In succession to Burgan Ghalioun, a Kurd has taken over the Presidency of the Syrian National Council, considered by the Western and Arab countries as the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition to the Baath regime. Abdel Basset Sayda, however, is not known as an experienced politician, but is reputed for his integrity. He was, indeed, the only candidate to succeed Burhan Ghalioun.
The latter’s resignation is due to the internal quarrels between the various components of this very heterogeneous platform, the stretches from secular Arabs to the Moslem Brotherhood and including some representatives of Kurdish parties. Burhan Ghalioun was criticised by the on the spot opponents and fighters for ignoring decisions taken and giving too much importance to the Moslem Brothers. Since the Kurds could not be suspected of any collusion with the latter, the choice of Abdel Basset Sayda probably reassured the pro-secular groups and the religious minorities unless the variety of Syrian Arab groupings found it easier to appoint a Kurd as present rather than one of their rivals. This was, after all what happened in Iraq, where Jalal Talabani was chosen as President with the agreement of the main Sunni and Shiite Arab factions, then involved in their own civil war. Finally this appointment could be seen as a gesture by the Syrian Arabs to the Kurds, many of whom distrust the Moslem Brotherhood and have reservations about any movement supported by Turkey.
Directly addressing his Kurdish compatriots, Abdel Basset Sayda affirmed that his election was “clear proof that the Syrians have reached a high level of maturity by making citizenship the priority and that they have overcome the sectarian fanaticism and divisions that the regime might try and fuel so as to reach a state of civil war”. However, he also criticised the past attitude of certain Kurdish groups, which had only managed to marginalise them within the SNC and so strengthen the Moslem Brotherhood group. In an interview given to the Kurd.net Internet site, Abdel Basset Sayda recalled that the Moslem Brotherhood was “a component part of (Syrian) society. We cannot purely and simply ignore and exclude them from this process”.
Born in 1956, at Amude, Abdel Basset Sayda is not a member of any political party (which may have favoured his election). His handicap is that he is a pure intellectual, not an experience political figure, a Ph.D. fascinated by ancient civilisations and the author of a number of books on the Kurdish question in Syria. However, according to Anita McKnight, the Al Jazeerah chain’s correspondent in Turkey, the new President’s first statements have impressed people by his determination to include all the trends and participants of the Syrian opposition: “Hw has appointed all the principal actors, paid tribute to imprisoned people and those who have died. He has mentioned all the groups and repeated that their dream of Syria for everyone has not been buried”.
No sooner appointed, the new President of the Syrian National Council called on all the leading officials of the Baathist regime to withdraw from office. He also sent a message to reassure all Syria’s various ethnic and religious minorities, who fear a future Arab and Moslem domination, affirming that there will be no “discriminations”.
In his view, the massacres and bombing carried out by the regime shows that the Syrian Baath is playing its last card and that the Syrian revolt is entering a crucial and “sensitive” phase.
Abdel Basset Sayda has made his declared priority the rallying of other opposition groups to the Syrian National Council and of starting discussions with opposition public figures that are not in the SNC and getting them to join. Indeed, the SNC’s image, especially because of the strong position of the Moslem Brotherhood within it, suffers from a “conservative” image in the eyes of many opposition trends, especially the Syrian youth.
This Kurdish opposition leader has also called on the United Nations for a “decisive action”, not excluding recourse to force, by demanding the member countries to “stop this killing machine”, adding that, in the event of the United Nations failing to agree on this (particularly because of the Russian and Chinese veto) some countries willing to do so could act outside UNO.
In September 2011, an Associated Press report showed that since 11 September 2001, one third of all people accused of terrorism throughout the word were in Turkish jails — namely 12,897 people out of 35,117.
On the fringe of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the BDP member of Parliament for Mersin, Ertugrul Kurkçu, and a member of the European Left there group there, help a Press conference in which he reported on the state of legal and judicial repression in his country. He declared that the number of detention had increased by 250% since 2002 (the year the AKP took office) without any increase in the capacity of the prisons, which creates serious problems of health and security.
Thus, on 16 June 13 prisoners, aged between 20and 25, died when their prison, in Urfa, caught fire, and 5 others sent to hospital. This was due to some detainees, to protest at their living conditions there had set fir to their mattresses. On Monday 18 June another incendiary protest in the same prison sent 48 to hospital, including 38 detainees.
Urfa Prison, that has accommodation for 350 detainees, at present has 1,057, and cells designed for 3 people have up to 30 detainees. Water is rationed and the stifling heat of this time of the year is offset by only one fan per cell.
Since 19 June 84 prisoners have been transferred to other provinces, like Elazig or Diyarbekir, sometimes 1,500 Km from their families, making visits virtually impossible for low-income families.
Ertugrul Kürkçü gave the number of people being currently detained for “terrorist activity” as 8,995, including 8 members of Parliament, 16 mayors, 442 members of local councils, 500 students, 100 journalists as well as various intellectuals, academics, publishers and writers.
The number of sentences are multiplying and verge on the absurd if not the surrealistic. Thus on 22 June, the 8th Court of the Adana High Criminal Court sentenced a deaf and dumb man, the father of 6 children, on a charge of “terrorist propaganda”, accepting as evidence the fact that he had been arrested holding half a lemon in his hand when a demonstration was taking place in the town (the lemon is believed to attenuate the effect of tear gas).
It was in vain that his lawyer tried to show that Mehmet Tahir Ilhan, who was not only a deaf-mute but illiterate, and therefore had extremely limited means of communicating, could not possibly have carried out propaganda for the PKK even if the majority of the population of Adana did know sign language (that the accused himself did not know). However, the Court was unmoved by the defence’s argument that of “physical inability to commit the crime as charged” and just reduced the sentence from 25 years to 8years and 4 months.
Throughout the country, over 600 university and a thousands high school students have been arrested and jailed in the last few months or else expelled for their political opinions. This repression directed at student circles has now overstepped another threshold by the arreast of a Kurdish Student of French citizenship who wanted to study in Turkey under the Erasmus programme.
Sevil Sevimli has been detained in Eskisehir Prison since 9 May last for “collusion with a terrorist organisation”, namely the Revolutionary Party-Front for the People’s Revolution (DHKP-C), an extreme Left Party that is banned in Turkey.
Before going to Turkey, Sevil Sevimli was a student at Lyon-II University, where she was studying Information and Communication. She was accused of having taken part in a 1st May march (a legal demonstration) and some outings organised by a students association, of having attended a concert by the Yorum group and having stuck up posters calling for free education. Her trial for “terrorism” and collusion with the Revolutionary Party-Front for the People’s Revolution will take place in Ankara, without any date having been set.
So far, her lawyers have not had access to her file, which is a procedure special applied in “terrorist” cases, nor has the French Embassy had any more success in its demand for information. Even the mail sent to the young women by her family is seized.
“We don’t just sing and dance. We have a rich and ancient heritage and, like all the others, we have contributed to the Region’s development and reconstruction”. It is in these terms that Nayef Hamu, and Iraqi Rom, sums up the aspirations of the Roms to be recognised as one of Kurdistan’s ethnic minorities calling for a seat in the Irbil Parliament to be reserved for them to be represented there.
Rom presence in Kurdistan dates back to the middle ages and for centuries, they have lived alongside Kurdish tribes, acting as musicians and dancers for festivities and weddings. Their numbers, like those of other minorities, in Kurdistan have increased since 2003 because of the persecutions that have hit religious and ethnic minorities throughout Iraq — except in the Kurdish Region. Thus in the Adar residential area of Duhok, about 10 Km from the city itself, nearly 250 Rom families have been living since 2008. According to the Aluka Rom Cultural Centre, the total of them throughout Kurdistan could be 31,000.
Questioned by the daily Niqash, Nayef Hammu, who lives in Duhok, explained that the Roms would like to be represented in the parliament and the Provincial Councils so as to be able to deal with specific problems facing Roms — the lack of schools and unemployment, but also the fear of losing their culture.
“We have our own traditions and we observe them”, explained Fahima Fattam, who lives at Adar. “However, many of them, such as our language, clothing and marriage customs, will disappear unless we efforts to preserve them. The future of the Rom way of life is uncertain”.
The Kurdish Region, which offers freedom of association and expression to minorities, has enabled the Roms to begin to get themselves organised without waiting for help from the government. Thus they have formed a “High Committee”, with representatives of their communities in Duhok, Irbil and Suleumaniah. This has sent teams to the three provinces to take a six-month census of their numbers. Yunis Tahir, who runs the Aluka Rom Cultural Centre, considered that there were 31,145 Roms living in these three provinces. If this is right, it shows a marked increase on the Rom population of Kurdistan, which was just 25,000 according to earlier estimates.
According to Yunis Tahir, the increase in Kurdistan’s Rom population is due to two factors: the high death rate characteristic of their community and the flow of refugees fleeing attacks from extremists and Islamist or Arab nationalist militia in other parts of Iraq. This immigration has benefited from the Kurdish government’s benevolence and the measures it has taken to welcome them and persuade them to settle in permanent homes.
Hitherto, the Roms who had long been settled in Kurdistan had, if they took part in politics, joined one of the tow major Kurdish parties, the KDP or the PUK, as had the majority other minorities in Kurdistan. However, the policy of cultural and linguistic support and even of representation within the political institutions given to Christians and Yezidis by the KRG has given the Roms the idea of organising themselves in the same way.
“The Roms must adapt themselves to the evolution taking place in the world and thus they should enjoy the political changes taking place in Kurdistan”, explained Mohammad Birn, another Rom leader living at Adar. “Our community has greatly suffered from its lack of a stable mode of living. This has brought us poverty, illiteracy and ignorance. We are still living as beggars while we see other minority groups in Iraqi Kurdistan enjoying political and economic change”.
However, according to Byar Baffi, a sociologist living at Zakho, the Rom people also need to reform their own society so as to improve its situation. Thus certain traditions are harmful such as that of marrying adolescent young people. Moreover it is true that the long periods of persecution they have gone through has kept them down in the lowest levels of society: “The old Iraqi regime played a part in weakening them economically and socially. The Roms did not have any right to Iraqi nationality which created problems for enrolling in schools or securing government jobs”.
As everywhere else in the world, the Rom’s suffer from negative prejudices and stereotypes that continue to so darken their image, although, according to Byer Baffi, they have also undergone profound social changes. The fact that they gather outside the towns and away from other communities does not help ideas and prejudices about them to change.
However, the Kurds have no objections to the Roms entering the political field, like the other minority groups. Biyar Tahir Doski, who runs the Duhok High electoral Committee states that their participation is welcomed provided it conforms with the “Iraqi legal electoral framework”, which means having Iraqi nationality “and all the official documents needed to take part in elections”. In view of the discriminatory policies of the old regime, this could create a problem if their situation is not regularised at national level, though the Kurdish government has supplied them with official papers at regional level.
Some local initiatives, indeed, had been undertaken in Kurdistan to improve the Roms’ fate. This, in 2010, a primary school was opened in Suleimaniyah for the city’s Roms — both adults and children — “under canvas” in which some voluntary Kurdish teachers, concerned by their situation, followed their movements round the region with classes.
Several Human Rights and democratic organisations in Iran have announced the death, on 4 June last, of Mohammad Mehdi Zalyeh, a Kurdish activist who has been in prison for the last 18 years in Urmiah and Karaj Gohardasht. Suffering from sever lung infections, he had not had access to the necessary medical treatment for several years and was only taken to the Karaj Rajal Prison hospital as he was dying.
In February 2011, some prisoners in Karaj Gohardasht prison had gone on hunger strike to protest at solitary confinement cells and Mohammad Zalyeh was then transferred from his solitary confinement to a high security section.
Moreover, the hunger strike by another Kurdish prisoner, Mohammad Sadiq Kabouvand, sentenced in 2007 to 10 years for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic”, has been continuing since 16 May last. Over 350 political and trade union activists and journalists have appealed to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Napi Pillay, to intervene on his behalf. The signatories of this petition stress Mohammad Sadiq Kabouvand’s critical state of health. He is a journalist and Human Rights activist and has been on hunger strike since the prison authorities refused him leave to go and see his seriously ill young son. The High Commissioner is also asked to support Kabouvand’s request for temporary leave as well as to allow him access to medical assistance.
Last May the US State Department had called on the Iranian government to release Mohammad Sadiq Kabouvand as well as 90 other journalists imprisoned in Iran.
Kenneth W. Stein, Professor of Modern History of the Middle East and of political science, who lectures at the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory University, and author of “Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter, Begin and the Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace” (Routledge, 1999), has published on the Middle East Quarterly Internet site, a memorandum on a meeting dated 17 December 1975, at the Paris Iraqi Embassy, between Sadun Hammadi, then Iraqi Foreign Minister and Henry Kissinger while passing through the French capital.
This contact is a turning point in US policy towards Iraq, although all diplomatic relations had been officially broken off in 1967 following the Six Day War. It should be noted that Henry Kissinger did not mention this meeting in his memoires, published in 1999, though it is part of the (temporary) reconciliation between the Shah’s Iran and the Iraqi Republic regarding their border conflict over the Shatt el Arab. Since Iraq was considered close to Moscow, the CIA and the Shah supported Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdish resistance. However, after the agreement between the two countries, the Iran0-american support for the Kurds ceased to be useful.
Henry Kissinger began by affirming US desire to normalise relations with the Arab world, whatever might be their differences. The main obstacle put forward by the Iraqi Minister was the existence of Israel, accused of being “a direct threat” to Iraq because of its military power and the “sophisticated armament” supplied by the US as well as Israel’s nuclear threat to the region.
Henry Kissinger replied that Israel’s right to exist was not negotiable for his country but that the Americans could “reduce its size to historic proportions” by abandoning the “Greater Israel” project. He also affirmed that Israel was not a serious threat to the Arab world and predicted that “in ten or fifteen years Israel would be like the Lebanon — struggling for its existence without any influence in the Arab world”. He repeated that the US was ready to normalise their relations with all the Arab States, except for Libya and that they wanted Israel to survive but not dominate the region.
Regarding the Palestinian question, Kissinger stated that “Palestinian identity must be recognised” in one way or another, without excluding the existence of a Palestinian state or recognition of the PLO. However, they should be cautious and advance step by step, raising the hostility of many Israelis, and especially the Israeli press, to such a policy.
Sadun Hammadi finally raised the Kurdish question and US support, particularly in arms, of Mustafa Barzani’s revolt. Kissinger´s reply was quite unambiguous about this help for the Kurds, which he twice attacked as being “of the past”:
“Kissinger: When we thought that you were a soviet satellite, we were not opposed to what Iran was doing in the Kurdish region, Now that you and Iran have resolved your conflict, we no longer have any reason to do anything of the sort. I can tell you we are not engaged and will not engage in any action against Iraq’s territorial integrity”.
Probably unconvinced, before and after having raised the Lebanese question, the Iraqi Minister twice returned to the Kurdish question, which he described as “a vitally important problem” for Iraq, and made Kissinger repeat that US support would cease — which Henry Kissinger confirmed:
“— I can assure you of it. There is nothing to worry about. We cannot act as in the past.
— Not always, replied the Minister” (and the meeting ended with those words).
Commenting on the memorandum of this meeting, Professor Stein points out that this meeting had a “limited” success for Kissenger’s policies. The US State Department’s efforts to improve relations between Israel and the Arab world and bring it out of its isolation, particularly by including Palestinian participation came up against Iraqi firmness, which played a major role, three years later, in the Arab States’ opposition to Anwar Sadat’s initiative for recognising Israel.
As for US support for Iran, it was to collapse along with the Shah’s regime, which tolled the knell of the Algiers Agreement, for which the Kurds had been abandoned and betrayed, both by the US and Iran. However, in 1980 Iraq tore up the agreement and invaded Iran with US backing for Saddam Hussein against “Iranian theocracy”. Once again, with the Anfal campaign, the Kurds paid dearly for US policies regarding Iraq.