News from the Revolution in Rojava and Wider Kurdistan
The following interview with Dr. Veysel Ayhan, President of the International Middle East Peace Research Center (IMPR), was conducted by Hicran Urun for Özgür Gündem. In the interview Dr. Ayhan touches upon the growth of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the civil war in Yemen, and the increasing risk of regional conflagration, pointing to the canton model as a possible solution for the conflicts raging across the Middle East. It has been translated into English below.
-If you don’t mind let’s start with this: What is ISIS and who are its members?
Ideologically ISIS is Salafi and ethnically it is Ba’athist. Geographically it covers the Sunni Arab regions. In the time you are looking at it has aimed for an internationalist Salafist ideology and therefore has the capacity to attract everyone from Uyghurs to Algerians living in Paris to Moroccans to its call to arms. Its Ba’athism relies on Sunni Arabs for its ethnic dimension and excludes everyone else. For this reason ISIS members were so easily able to establish alliances with Ba’athists in Mosul, because there was a certain degree of common ground to be found between them. From a historical perspective there are two cities which have served as the capital of the [early] Islamic empires, the first is Damascus and the second is Baghdad. And today both of them are under the control of Shia elements. In their conception they are under ‘occupation.’ This is how we can understand their propaganda in the region.
And ISIS is realizing this; they are looking at events from a mentality of the final battle and argue that in the course of this final battle the fracturing [of the region] must be carried out to the highest level. This is to say that this fracturing will occur to such a degree that there will be no further divisions in these lands. To accomplish this they are employing a practice which seeks the elimination of minorities and the elimination of all differences. These practices are also being employed by other ethnic and sectarian groups but however this has gone on even farther with them and they are employing this practice even against those Sunni tribes which do not accept this line of thinking. And this is not only about forced migration. this is being carried out through practices of genocide and the seizure of all their worldly possessions.
At the same time ISIS we must not look at ISIS as a force which is carrying out all the wishes of Sunni Arabs. They have soiled the rightful claims of Sunni Arabs. And in fact by carrying out their policy of genocide they have left them without any allies. For example today no one is talking about the burning of the homes of innocent civilians in Tikrit. For this reason we can say that they are doing the most damage to Sunni Arabs.
Once more there are many intelligence services which are active inside ISIS. Many different organizations from Saudi to Iranian intelligence have developed a foundation for collaboration. We can see this particularly in their battle against the Kurds. Yes, ISIS has the aim of leaving the Kurds without property and land, of forcing them to become migrants and refugees, but at the same time there are the goals of certain states in the region who want to bring down Kurdish power, to destroy their rightful and legitimate claims and to once again reduce them to the status of a second or third class community.
-ISIS is thus a tool for them in this situation…
When ISIS works towards their ends then it becomes a kind of tool for them, and there can also be certain ideological similarities. And of course at times there can be certain digressions from this goal. Because they cannot control all events in the Middle East. For example a policy of occupation and pillage was imagined in Kobanê however this policy was met with resistance. This was a resistance that did not expect. The great Kobanê resistance became a symbol of freedom. It was thus seen that there is a balance and that if you push the Kurds outside of this balance your influence on developments in Syria and Iraq might become weaker the next day.
-Here Nation-states have a serious role…
Yes, for example was it al Qaeda alone who was organizing Afghans against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan? can we ignore the weapons, intelligence, training and other things provided by international powers?
-There was a green (i.e Islamist) project, no?
Yes there was. But outside of this there were many strong organizations formed along an anti-Soviet ideology and in time these turned into Al Qaeda.
-So what is Turkey’s role here, where does it stand?
Actually Turkey has a role its mapped outside for itself. Intervention in Syria, stopping developments with Kurds…with its Syria policy it became clear that Turkey had goals of carving out a hegemonic space for itself and for this reason it failed to receive the support of the peoples of the region.
At the same second a second role emerged, that of forming a Muslim Brotherhood bloc in the region. Actually this was a form of empire. If the Muslim Brotherhood had become strong in Syria it would have become an empire and this event the world would have started to comment on the threat very differently. However when the Salafis showed their presence in Syria in clashes with the Muslim brotherhood and the continuation of the Kurdish presence in Syria, it meant in a sense an end to all of this enthusiasm and their projects.
-What did Turkey do?
ISIS received the support of Turkey by attacking the Kurds. By attacking al-Nusra they tried to come up from behind Assad. All of these were strategic and we cannot say that someone like Baghdadi has the capacity to carry out such policies by himself. Therefore there was within ISIS intelligence, logistic and military support. If someone just arrived from Yemen is using American tanks after one day – and we can point to the example of the weapons in Mosul – this is something that ought to be discussed.
-What were the elements which created ISIS in the Middle East?
I do not agree with the assertion that ISIS is simply a result of the oppression faced by Sunni tribes. A genocidal organization does not emerge from every instance of oppression. Kurds have faced serious oppression for years but they did not create a genocidal organization. Therefore the defense of these ideas is in fact an attack on the legitimate rights of Sunni Arabs.
– There are numerous recruits from Europe joining ISIS, how do you understand this?
No matter how democratic of a system Europe has claimed to have created there is a process of ghettoization in Europe. There is exclusion and there is the fact of othering…yes they are studying in European schools but they are studying as Algerians. They are continually othered and placed into ghettos. It gave birth to Israel. The mentality that is governing Israel today is the mentality of the Jews of the Middle East but Jews who came from Europe. Today Europeans are joining ISIS in substantial numbers. And whatever they have faced themselves they are not making others to face.
-ISIS is using this fact of ‘othering’…
They are using to serious degree. For this reason is not an organization with borders but is attempting to create itself within this mass.
-In recent days Boko Haram’s pledge of fidelity (biat) to ISIS has been on the agenda…
Most of all it is the terminology that changes – that is to say it no longer necessary for them to be in geographical proximity. The spread of ideology is more comprehensive. If you are close ideologically you do not require any kind of geographical connection and therefore when we say that the two have acknowledged each other a method is beginning to emerge. Formerly al Qaeda was in the lead in this regard. In terms of their methods they resemble one another.
-Amidst the chaos of the Middle East the Kurds are building a new system. How do you evaluate this system?
In the Middle East many divisive models are being proposed. There are the Shia models, there are the Sunni models. And then there is the Rojava model which the Kurds have developed. As has happened most recently in Yemen there is a Shia model (the Houthi movement and the al-Shaabi movement) which is a model that has organized militias to oppress and push out all other groups and this is in fact the same as the Ba’ath. This is nothing new. As for the Sunni Arabs the choice around ISIS is clear – genocide, displacement – but they are saying we want the Brotherhood model and other people can carry on their lives under this model but they must accept us. None of this models have worked and have only deepened the crisis and the internal conflict. As for the canton system developed by the Kurds which seeks to accommodate all identities, well when you put pressure on a region the security risk can come out into the open.
-That is the canton system needs to spread farther?
It needs to spread. For the people living in the region, the other forms of life and for even the land to be more secure this system needs to spread to incorporate a wide area.
-In Mr. Abdullah Öcalan’s Newroz message there was a lot of stress laid on the Middle East. How do you evaluate this message?
If we solve the problem in Turkey it can be a model of Syria, Iraq and even other regions. This is to say that before us there is the war model and the model of oppression and hegemony…and there is Öcalan’s model by which all peoples of the region would have every right to express their own identities.
-In particular there is a call to nation-states…
Of course. The nation-state is in fact something unsuitable for the Middle East. European states are now seeing that it is unrealistic and changing the mode and are bringing down borders within the framework of the European union. The Middle East is not a nation. The Middle East has been forced into a system that does is appropriate for it. That is to say a system whereby one identity retains hegemony over all others.
The crisis is Yemen began with the military activity it 2015 and has come to today. Ali Abdullah Salih was sent away, Mansur Hadi took his place but the Houthi movement began to emerge with very forward demands. Certain in the Sana region in Yemen they faced a lot of oppression and are a power with the mass of people behind them. It has a social base. In particular what happened was that its demands for a federal structure were formed within their own regions and they cooperated with socialists and many other forces in Yemen. Alu Abdullah Salih turned toward cooperation with the Houthi movement. As a Shia movement and at a moment when Haşd El Şab was operating in Tikrit there carrying out operations in Taiz and Aden threw the whole region out of balance. This Shia movement has been perceived as it has taken control of the whole of Yemen. This is something that doesn’t suit the social structure and proportionality. I do not think that the air strikes will be very effective at this point but could lead the country into a major civil war. And at this stage we cannot also ignore how this can open the way for clashes between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is now difficult to say that the intervention will have some result but it could push the whole region into a major conflict.