Rules Are for Schmucks: Kurdish Hope

They say if you put a monkey in front of a typewriter long enough, some of the random letters he or she bangs out will form words, maybe even sentences. Perhaps the Trump administration is like that: every now and then one of its thrashings-about may, inadvertently, do the world some good.

Last week the Pentagon announced that it had decided to provide heavy weapons directly to Kurdish forces fighting in Syria, aligned with Kurdish organizations known as the YPG and the PKK. The reason for doing so is not out of any love for the Kurds, but simply because recent experience has shown them to be terrific fighters. Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster are military men who have been given a largely free hand to run the campaign to destroy ISIS, and their military judgment is that the Kurds are the folks who can get the job done on the ground.

Still, a tank is a tank, and once ISIS is finished off, the Kurds are unlikely to turn these weapons back in. Kurds in neighboring Iraq have already announced their intention of holding a Scottish-style referendum later this year on whether to form an independent state, a referendum the independence advocates are likely to win. Adding US heavy weaponry to the Kurds’ already formidable arsenal will boost their chances of success.

This is exactly what now-Islamist Turkey under the brutal autocrat Erdogan fears most, because an independent Kurdistan on its borders would embolden and empower Turkish Kurds to press their demands to join their own territory to it (along with whatever they’ve seized in Syria, which they have no intention of giving back).

Whether one ethnic group or another controls a particular patch of dirt is not of great interest from a humanist standpoint. What makes the Kurdish national movement different is that YPG operates under an ideology stunningly at odds with that of its Islam-dominated neighbors, an ideology that seems downright humanist. They call their program “democratic confederalism” or “libertarian socialism,” which sounds like an oxymoron (a New York Times article described it as a “secular utopia”). They want the centralized state to disappear, other than for military defense purposes, to be replaced by local, democratically governed communities. They want international corporations out, and self-managed firms in. They want equal rights for women—they even have an all-woman military unit at the front. They also emphasize kindness to animals, in a region where kindness to humans seems like a novel and fishy idea. Could it be that having such a positive vision for a post-war world makes better soldiers, as it seemed to in World War II?

The YPG’s “libertarian socialist” agenda is reminiscent of the anarchist faction that fought in the Spanish Civil War eighty years ago—a faction that actually held control of Catalonia for part of the war. They’d have won, too, if the western democracies had given them even a tiny fraction of the support the Nazis gave Franco—i.e., the kind of support we’re now giving the YPG. We don’t know how the Spanish anarchists’ decentralized vision would have worked out in peacetime, because they never had that chance. Much of it seems Pollyannaish, at least to me. But when you read about the decentralized future that technology could now be ushering in as portrayed by informed visionaries like Ray Kurzweil and Kevin Kelly, “libertarian socialism” seems a bit less farfetched than it used to in the industrial age.

Whether or not its dreams are impractical, there is one decisive difference between the YPG and the Islam-dominated states surrounding it. The YPGers do not care what it says in the Koran, or the hadiths, or what some Muslim God expert insists is God’s will. They do care about what seems to make sense based on the evidence around them. They are intent on making this world a happier place for humans, and they have at least a somewhat coherent plan for doing so. What will happen if they achieve a modicum of power, and discover as the Bolsheviks did that human nature doesn’t fit their grand schemes so well? Will they become repressive, as the Bolsheviks did, or will they be flexible enough to keep trying different things until something works? I have no idea. But I have an excellent idea of what will happen if, as is likely, they are ultimately defeated by an Islam-dominated Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. And knowing that, I’d love to give the newly-armed YPG a chance.

Late update: Last night, a story broke that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had previously ordered arms shipments to the YPG cancelled, after receiving an unreported $500,000 payment from the Turkish government.