultan needed to abolish the system of regional autonomy (the millet system), and replace it with a modern capitalist state under an absolute monarchy. Ottoman nationalism emerged as a means to consolidate the many regional identities, and a policy of “Turkification” was pursued throughout the empire. Capitalism requires a relatively homogenous populace in order to effectively create a working class to fuel industrial modernisation, and so the myriad ethnic identities of the empire presented a problem.

Several events in the first decades of the 20th century created the conditions for the form of Turkish ethnonationalism we see today. In 1908, Turkish army officers and the Ottoman bourgeoisie rose up in the Young Turk Revolution, demanding a liberal parliamentary system with representation for ethnic minorities. A counter-revolution in 1909 by reactionaries and proto-Islamists reversed some of the changes, and brought violence against ethnic minorities who were seen to be in support of the earlier revolution. The empire was now divided between liberal-bourgeois Ottomanism and reactionary Turkish ethnonationalism. A narrative of betrayal stemming from the loss of the Balkans in 1912 and an inability to mobilise the Anatolian Armenian population against Russia in 1914 added fuel to the flames. From 1915 to 1923, up to 1.5 million Armenians and other Christian minorities were systematically killed, the first modern genocide on an industrial scale, and a crime denied by Turkey to this day. Lesser known are the Greek and Assyrian massacres, which themselves account for up to a million additional deaths. Muslim populations historically allied to the Ottomans, such as Kurds and Circassians, participated in the killings.

Map showing sites of documented Armenian and Assyrian genocide.

Ultimately neither clamping down on dissenting minorities, mobilising Turkish enthnonationalist sentiment, nor an alliance with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary could save the empire. During the First World War, the “Sick Man of Europe” was finally carved up between the European colonial powers, after they successfully took advantage of a large scale Arab revolt by making false promises of statehood. The League of Nations, established in the aftermath of the war and the precursor to the modern UN, tasked various ‘responsible’ European powers with administering the conquered territories in the Levant and Mesopotamia.

The agreements signed during this period, in which the Arab revolt was thoroughly betrayed, would have profound implications, and are the source of many modern borders. Israel can trace its legacy back to this period; in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Zionist immigration to Mandate Palestine was encouraged as a form of demographic engineering. The Sykes-Picot agreement led to the creation of Palestine, Transjordan (Jordan), Kuwait, and Iraq under British influence, and Lebanon and Syria under the French. Saudi Arabia, then known as the Emirate of Nejd, also participated in the partitioning by annexing the Ottoman Persian Gulf territories, and the lands captured in the Arab revolt by the rival Hashemites. In all of these territories, the Europeans encouraged regional nationalism and solidified the new borders, cutting several communities and tribes off from one another and effectively fracturing the entire region.

Map showing European zones of influence following WWI. Europeans also effectively controlled Egypt, Cyprus, and zones within Turkey, which is not shown. 

The Mandate territories revolted against the Europeans several times. Turkey, occupied by the Europeans since 1918, successfully overthrew them in 1923, led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Atatürk), who attempted to combine the liberal-secular parliamentarism and Turkish ethnonationalism of the 1908 and 1909 revolutions into an ideology known as Kemalism. Palestine also attempted to overthrow the British in 1936 but was brutally crushed. Iraq attempted to do the same in 1941, even allying itself with Nazi Germany to do so, but was similarly put down.

After the end of the Second World War, the European powers were no longer able to exert direct control over the entire Levant, instead holding on to key areas like the Suez canal. The British also granted large parts of Mandate Palestine to the emerging Zionist movement as they believed an Israeli state would be more amenable to the West than the unruly Arabs. Pan-Arabism emerged in this period as a rejection of the atomisation, arbitrary borders, and demographic engineering that marked the European mandate territories. Wars against Israel and horror at its genocide of Palestinians would be a rallying cry for this movement, which resulted in a degree of consolidation in Levantine identity.

The Postcolonial Levant

Pan-Arabism would take on a social-democratic character as the various postcolonial states founded welfare systems, and allied themselves with the Soviet Union. However, the ideology was still strongly anti-communist on the domestic front. Indeed, anticommunism was the chief motive behind the zenith of Pan-Arabism: the attempt at a united Arab state in 1958. The United Arab Republic (UAR) was a union between Egypt and Syria, both led by social-democratic nationalist governments who feared that the alternative would be a Syrian communist revolution. Iraqi military officers soon overthrew their pro-Western monarchy and very nearly joined the UAR themselves.

Ultimately however, this sentiment would be short lived. As the threat of communism died down and the realities of post-colonial statehood set in, Pan-Arabism was replaced with a number of competing ideas. Marxists remained a strong faction, but would never again find themselves in a position to take power. Ba’athism, a legacy of the Pan-Arabist period, would later become the dominant ideology in Syria and Iraq, where its contradictory character would lead to both social-democratic reforms and the uneven repression of minorities and communists. Islamism, encouraged as a state ideology in Saudi Arabia, also became a powerful force, buoyed by its successes and US-funding in Afghanistan. Ethnonationalist separatism also emerged out of the decline of Pan-Arabism, which sharpened the contradictions facing minorities like the Kurds, Assyrians, and Armenians.

Modern Northern Syria

Northern Syria bears the marks of all of these competing ideologies from the postcolonial/Cold-War period, as well as the ethnic and religious divides from the preceding centuries. There are Marxist factions, generally split along ethnic lines between Kurds and Arab/Alawites; as well as Ba’athists; Islamists, most infamously ISIS; and ethno-nationalists of all stripes. Amongst them are the somewhat apolitical ethnic and religious minorities, like the Yazidis, who are motivated primarily by survival in the face of repeated threats of genocide. Newer factions include Kurdish Apoists, and the mercenary factions funded by various global powers.

Northern Syria is also the site of three major global battlegrounds. There is an expansionist and ethnonationalist Turkey seeking to quash Kurdish aspirations to nationhood; a regional battle between Saudi wahhabism (extreme Sunni fundamentalism) and Iranian principlism (revolutionary Shia Islam); and the US and EU making the most of the situation to access oil and guarantee long-term superiority over Russia. There are also smaller conflicts exploited by all parties, as well as the opportunism and warlordism that a collapse of civilian government and constant arms shipments engenders.

Map of the Syrian war as of October 13, 2019. Government (Ba’athist) areas are shown in red. Green areas are a mix of Western-backed militias (in Al-Tanf), Free Syrian Army remnants (in Idlib) and Turkish-backed militias (in the far north). Yellow is areas controlled by the SDF and Kurds. Black shows hardline Islamist remnants. Blue shows Israeli occupation.
Map of the Syrian war as of October 13, 2019. Government (Ba’athist) areas are shown in red. Green areas are a mix of Western-backed militias (in Al-Tanf), Free Syrian Army remnants (in Idlib) and Turkish-backed militias (in the far north). Yellow is areas controlled by the SDF and Kurds. Black shows hardline Islamist remnants. Blue shows Israeli occupation.

Discussion of Northern Syria inevitably centers around the PYD (the Kurdish Democratic Union Party), arguably the most mythologised and interesting of all the Syrian factions. Depending on who you talk to on the internet, the PYD can be anything from anarchist insurrectionists, to Marxist revolutionaries, to eco-feminist warriors, to Kurdish terrorists, to Western imperialist Contras paid to undermine peace in the region. It’s our goal to demystify the group somewhat.

The PYD is the Syrian sister party of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, led by the imprisoned Abdullah Öcalan. Initially a Marxist group formed out of Kurdish students in Turkey, the PKK was forced underground by Turkish repression, becoming a guerilla army armed and supported by the Ba’athist governments of Iraq and Syria, who tolerated the PKK’s Marxist rhetoric so long as it was aimed at Turkey. The PKK of today is quite different, having dropped Marxism-Leninism and alliances with Ba’athism from its doctrine. The PKK and PYD, along with the other member parties of the KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union) umbrella organisation, have shifted towards enacting a democratic confederalist or “Apoist” (after a diminutive form of Öcalan’s name) programme in the predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Iraq and Syria, southeastern Turkey, and northwestern Iran. This gained a lot of attention in the west due to its communalist, feminist, and anti-capitalist aspirations. However, the system of autonomous cantons remains an admirable small-scale experiment, and tends to be overstated by the western left. The territory has also had difficulty living up to its ecological aspirations due to reliance on diesel generators, unregulated oil refineries, and wartime economic constraints.

The PYD and its armed wing, the YPG/YPJ, also gained infamy for its conditional alliance with the US and EU, whereby the Kurds and their allies gained air support, weapons and other assistance in return for allowing 10 US military bases on their territory. The US also assisted with arming the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), a broad military coalition that included the YPG/YPJ along with those whom it had previously opposed, such as Kurdish nationalists, religious Sunni Kurds, mercenaries, and conscripted soldiers of dubious willingness. As the result of US negotiations this new armed force came to control all lands north of the Euphrates, well beyond the initial territorial aspirations of the PYD, which had initially only included the majority-Kurdish regions in a strip along the northern border. This put the Kurdish-led military force in control of most of Syria’s oil fields, and a large population of Arabs and minorities critical of the SDF, the only Syrian faction to use forced conscription. Allegations of ethnic chauvinism, and the discovery of “blacksites” (interrogation and torture facilities) within SDF areas added to the criticism.

Map showing initial Kurdish territorial aspirations. De-facto Kurdish territories are now much larger.

Turkey is the main adversary of the Kurdish-led force. Since 2014 Turkey has been ruled by the fascist-adjacent and increasingly autocratic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose Justice and Development Party is a direct descendent of the reactionary strain of Islamo-Turkish nationalism introduced in the counter-revolution of 1909. Turkish chauvinism towards Kurds stretches back decades, officially denying their existence and calling them “Mountain Turks” despite their historical loyalty in the Ottoman period.

Turkey is also in NATO, the US imperialist military alliance, however it often violates agreements with the US and makes overtures towards Russia, attempting to play both sides off against one another for military aid. Turkey has used this shaky alliance to lobby the US for more territorial control in Syria. The Afrin region was taken from Kurdish forces in 2016, and this week, vast swathes of northern Syria were declared up for grabs by Turkish expansionism. 

Northern Syria invaded

Whatever our overall analysis of Syrian factions may be (and it is so easy to make mistakes in such a heavily propagandised environment) the question of the hour is Turkish expansionism, as this is the specific form that ethnonationalism has taken in the region. Turkey plans to demographically engineer a huge swathe of northern Syria by resettling 2 million refugees in NES, a move tantamount to a threat of genocide against displaced minorities. The US, for its part, has done far more harm than good as an ally, and is now patrolling the Euphrates, effectively enforcing the isolation of NES. 

It would be a great mistake for people in the west to conclude that the people of Northern Syria somehow deserve a Turkish invasion as just desserts for their alliance with the US, especially since many Kurds and other minorities joined the fight in a struggle for survival against ISIS and Turkish-funded militias, only later finding their movement subverted by US geopolitical goals. Moreover, Turkey is the only faction in the Syrian conflict with a history of genocidal policies towards all of the minorities of Northern Syria at one point or another, and thus a defense of NES is a defense of all ethnic minorities in the region regardless of their political orientation.

All Syrian peoples deserve self-determination without the intervention of foreign powers. It may be easy to dismiss such a conflict as too complicated, the product of ‘tribal’ conflicts among a backwards people, but this ignores the entire history of imperialism in the Middle East. Thousands of ethnicities lived in relative peace prior to the imposition of nationalist ideology, demographic engineering and arbitrary borders, all products of capitalism. The Syrian people deserve an end to the constant war imposed upon them.