The call to "arm the rebels" which I wearily dismissed
the other day has some traction in elements of the far left. Specifically, we are now hearing calls to "arm the Kurds".
I question this, not because it wouldn't be a good thing if those Kurdish forces defending themselves against ISIS could get their hands on more and better arms, but because the slogan has nothing to do with achieving that situation. I do not claim to know how to extend solidarity to those progressive forces fighting ISIS or to help defend the liberated zone in Kobane. I am not even sure the British Left can do much of use, other than perhaps support UK-based Kurds in their protests and direct actions. I simply want to argue that to move from the belief that, eg, the Kurds in Kobane should have more and better arms, to the 'demand' to "arm the Kurds" is a dangerous, sentiment-driven and consolatory position. It makes us feel better about our weakness and isolation, but offers no practical way forward.
First, who are "the Kurds" in this slogan? If it is taken to refer to all Kurdish forces currently fighting ISIS, then one is effectively calling for the arming of the PUK and KDP forces whose policy of 'Kurdification' is part of the sectarian dynamic unfolding in Iraq since the inception of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The ethnic cleansing of over a hundred thousand Sunni Arabs, not to mention Assyrians and Turkmen, is part of the reason why today many Sunnis living in Mosul and surrounding areas find ISIS and its allies to be less of an immediate threat than their rivals.
Most charitably, it is intended specifically as a request for help for those Kurdish forces in Kobane, fending off an ISIS attack and defending an autonomous zone that is radically democratic by any standard. Of course, one could argue in favour of arming all the Syrian revolutionaries, holding up in liberated zones against Assad's bombardment and the depredations of ISIS. But in practice this means arming forces such as the al-Nusra front who, talking down their sectarian politics and avoiding the gratuitous conduct of ISIS, have a leading role in the Syrian opposition. The bombing of al-Nusra fighters is one of the reasons why the Assad regime is happy with Washington's bombing campaign, while there have been angry protests by revolutionaries against the bombing. And there is, let us say, an understandable reluctance to get involved in supporting al-Nusra. So, we are left with a call to arm "the Kurds" which means arming a group of Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
Second, who should "arm the Kurds"? Barring some decidedly clapped out Provos, no leftist group in the UK has arms to sell or donate. The demand to "arm the Kurds" could therefore only be aimed either at regional states, or imperialist states. Both have already been arming at least some Kurdish forces, inasmuch as first Iran and then much later the US started sending arms to Iraqi Kurds after the ISIS insurgency took Mosul. Realistically, this demand is aimed at ruling classes in imperialist democracies, since no Middle Eastern state has to listen to anything we, the British left, say. And whether these ruling classes send more arms to more Kurds, or less, is simply not something we have any control over. Our influence on the situation is in the highest degree negligible, and our leverage over the states bringing arms (or not) is similarly infinitesimal. It requires a mass movement to even restrain imperialist states, as the Stop the War movement did to a degree. The idea that we could attain such influence as to direct these states to revolutionary ends is so implausible, short of actually taking control of them, as to be laughable.
So if we have no way to make the slogan effective, what is it for? If it is genuinely intended to pressure imperialist states to "arm the Kurds", then it is at best unthinking sentimentality. At its most sophisticated, though, the idea could be to 'intervene' in an argument taking place in imperialist countries around the region's uprisings and military intervention, to attack the weak points in the dominant ideology and open a space in which a leftist argument can be made to a popular audience. In this view, Kobane represents both the most progressive front of struggle in the region at the moment, and the weakest point ideologically for imperialist ruling classes who have no desire to see the PYD/PKK prevail. In this sense, the demand to "arm the Kurds" is a sort of feint, akin to a 'transitional demand' in that it is both seemingly 'reasonable' in light of the dominant ideology and also impossible for the ruling class to deliver.
If this is the idea, though, it reads the ideological terrain very badly. The major issue of principle for imperialist ruling classes is not whether they should intervene here or there, but that they should have the unquestioned and implicit right
to do so. They benefit far more from the moral rearmament of imperialism as a project driven by the sorts of considerations that matter to popular constituencies and at least potentially on the side of justice, than they lose from any potential embarrassment over Kobane (which I think will be slight). After all, what would a government minister have to say to brush off a leftist challenge about why they aren't "arming the Kurds"? Apart from saying "we are arming some Kurds", they might say specifically about Kobane that
, "yes, it's very unfortunate and we're doing all we can to help by impeding ISIS, but it's far more important to hit their 'command and control centres' etc etc". That might not convince everyone, but it might even be a strategic gain if this sort of response is regarded as pusillanimous, because then the entire argument has been framed - by the Left - as one about why 'our' governments aren't 'doing more'. A short-term tactical loss, in other words, can also be a long-term strategic gain.
Third, any genuine and unfeigned demand that imperialist states "arm the Kurds" arises chiefly because of our weakness and incoherence. Those raising it hope to at least verbally short-cut through the mountain of work and struggle that is necessary to get to a stage where we are relevant to such situations. And this is the problem. The British Left has always tended to assume that what it says and does about what should happen Over There is of tremendous significance. Those former leftists who rallied behind Bush's 'war on terror', on the assumption that it was their war fought in their interests, stood in this tradition. This is a kind of chauvinism, an ideological artefact of imperialism. In this situation, the role of a small, divided and weak Left is pedagogy. The role of any slogan should be to stake out the discursive space in which a leftist, anti-imperialist analysis can be popularised - not just now but ongoingly. The slogan, "arm the Kurds" is an own-goal.