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From the Middle East to the Midwest: An Interview With Dr. Djene Rhys Bajalan

The March for Our Lives on March 24 received much-needed attention from the mainstream press. However, March 24 also saw demonstrations across the world in solidarity with Afrin, a region of northern Syria currently under assault from the Turkish army. This invasion is an attempt to crush Rojava, a Kurdish region whose people are conducting a radical leftist experiment in direct democracy, and whose military was responsible for the defeat of the Islamic State at Raqqa in 2017.

Professor Djene Rhys Bajalan and leftist media personality Michael Brooks recently published an article on the international implications of Turkey’s incursion. A few months ago, I saw down with Professor Bajalan to discuss the broader struggle for Kurdish rights and autonomy in the Middle East.

He was born in Birmingham, England in 1982, and was raised in Kingston upon Hull in Yorkshire. He studied History and Politics and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (BA), Nationalism and Ethnicity at the London School of Economics (MSc), History at Istanbul Bilgi University (MA), and Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford (DPhil). Professor Bajalan has taught in Iraqi Kurdistan (2004–2005 and 2014–2016), Istanbul Bilgi University (2007–2010) and the University of Oxford (2011–2013). In 2016 he applied to Missouri State University and took a tenure track position in Springfield as a professor of Middle Eastern History.

Do you consider yourself as part of a diaspora community? What has your relationship been to Kurdish politics? What about that of your family?

I would not regard myself as part of the diaspora community. Although my father is a Kurd from Iraq, he moved to the UK in the 1970s and my mother is Welsh. I was raised in a mostly white city in the north of England and for most of my youth my father was one of only a very few Iraqi Kurds living in Hull. In 1999, a large number of Kurdish refugees from Iraq moved to the city, but that was basically a year before I left to study in London.

In terms of my links to Kurdish politics, I would certainly not define myself as an activist. I did a little bit of journalism in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2004. I was involved in the establishment of the English language newspaper Kurdish Globe, although that newspaper has now degenerated into a propaganda outlet for the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq. My activities have mainly been academic. However, given the politicized nature of the Kurdish question, my scholarship is inherently political.

In terms of my family, my father was the son of a Kurdish landowning/tribal aristocrat. The Bajalan clan is a large one with a presence in both Iraqi and Iranian Kurdistan. My uncle Rashid Bajalan was involved in the formation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party back in the 1940s. Other members of my family have been involved in other Kurdish political parties, including the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Iraqi Communist Party. My father was at one time a student activist for the KDP (when he was studying medicine in Baghdad), however he later left the party.

As a result, growing up I was certainly exposed to the Kurdish question and Kurdish politics.

I should note, however, that I have generally felt closer to the Kurdish movement of Turkey—especially the parliamentary movement—as I spent four years studying in Turkey and made friends with many important members of the Kurdish intelligentsia. For example, my first book—”The Young Kurds,” a play on the term the “Young Turks”—looked at the Kurdish press in Istanbul before the First World War and was published by Abdullah Keskin, the head of the Avesta publishing house, the leading scholarly publishing house on all things Kurdish in Turkey.

The big recent news is the invasion of Afrin canton (one of the three geographical districts that makes up the Kurdish-led Democratic Federation of Northern Syria) by the Turkish military. What are Erdogan’s reasons for invading?

Erdogan’s reasons are very simple and I believe are driven primarily by Turkey’s internal politics. Erdogan is a political opportunist. Prior to 2014, he had been one of the more “liberal” Turkish leaders vis-a-vis the Kurdish question. However, in retrospect, the efforts of Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party to “solve” the Kurdish question were cynical. It was driven by a desire to win votes in the Southeast (Turkish Kurdistan). Turkey’s electoral system has a 10% threshold, which means that if a political party does not gain 10% of the national vote, it gets no national representation. This mean that, even though the Justice and Development Party did not win a majority of votes in Turkey’s Kurdish policies, they did win the majority of parliamentary seats. By liberalizing the Turkish public sphere vis-a-vis the Kurdish question, Erdogan hoped to consolidate his power over the Kurds. Indeed, he went so far as to open negotiations with the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan. However, in 2015, the pro-Kurdish HDP party was able to win more than 10% of the vote by forwarding a bold social democratic agenda and giving voice to Kurdish discontent over the slowness of reform on the Kurdish question. Many “reforms” designed to allow, for example, the teaching of Kurdish in schools, etc., remained largely theoretical. Moreover, many Kurds in Turkey were angered by the fact that Turkey seemed to be turning a blind eye to jihadis moving from Turkey into Syria, jihadis who attacked Kurdish forces in Syria.

The result was that the AKP lost its parliamentary majority. Interestingly, the reason the AKP lost its majority in the summer of 2015 was not only because of the success of the HDP, but also because a number of nationalist Turks, angered by the peace process with the PKK, defected to the far-right National Action Party (MHP). Subsequently, Erdogan did an about turn on the Kurdish question, taking a much more nationalistic stance on politics. Even before the 2016 coup, the AKP had introduced a law to allow for the state to strip members of parliament of their legal immunity (an important protection for parliamentarians in a country with a history of putting the opposition in jail). This law was supported by not only the HDP but also the main opposition party, the CHP which represents the old secular nationalist elite that had dominated Turkey before the rise of the AKP and the MHP. Since the failed anti-AKP coup in 2016, Kurdish representatives, including the party’s co-leaders Demirtas and Yuksekdag, have been imprisoned as part of a more general purge of opposition forces in Turkey. Using the “state of emergency” enacted after the failed coup attempt, Erdogan has been consolidating power and crushing any centers of opposition in the country. Extreme nationalist rhetoric is Erdogan’s ally in this, and the deep anti-Kurdism within Turkish nationalism is being exploited ruthlessly by the AKP. At the same time, the war with the PKK has resumed.

Turkish President Erdogan claims that this incursion is an anti-terrorist operation. Could the Syrian YPG (People’s Protection Units) be considered a terror group? What about their Turkish associate, the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party)?

Well, Erdogan is correct that the PYD/YPG is connected to the PKK (an organization which, until recently, he had been in negotiations with). How close these connections are on a day-to-day level is very hard to tell. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Syrian government allowed the PKK to operate in its territory and recruit people for the war in Turkey. Many PKK fighters in Turkey were Syrian Kurds. So the two organizations share a base. They also share an ideology, based on the writings of Abdullah Ocalan. However, the YPG operates independently and has sought to maintain cordial relations with Turkey. Thus while the two organizations are connected, the PYD has not sought to intervene in Turkey’s Kurdish conflict.

We’ve seen contradictory statements come out of the Trump administration, some of which seem to support the Turks and some to support YPG. Where does the US foreign policy apparatus actually stand?

Well, as far as I know, many soldiers on the ground in northern Syria have a great deal of respect for the YPG which has been at the forefront of the fight against ISIS. However, the U.S. administration doesn’t seem to have a stance. The United States never really wanted to work with the YPG; it ultimately became necessary as they emerged as the only force that could take the fight to ISIS. The U.S. administration has thus been pretending that the YPG and the SDF (which includes Arab fighters) are completely disconnected from the PKK. They know that is a fiction. But they just don’t have coherent policies. They have been trying to keep the Turks onside, but with the changes in Turkey’s internal affairs, the contractions within U.S. policy have become too great.

What should Americans know about the conflict in Afrin that they don’t already know?

The fact is that the YPG are no angels. But in Syria who is? They have been at the forefront of the fight against the Islamic State and have enacted some interesting democratic experiments. If anyone in Syria deserves our political solidarity, it is the YPG, especially if you are on the left. There are some “tankies” who regard the Kurds as tools of imperialism (because they have taken military support from the U.S.), but the fact is that they had no choice. It was either work with the U.S., work with Assad, or let ISIS take over. Assad is a bloody dictator and ISIS are brutal reactionaries. Within the context of Syria, the U.S. was the best option. It is super easy to criticize the Syrian Kurds for working with US “imperialism,” but when you have ISIS at the gates the political calculus changes. Indeed, if there is any U.S. military engagement worth supporting overseas, it is the support it is giving to the Kurds in Syria.

Those on the Left who are aware of Rojava’s experiment in “libertarian socialism” tend to be supportive of that experiment. The expansion of women’s rights has been particularly impressive. What do you think of YPG’s “democratic confederation”?

Democratic Confederalism is certainly an interesting idea, although I often suspect that behind the “popular councils” in Rojava, one can find the iron hand of the YPG. Nevertheless, the principles are cooperative economics and interests, self-governing communes and a rejection of the nation-state.

Can Rojava survive militarily against Turkey? Is this a likely outcome?

I think Rojava can survive but it could be a very bloody war. The YPG is battle-hardened and the Turkish Army has just faced a massive purge of its officer corps. Nevertheless, the Turkish army is well-armed and organized (despite the purge). But they do have their hands tied to a certain degree. They can only really strike Afrin, because there are U.S. soldiers based in other parts of Rojava. Moreover, the people of Rojava are mobilized for a popular struggle and that will be difficult for the Turkish military to defeat. Ultimately, the Turkish government could not defeat the PKK, which has been fighting since 1984, so I don’t really think they can defeat the people of Rojava.

How can sympathetic Americans help the Kurdish community in Kurdish areas and abroad?

Other than electing a progressive government in the United States, there is not much people can do. However, I would suggest this: People should let their representatives know that you are not happy with the actions of the Turks, which threaten a “U.S. ally.” I would also recommend that people in cities with Kurdish communities show their solidarity by joining any demonstrations organized by the Kurdish community in defense of Rojava.

Dr. Djene Rhys Bajalan currently teaches at Missouri State University. His previous work can be found here. He is an occasional contributor to The Michael Brooks Show.