Democratic Convention: Bernie, the Kurds and Lack of Moral Clarity on Syria

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Amidst crass U.S. foreign policy and a lack of moral consistency on the Syrian conflict, what can we expect from the upcoming Democratic Convention? To the extent the party discusses the issue at all, don't expect much depth or nuance, let alone voiced support for the secular opposition or Kurds, whose radical experiment in democracy has been all but neglected if not forgotten by major media circles and the candidates. Whether Hillary Clinton perceives the Kurds as anything more than a disposable bargaining chip on the geopolitical chessboard is highly unlikely, yet one might have expected to hear more from Bernie Sanders, whose socialistic impulses apparently do not extend to the international arena and those forces which ostensibly share his progressive ideas.

If Bernie were more ambitious or forward-looking, he might have staked out a more articulate and politically consistent platform on Syria early on. To be sure, there's plenty to criticize in the Obama record, which has come so full circle on Syria that it's difficult to even know where to start. The Washington Post has reported the White House is now even planning joint U.S.-Russian military strikes in Syria which would target rebels labeled as terrorists. Specifically, the effort is aimed at Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syria branch also known as the Nusrah Front. What is noteworthy here is that Nusrah, unlike ISIS, is fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime. As the Post notes, Obama's effort would be a "boon" for Assad and lead to a thaw in U.S.-Russian relations.

How did we get to such a farcical state of affairs? Obama's tilt toward Assad underscores historic U.S. failure to prop up secular forces linked to the Arab Spring which might have made a positive difference earlier on. Back in 2011, when the Arab Spring first broke out across the region and Assad brutally moved to repress secular revolt, the U.S. considered coming to the aid of the Syrian people. At the time, Hillary Clinton was the leading advocate of such an assertive posture as Obama's Secretary of State. However, Clinton failed to prevail within the administration, and this left secular forces exposed to Assad. It was arguably Obama's failure to prop up secular revolt which opened the door to radical Jihadists in Syria such as ISIS.

To this day, Clinton refers to Obama's dithering as a historic "failure" which led to the current lamentable state of affairs. Despite this historical hindsight and criticism of the administration, Hillary seems to have more or less thrown in her lot with Obama at this point, remarking that the fight in Syria is no longer about ousting Assad but counteracting ISIS. In fact, Clinton has gone even further than the Pentagon by calling for immediate bolstering of U.S. Special Forces in Syria. The New York Times remarks that Hillary's cynical and opportunistic positions on Syria suggest that she is more strategically aligned with Russia and Iran at this point.

Partisan Instincts and the Arab Spring

So much for Obama, Clinton and the feckless State Department which display little consistency when it comes to Syria. But rewind for a moment to the debate over the original Arab Spring, which carries certain political ironies. To the extent that leftist writers paid attention to the Arab Spring to begin with or sought to deal with developments in a coherent fashion, they tended to ignore or even demonize the Assad opposition. Take, for example, writers at The Nation magazine who attempted to tar anti-government forces that were allegedly all linked up with paramilitary outfits and terrorists. Such writers, though certainly regrettable, were probably tied to the left's longstanding partisan and ideological leanings. Perhaps, left pundits simply sought to ignore Assad's genocidal behavior and jettison secular forces, since the Syrian dictator was being persecuted by imperialistic Washington. But partisan instincts are only serving to undermine history here. As Justin Salhani, a reporter for liberal think tank Think Progress explains, "ISIS takes the headlines, but Assad's regime kills far more civilians in Syria. A recent poll that interviewed 900 Syrian refugees in Europe shows that 69.5 percent blame Assad for the armed conflict, while only 31.6 perfect blame ISIS."

Another reporter, Omar Ghabra, is also worth quoting at length. In a column for The Nation, he sets the record straight on Syria (whether he is aware of fellow doctrinaire columnists at the magazine is another question). "Before 100,000 people died," he writes, "500,000 gathered in Hama's al-Assi Square for a nonviolent protest. Before there was a civil war and before Syria became the world's chessboard, there was a peaceful uprising for freedom and dignity. It was Assad who chose to torture, murder and carpet-bomb his way to the sectarian abyss in which Syria now finds itself. It was Assad who knowingly stoked historical tensions to cement the perception that dictatorship was the only way to defend Syria from medieval radicals who will drive out the country's vulnerable minorities."

Bernie on Syria

Given the fiasco in Iraq, it's certainly understandable that liberals would be wary of any further U.S. military escalation in the Middle East. In light of the history, Bernie wants no part in such conflicts and has sought to minimize Washington's involvement. To be sure, Sanders has said he supports Obama's "effort to effort to combat the Islamic State in Syria while at the same time supporting those in Syria trying to overthrow the brutal dictatorship of Bashar Assad." Nevertheless, when Obama threatened to strike Assad in 2013 over retribution for the Syrian dictator's use of chemical weapons against civilians near Damascus, Bernie took to the airwaves to lobby against spending more money on any U.S. led war. In the event, Obama backed off and no congressional votes ever took place. A year later, Bernie again came out against intervention by voting against increased aid for Syrian rebels. At the time, Sanders remarked "I fear very much that supporting questionable groups in Syria who will be outnumbered and outgunned by both ISIS and the Assad regime could open the door to the United States once again being dragged back into the quagmire of long-term military engagement." This time, Bernie got voted down, 78-22 in the Senate.

Commenting on Bernie's stance, Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast agrees that no one wants to be caught in another quagmire. However, the columnist adds, "it isn't enough to walk away." Going further, Tomasky slams Sanders for not advancing a clearer stance on foreign affairs: "It doesn't mean anything to say, as Sanders said in the debate, that 'we should be putting together a coalition of Arab countries who should be leading the effort'...This is what the Obama administration has been trying to do every day for a year or more. It's not as if they're magically going to start listening to a President Sanders." Tomasky muses, "This is all really important because it gets right to the balancing of the two liberal impulses. Yes--guard against unwise adventurism...But where is he on the other impulse, of helping the world's small-d democrats get somewhere against the bad guys? You could say that, well, Sanders has a quarter-century's worth of congressional votes we can peruse, unlike Obama or Dean. But votes are reactions to matters put before a legislator. They're not an affirmative presidential vision. I'd like to hear what Sanders's is."

It's a fair criticism, and one which Bernie failed to answer during the electoral season. Throughout the presidential campaign, Bernie repeatedly hit Hillary over her 2002 Iraq war vote and called his opponent too quick to support "regime change" by overthrowing tyrants. Sanders also ripped Hillary over the latter's support for a "no-fly zone" in Syria, which risked "getting us sucked into perpetual warfare in the region" (however, get beyond the headlines and the Vermont Senator agreed with Hillary on some of the fine print such as Obama's decision to send Special Forces into Syria in an effort to counteract ISIS).

Throughout the campaign season, debates over foreign policy took place along familiar lines, with Bernie arguing that Hillary was reckless for advocating a militaristic approach toward foreign affairs. That's all fine and good, though out on the trail Bernie didn't do very much to highlight the plight of the secular Syrian opposition, let alone the Kurds. Even though the former has been dealt a harsh blow by Assad's military, there are still plenty of Syrians who want nothing to do with either the government or ISIS. The Kurds meanwhile are not only secular but espouse many social values which Bernie professes to embrace.

Sanders' reticence to broach such issues is even more perplexing in light of the Senator's own personal history. As I wrote earlier, Bernie pursued foreign policy issues as mayor of Burlington, Vermont during the 1980s. Specifically, Sanders embraced anti-imperialist struggle in Nicaragua while decrying U.S. interventionism in Grenada and El Salvador. Given Bernie's earlier zealousness, it's a little perverse that he moved such political ideas into the shadows as a presidential candidate. As a socialist, moreover, Sanders is certainly aware of his own movement's long-time commitment to leftist causes abroad and the need to build up international alliances.

U.S. "Providing Air Cover for Radical Marxists"

Bernie loses nothing from merely mentioning the Kurdish cause, and indeed the Kurds of northeastern Syria are already U.S. military allies. Kurdish territory, also known as "Rojava," includes Kobane and two other small "cantons" or regions. Rojava, which encompasses 1.5 million people, is home to the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF, of which the YPG Kurdish militia is the largest component. Traditionally, the Kurds constituted an oppressed minority in Syria and had been prohibited from speaking their own language. Assad, who presided over an "Arab Republic," stripped many Kurds of their Syrian citizenship while changing Kurdish names to Arabic equivalents. Yet in 2012, amid growing political strife, Assad pulled his forces out of Kurdish areas in order to hit Arab rebels operating in other areas of the country. As a result, the Kurds consolidated their position in Rojava.

Thanks to U.S. air support, the SDF recently took the key town of al-Shaddadi, which had been a notorious slave market for ISIS. Al-Shaddadi lies along the main corridor between Mosul and Raqqa, the respective Iraqi and Syrian capitals of ISIS. Having lost al-Shaddadi, ISIS may find it more difficult to supply its combatants to the south. Needless to say, scholar Juan Cole notes that Obama and the Democratic Party would certainly benefit from a YPG roll back of ISIS in the final months of the electoral calendar. For geopolitical reasons, however, the Obama administration hasn't exactly trumpeted its support for the YPG, and has only chosen to deploy 50 U.S. Special Operations troops with the Kurds. Walking on eggshells, Obama has tried its utmost not to offend key regional ally Turkey, which distrusts the YPG for its ties to Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. A long-time militant, Ocalan is a founding member of the PKK or Kurdistan Workers' Party, an armed insurgent group which has fought Ankara for decades within Turkey. Currently, Ocalan is languishing in a Turkish jail cell and Ankara claims the YPG constitutes yet another military wing of the PKK across the Syrian border.

If the American public, let alone left-leaning progressive folk are aware of the YPG, it certainly isn't because the media or Obama have called attention to the plight of the Kurds. To the contrary, Washington has done its utmost to obscure its ties to Rojava so as to allay Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. "A quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall suggested the taming of the left," notes Huffington Post, "the U.S. is providing air cover for radical Marxist-inspired militants its closest allies can't stand."

Indeed, the Pentagon recently caved to Ankara when images surfaced of U.S. Special Forces in Syria wearing YPG insignia. When Turkey complained, U.S. military top brass ordered its forces to remove the insignia though Army Colonel Steve Warren was quick to add that "the Special Forces community has a long and proud history of wearing such patches" whenever they embed with local forces around the world. In the case of the YPG, however, Warren remarked that "political sensitivities" encouraged the decision to remove the patches. Apparently, Obama is prepared to go to the mat when it comes to placating Turkey, a key NATO member which has reluctantly and belatedly been brought along in the fight against ISIS.

Welcome to Rojava The Kurds, who are used to such geopolitical maneuverings, are presumably not very surprised by crass jostling between Washington and Ankara. They may be baffled, however, by the lack of discussion about radical revolution within supposedly progressive U.S. circles. Despite such gaps, a sprinkling of U.S. nationals has traveled to Syria and linked up with YPG fighters. According to the Huffington Post, some of the volunteers have little knowledge of what Rojava is hoping to accomplish. Indeed, one American departed shortly after he became aware that Syrian Kurds were simply "damn reds." Huffington Post, however, quotes another American, Dean Parker, who went to Syria and trained with Kurdish fighters. Parker said his colleague had failed to grasp the true nature of Kurdish revolution. "They're not a bunch of communists, they're not a bunch of socialists," Parker declared. "It's a different type of democracy, a new concept."

Perhaps not all Syrian Kurds would choose to define themselves as such, but Rojava displays many core anarchist beliefs. Within Rojava, neighborhood communes select delegates who in turn participate at assembles. However, the communes can recall their representatives at any time. At the highest level, each of the three Rojava cantons is run by two co-presidents who are elected by the assemblies and are held accountable to communes. Meanwhile, Rojava's economy runs on agricultural cooperatives and farms are encouraged to be sustainable and provide for human needs as opposed to concentrating on cash crops. Since Syria's currency is now worthless, much of the day-to-day business is conducted through use of a barter system.

In addition, Rojava has taken on patriarchy with a vengeance and one of the two co-presidents is a woman. Furthermore, women must comprise at least 40 percent of all governing bodies. In order to avoid future misogynistic tendencies, parallel women's bodies have been set up at all political levels. These women have the final say on all matters which pertain to them, such as domestic violence. Lastly, women serve in Kurdish military units along their male counterparts.

Moreover, Rojava has made tremendous strides towards greater ethnic equality. Indeed, each local assembly must include not just Kurds but also Arabs and Christian Syriacs. In addition, the Kurds have conducted outreach to others including Armenians and Chechens. Determined not to repeat tired old political models of the past, Kurdish leaders remark that the nation state itself is bankrupt. In line with such notions, Rojava has proclaimed a "social contract" rather than a constitution, which places great importance on environmentalism and equality while rejecting state, religious or military-style nationalism.

Outlandish Kurdish-Vermont Connection

Outlandish as it may seem, the Kurds share political links with Bernie Sanders' home state of Vermont and even some tenuous ties to the U.S. Senator himself. In a unique twist, the Kurds took political inspiration from an obscure Vermont-based philosopher. Murray Bookchin, who regarded Bernie as far too conservative, fused Marxist ideas with anarchist notions based on citizens' assemblies and environmentalism. The two shared similar personal stories: like Bernie, who came from a Polish Jewish family in Brooklyn, Bookchin grew up speaking Russian in a Bronx Jewish immigrant household. Though Bookchin (1921-2006) was slightly older than Bernie, both moved from New York to Vermont later in life.

Somewhat oddly, none other than Abdullah Ocalan took to reading Bookchin while languishing in his Turkish jail cell. The PKK leader, who had originally been a Marxist, told his followers that Kurdish hopes could best be carried out by adopting Bookchin's ideas. "The political structure Bookchin foresaw," notes Huffington Post, "his approach to the revolutionary dream of establishing communalism or a commune of communes -- had little to do with the nation-state. Perhaps that's what made it so appealing to the Syrian Kurds -- a people who have never had their own country."

In a further ironic twist, Haaretz notes that Bernie's former congressional press secretary is Murray Bookchin's daughter Debbie no less. She in turn married Sanders' then campaign director Jim Schumacher and the two have been writing about the Kurdish struggle ever since. When Haaretz reached out to Debbie, she replied that a "Sanders angle" to the Kurdish story would be "truly a bit of a stretch" because neither she nor her husband had worked for or spoken to Bernie for more than 20 years. Nevertheless, Haaretz adds, if Bernie wanted to spark a debate on the Middle East, "he could reach out to his former aides. It looks like they are ahead of the story and could help him bring this issue to the American stump at a time when the Democrats could use a breath of fresh air."

Syria and the Convention

Even if the Bookchin-Bernie link is "a bit of a stretch," it's not as if the Vermont Senator and the Kurds have nothing in common. In fact, even though Bernie failed to discuss worker-owned cooperatives much on the campaign trail, the presidential candidate favors such initiatives just like Rojava. Furthermore, at least some of Bernie's followers would like him to start taking a more proactive position on the Kurds. On social media platform Reddit, for example, one follower asks "What has Bernie Sanders ever said in defense of Rojava Kurds? I'm guessing nothing. Can we pressure Bernie Sanders to support the Rojava Kurds and the Rojava social revolution?" The question sparked an exchange, with one person remarking "I'm a little disappointed he hasn't mentioned them [the Kurds] as they are pretty much the only effective fighting force against ISIS as well as being moderate." Another person adds, "It's quite possible he isn't up to speed on the issue. Given his sympathies to third world liberation struggles when he was younger, I think maybe we can win Bernie over on this issue if we do an information campaign. This will also be a chance to spread the information to the general public by putting the info into the campaign conversation."

If Bernie is aware of these criticisms, he certainly hasn't acted on them so as to bring more attention to the Kurdish issue. Bizarrely enough, this lack of discussion has opened the door to right wing and establishment media which have painted Sanders as a lightweight on foreign policy. Speaking to the New York Observer (owned by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner no less), University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato says it would be silly to expect much from the Vermont Senator. Sabato declares "I don't think there are a whole lot of people rushing to support Bernie Sanders because of his policy on Syria." Sabato adds, "Average people are much more interested in his point of view on income inequality."

Meanwhile, over at the Daily Beast, which makes a point of routinely seeking to lampoon or impugn those it deems representative of the left, Tomasky writes "Now I know if you're feeling the Bern it's because he wants to slice their walnuts off on Wall Street, not because of anything having to do with foreign policy. One of the things that bugs and disappoints me most about contemporary American liberalism is the extent to which foreign policy has become a second- or even third-order concern. The world hasn't been this big a mess in a very, very long time. And yet I get the strong sense that most liberals have taken a basically isolationist posture toward it all."

To be sure, the Kurds are used to being betrayed by great powers throughout history. Yet watching U.S. politics from afar, they must surely feel disappointed. Already, thousands of Rojava residents have been killed in Syria's conflict, and many others have left the area as refugees. For all intents and purposes, Rojava is cut off from the world, and only limited supplies may enter via Turkey or Kurdish-controlled areas in Iraq. Few Americans are even aware of the Kurds plight, even though the Obama administration considers Rojava a military ally. Meanwhile, there's little chance that Hillary will mention the Kurds, other than to praise them as convenient strategic allies. At the convention, Bernie would lose very little by mentioning the Kurdish struggle and putting it on the map of the major media. By speaking out, he would do much to simply educate the American public while injecting a bit of well-needed internationalism into the normally parochial progressive U.S. political scene.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based writer and photographer who has written extensively about revolutionary political change.

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