At the beginning of July the Syrian opposition rejected the UN peace plan proposing a “political transition” and a provisional government so as to ends the acts of violence. This plan had been put forward by Kofi Annan and accepted by the United Nations some days earlier, during an international conference at Geneva. However, the revolting Syrians consider that negotiating with Bashar al-Assad or any member of his “murderous” government would be just a waste of time, especially as Russia insisted that any future agreement should not totally dismiss the present Syrian President from office while the United States considered that it would not let Bashar el-Assad play any part in Syria’s political future. The Americans finally gave way faced with Russia’s stubbornness.
For his part, Bashar al-Assad has constantly repeated that it was his duty to eliminate “terrorism” and rejects any foreign interference in Syrian affairs.
Meanwhile, in Cairo, Nabil al-Arabi, the leader of the Arab League, called on the Syrian opposition, meeting in the Egyptian capital, to unite “most urgently”, setting aside their differences of opinion that, so far, had prevented them from putting forward a creditable political organisation capable of replacing the Baath in office without plunging Syria into insurrectional chaos or civil war. Nabil al-Arabi stated, before the 250 Syrians meeting there, that this conference was an opportunity that should not, in any circumstances, be lost by factional quarrels (AFP).
Nasser el-Kidwa, representing the United Nations, also insisted on the fact that unity of the Syrians opposed to the Baath was not “an option but a necessity”.
The differences and the multitude of political platforms are, in fact, a reflection of the very heterogeneous character of Syria, which is split up into a mosaic of ethnic, religious and political groupings — unlike Egypt, Tunisia and even Libya, whose populations are much more homogeneous. Moreover, the contacts between the insurgents in Syria and the dissidents in exile are very difficult and there is often little co-ordination between on the spot military action in Syria and external initiatives. Consequently the principal fighting force in the field was not represented in Cairo.
As for the Kurds, they also seem divided over certain political choices. Thus on 4 July, Saleh Saleh Mohammad, leader of the Democratic Union Party (the Syria affiliate of the PKK) considered, contrary to the rest of the opposition, both Kurdish and Arab, that Kofi Annan’s plan of a transition government supported “the people’s wishes, since this set up would include all the social circles in Syria” and that his party, consequently, supported the decisions taken in Geneva:
“We Kurds will also take part in this government, since the Kurdish opposition has already taken it place within the general opposition in Syria”.
However the PYD was alone amongst the Kurds in wishing to spare the Syrian government as long as possible, without clearly choosing between the Ba’ath and the Free Syrian Army. From the start of the revolt it has tried to set up more or less autonomous areas in towns it controlled and where it imposed either neutrality of a non-aggressive line between the Kurds and the government’s armed forces.
Other Kurdish parties are considering whether to ally themselves more clearly with the Arab opposition while others want to lay down non-negotiable conditions for this such as recognition of a Kurdish entity in the future Syrian constitution. This is just the issue that proved a stumbling block to any project of unity in Cairo, since a Kurdish group withdrew when faced with the refusal of the Arab opposition to consider such a Kurdish entity in Syria. Thus, one of the members of the National Kurdish Council in Syria, Morshid Mashouk, declared that he would not return to this conference and that this decision was irrevocable: “We are a people, we have one language, one religion and everything that defines a people”.
The final statement of the Cairo Conference reaffirmed that the fall of Bashar al-Assad was the necessary pre-requisite for any political solution to the Syrian Crisis. “Civil peace and national unity” are objectives on which the opponents were able to agree (once the Kurdish parties had left!). Apart from that, the opposition leadership seemed to resist any attempt at unification — indeed they were hesitant about letting any single leadership control all their forces. Thus the proposal for a committee, which would consolidate all the actions of dissident parties, was rejected by the principal political body, the Syrian National Council. This was criticised by others, who saw this as a refusal by the SNC both to give up its leadership and to act as the co-ordinator itself.
The Cairo Conference expressed the wish for a “republican, democratic” Syria and for a “civil and plural system”. The dissolution of the Ba’ath Party is envisaged but its former members would not be excluded from all political participation so long as “they do not have blood on their hands”.
This last point can be explained by the fact that, as in Iraq in Saddam’s era, many members of the Baath had joined more from opportunism or to secure jobs than out of conviction and that the American error in 2003 of driving all Iraqi “Baathists” out of any public office or the army was a powerful factor in increasing the ranks of the insurgents.
While the general Syrian opposition is having difficulty in uniting, an important step, on the contrary, was taken by the Kurds on 12 July when the two principal blocks of Kurdish opponents, the PYD and the Kurdish National Council of Syria, who had hitherto adopted antagonistic positions on the attitude to adopt regarding Baath, finally announced that they had reached an agreement. They decided to form a common front after final negotiations at Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. President Messud Barzani attended the meeting.
While the contents of the agreement have not been made public, the effects were soon apparent since, as of 20 July the Syrian Kurds announced that they had launched an operation to “liberate the Kurdish regions” and had already taken over the town of Kobane (in Aleppo givernorate) stating that the government forces had withdrawn. Videos quickly circulated on Internet showing that some official buildings were flying the Kurdish flag. PKK flags were also visible and the picture of Ocalan was seen side by side with that of Massud Barzani (very popular in Syrian Kurdistan) in demonstrations that seem to confirm a common strategy of Syrian Kurds. They also show to what extent State borders are totally irrelevant when it is a matter of defining the various trends within the Kurdish national movement.
These actions, in any case, mark a turning point in the PYD’s policy, which has hitherto tried to discourage the other Kurdish movements from joining the Arab revolts because of its Turkish sponsor. Thus the PYD leader announced the formation of “civil defence committees” that would administer the liberated areas, For his part Nuri Brimo, spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, stated to the daily paper Rudew that, on the strength of the Irbil agreement, the town of Kobane would be jointly administered by the PYD and the Kurdish National Council and that this was just the first step in the liberation of “Western Kurdistan”.
An announcement from the Kurdish Party of Progress made the point that the Baath’s authority was greatly reduced in the Kurdish regions as a whole and that some of them were now completely free of it.
It is hard to say how far this new agreement between these Kurdish organisations will last or hit snags, but it is certain that one of the most important factors cementing this alliance is the common determination of the Kurds not to let their towns be taken over by the the “Free Syrian Army” by themselves freeing them. Thus the PYD, the only armed group, has been for some months been preventing the FSA from entering Syrian Kurdistan and has again prevented its militia from entering Kobane by announcing its liberation. Moreover the other Kurdish parties support it in this.
Here too, the recent history of Iraqi Kurdistan, that freed itself from Saddam Hussein in1991 and then joined the new Iraq of its own accord in 2003 on the strength of its mow ten-year-old autonomy and laying down its own conditions and, even today, refusing any presence of the Iraqi Army on its soil must have carried some weight in the choice of this strategy.
A rew days after the liberation of Kobane, it was the turn of the towns of Efrin and Amude then of Dêrik to fall into Kurdish hands as well as certain neighbourhoods of the big city of Qamishlo.
It should be noted that, so far, the Kurds have been spared the violence suffered by the Arab towns and that these acts of “taking power” have visibly taken place without clashes between the Kurdish forces and the Syrian Army. It is true that the Baath forces and the paramilitary militia are foreign forces in the Kurdish regions and that, unlike the rest of Syria, there has not been any war between pro and anti-regime Kurds.
Indeed, each lime a Kurdish town was “liberated” the Kurdish parties announced that a Syrian “withdrawal” or the surrender of militia without it being possible to know the situation on the spot, but never any shelling or street fighting. In any case, the Kurds on the spot do not seem to fear any reprisals from the regime and to distrust more the other Syrian rebels, who are backed by Turkey. Should one conclude that the Baath has decided of it own accord to withdraw from the Kurdish regions and concentrate their action of the Arab provinces so as to avoid fighting on several fronts, while putting off the “Kurdish question” to be dealt with later? This is the explanation put forward by Nuri Brimo, who points out that other regions had been emptied of troops. He even states that Damascus had advised the PYD of this withdrawal so that the Kurdish fighters only had to occupy the abandoned areas, virtually without firing a shot. It is only at Qamshilo that clashes seem to have taken place between the Kurdish “People’s Defence Union” and Baath militia.
Il remains to be seen whether Damascus was caught unawares by the Irbil agreement or whether there the Alawis are anticipating the future collapse of this agreement and hope to win back both the lost Kurdish regions and its alliance with the PYD. Abdul Bassit Sayda, the SNC president, does not share the apparent confidence of the Kurds in the Baath’s neutrality and fears a bloody thirsty return of the Syrian Army to Syrian Kurdistan once it has succeeded in crushing the revolt in the Arab towns.
The power sharing and balance between the Kurdish movements is fragile. The Kurdish National Council insists so often about the necessity of observing the terms of the Irbil agreement that its fear is evident that the PYD might not do so. However, it must be recalled that the Kurds have a horror of civil war ever since the one that nearly caused the collapse of the Iraqi Kurdistan in the 90s. Even though the rivalry between the PYD and the other Kurdish platforms has often been sharp and given rise to acts of violence, it has never gone so far as to degenerate into bloody conflicts. Having said this, only the PYD, so far has any armed forces, the other Kurdish factions being political movements. The new forces being trained in Iraqi Kurdistan may change this situation.
Moreover, the Syrian conflict issues regarding the Kurds in Syria is being exported to Iraq and is aggravating relations between Irbil and Baghdad, since the Kurdish President supports the Syrian movement of revolt and is regarded by the Syrian National Council as a major representative and partner, on the same level as Turkey. Thus Abdul Bassit Sayda, the (Kurdish) president of the SNC ahs indicated that he is in contact with the Kurdistan regional Government regarding events in Syria and even secretly visited Irbil before the agreement. The Baghdad government, on the other hand, supports Syria (with the support of Iran) and seems inclined to support the Damascus regime and balks at opening its borders to the floods of refugees.
Massud Barzani has been accused by political circles and papers close to the Iraqi Prime Minister of sending his own troops in to liberate Syrian Kurdistan, which he denies, though pointing out that Kurdish troops that had deserted the Syrian Army and sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan were being trained by the Peshmergas to serve in the liberation forces.
This a “moral and financial” support has bee given to the Syrian Kurds on condition that they agree on the common management of the towns taken over from the Baath. This has been admitted by Nuri Brimo, the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s spokesman, thus confirming and strengthening, along with the Irbil agreement, Barzani’s position as “godfather” or even arbiter of the Kurdish cause in the Middle East.
Relations between the Baghdad central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government have further deteriorated since the announcement of an agreement between Irbil and Ankara regarding the export of Kurdish natural gas to Turkey that bye passes Baghdad’s authorisation.
For years past the Iraqi central government has been struggling against any autonomous management of the Kurdish region’s natural resources and its determination to make its own agreements without going through Baghdad. Thus the announcement of a gas pipeline between Turkey and Kurdistan, that would enable le latter to sell its gas directly to its Northern neighbour is a hard blow both to the Maliki government and to its relations with Ankara.
Speaking at the Forum on the Caspian gas question that was taking place in Istanbul in July, Ashti Hawrami , the Minister for Fuel and Power of the Kurdistan Regional government let it be understood that this agreement could take effect in about 18 months to two years — and without needing Iraqi approval.
“Even if there is no consensus with Baghdad, we will continue to sell our natural gas and oil oil to Turkey. We plan to sell 10 billion cubic metres of gas to Turkey and, eventually to Europe”.
Pointing to the disastrous neglect and economic state in which Iraq finds itself, compared with the development of Kurdistan, the Kurdish Minister added that if they depended on Baghdad to attract foreign investors, nothing would be possible.
On 8 July, an AFP despatch confirmed from official sources that the Kurdistan Regional Government had started to export oil produced in its territory without waiting for central government approval. For its part, the Telegraph stated that trucks transporting crude oil were crossing the Turkish border pending the constriction of a pipeline planned for 2013, following an agreement between Irbil and Ankara.
While on a visit to Brazil, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan explained that Iraq, in recurring conflict with the Kurds, had ceased to export fuel and oil derived products to Iraqi Kurdistan. “They therefore asked us for fuel and we accepted”.
From the Kurdish side, Seerwan Abubaqr, a KRG adviser to the Ministry fo Natural Resources, confirmed that they had stared exporting “limited quantities” of crude oil that would be refined in Turkey “and would return” to Kurdistan.
“If necessary, we would export oil to Iran” added Seerwan Abubaqr. “We will continue to export oil until the central government supplies us with oil derived products. It is the cental government that is pushing us into this”.
The Iraqi Oil Minister denies these allegations while his predecessor, Hussein Al-Sharistani (who now heads all fuel and power questions in Iraq) repeats, through his spokesman Faisal Abdullah, that only the Oil Minister has the right to decide on exports.
Kurdish sources have reported that “only” four trucks a day, while the Fuel and Power Minister, Taner Yildiz, spoke of 5 to 10 trucks of crude a day on 13 July while hoping that this would shortly increase to between 100 and 200 trucks a day.
The Iraqi government spokesman, Ali Dabbagh, then directly addressed Turkey, ordering it to stop these “illegal” transfers of crude oil by the Kurds at the risk of damaging bilateral relations, particularly economic ones.
On 17 July, Hussein Sharistani’s office reported a loss of 8 and a helf billion dollars due to the freezing of deliveries of crude oil by the Kurds. In retaliation the Iraqi government threatened to freeze the 17% of its annual budget dueto be allocated to the Kurdish region.
Turkey is not the only, or even the first, country to arouse the anger of the Iraqi government for having dared to sign contracts with the KRG without Baghdad’s approval. The United States, through Exxon, and France, through Total, were attacked several months ago by Iraq.
The latter, having once again protested to the White House over an agreement reached between Exxon and Irbil, led President Barack Obama once again to try an appease his Iraqi ally with sweet words about the Iraqi Constitution and its laws, without talking of any concrete measures or pressures on this American company.
This has not stopped the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office from declaring that, on the strength of this encouragement by the US government, it was going to take “all necessary measures for applying the law” and preventing foreign companies from dealing directly with the Kurds.
Exxon, for its part, has not made any comment, and indeed, the only retaliatory measures that Iraq can really carry out are to cancel the operating contracts under way with foreign companies that might contravene its policy of centralisation. Baghdad has not spared itself making such threats, whose effects do not seem to have impressed foreign investors. Thus Chevron, another American giant, has been banned from working in the non-Kurdish regions of Iraq for having bought 80% of two operating fields in Iraqi Kurdistan on 19 July.
However, the sanction imposed on Chevron did not dissuade Total, which announced on 31 July the signing of an operating agreement in the Kurdish region: its 35% participation in two fields, Harir and Sageen, that it has bought from Marathon Oil.
The Kurds aim to supply, by 2015, 1 million barrels a day, and 2 million by 2019, according to Michael Howard, an advisor of the Minister of Natural resources Ashti Hawrami. Present production is about 300,000 barrels.
Agreements have been signed with about fifty foreign companies, including Norway’s Statoil ASA (STL), Exxon Mobil Corp Chevron Corp, and Total SA (FP) to name the most important ones.
As for pipelines that the KRG is at present building following an agreement reached directly between the Kurds and the Turks, they should have a capacity of 200,000 barrels a day, according to an executive of Genel Energi.
A mass trial began at the beginning of July wit 205 people in the dock accused of links with terrorism and propaganda on behalf of a terrorist organisation, on the basis of their membership, whether real or suspected, of the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK) which Turkey considers an affiliate of the PKK”.
Among those charged are a considerable number of intellectuals, journalists and academics as well as members of the Pro-Kurdish BDP party. Some of the accused cannot seriously be considered to have engaged in “terrorist actions” or even of membership of a Kurdish political organisation. They have been jailed because of the contents of their publications, covering such “sensitive” subjects as the Kurdish question or the Armenian genocide like Busra Ersanli, an academic and research worker or Ragip Zarakolu, a publisher who have long been targets of the Turkish legal system for the simple reason of their work, although undertaken completely legally.
The spectacular extent of this trial is, however, providing the Kurds with an international platform for their linguistic and political demands. Thus many of those accused have demanded the right to speak in their mother tongue although any remarks made in Kurdish in a court is recorded as “having been expressed in an unknown language”. This time, however, the Court’s Chairman has recognised, in writing, that since the Kurdish language was used by one of the accused his remarks could not be understood — which at least means that recognition of the existence of the Kurdish language has been written into the archives of the Caglayan High Court even if not, at present, mentioned in the Turkish Constitution.
On 3 July the accused Kudbettin Yazbaşı and Mümtaz Aydemir, members of the BDP party were greeted in Court with shouts of “Berxwedan jiyan” (Resistance is Life) and the Judge had to warn the public against any attempts at applause, boos or any other “extravagant behaviour”.
When two of the accused, Kudbettin Yazbaşı and Mümtaz Aydemir, were asked to give their names and identities, they again did so in Kurdish and this time the Court President recognised that they had spoken in a language “other than Turkish”. Mehmet Emin Aktar, who is head of the Diyarbekir Bar Association, objected to the fact that a language spoken by 20 million people was not legally recognised by the Court and asked for translators for the accused. Far from granting this request, the Court authorities switched off the microphones as soon as any remarks were made in Kurdish.
Another lawyer, Meral Danış Beştaş, challenged the Court’s jurisdiction for trying members of the BDP, arguing that only the constitutional court had the right to try political parties. She thus demanded that 3 experts examine the BDP’s political activities and decide whether there was a need for opening an enquiry. Should that be the case, the case should be transferred to the High Court of Appeals. However, the Prosecutor, Ramazan Saban, rejected this demand as well as the right to plead in Kurdish.
The lawyers then withdrew from the Court in protest.
On 13 July, 16 of the accused were released after passing several months in detention. Amongst them was Busra Ersanli, who lectures at Marmara University and for whom the prosecution had called for a 15-year sentence for “membership of a terrorist organisation”. This academic, who is a member of the BDP, had spent 8 months in jail awaiting her trial.
Three days later, on 16 July, 50 other accused, 46 of whom were lawyers, appeared charged with membership of the KCK. Seven of them face 22 and a half years jail for “having formed and led an armed organisation”. The others face 15 years jail for being members of this organisation.
The defence had demanded the suspension of all proceedings against them and their immediate release, which the Court refused. The demands to plead in Kurdish as well as that of hearing Ocalan as a witness (in the case of Ocalan’s lawyers, accused of transmitting the PKK leader’s orders) were, unsurprisingly also rejected.
Although the Courtroom chosen was the largest in this brand new Law Court, le lack of room was evident because of the great media coverage of this trial. In addition to the family and sympathisers of the accused, it was packed with journalists, foreign observers, and members of NGOs who were forbidden to take photos.
This time the accused did not proclaim their support for resistance but did reply present in Kurdish: “Ez li vi rim” when the court asked them for their names. Doğan Erbaş, a lawyer accused of acting as an intermediary between Ocalan and the PKK described their working conditions and how the Turkish State could be unaware, in this case of such facts.
The whole of the accusation is based on our meetings with Abdullah Ocalan. All these meetings, from the first to the latest, took place with the authorisation and under the surveillance of the State. All was pre-determined by the law — there was no room for chance or initiative in these meetings. In such circumstances it would have been impossible to manager the “leadership committee” mentioned in the charge sheet.
Finally, after three days of hearings, only nine of the lawyers were released but they remained on probation. The hearings were postponed to 6 November 2012 and will take place at the Silivri Special Assize Court.
The Kurdistan Department for Foreign relations wrote a letter of protest to Ubisoft, a French firm that has become the world’s 3rd largest publisher of video games and so obliged it to retouch a graphic element in the next section of one of most famous video games “Splinter Cell”.
The publisher of “Prince of Persia”, “Assassin’s Creed”, and “splinter Cell” is due to bring out a new episode of Tom Clancy’s adventures in 2013: “Splinter Cell Blacklist” that begins with a terrorist group preparing a series of attacks in the United States.
While looking at the trailer some Kurds were infuriated at seeing that the terrorist stronghold surrounded by American commandos was flying Kurdistan’s historic flag, which is also that of the present Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Kurdistan Region’s Foreign Minister, Falah Mustafa Bakir, even wrote a letter of protest to the Communication Department of Ubisoft (US).
Questioned about this the artistic Director of Ubisoft, in Toronto, gave the following explanation: the scenes’ graphics were inspired by present day villages in the rural Kurdistan mountains. “The terrorists has driven out the villagers and used this township as a base, since its “natural camouflage” makes it an ideal secret training camp. If the terrorists have retained the Kurdish flag in a visible position, it is to preserve their ‘camouflage’” insisted Scott Lee, explaining that he had wanted to place side by side heavy weapons and military elements in a “civilian” décor.
This, however, did not convince the Kurds, who opened a protest page in Facebook, which pointed out that “being the largest nation without its own State did not necessarily make it a terrorist nation. One could otherwise think that its alliance with the USA in the war against Iraq in 2003 made it a rogue nation”, recalled Falah Mustafa Bakir, in his letter.
The Director of the Communications department of Ubisoft, Michael Burk, has promised that the flag will be removed in the final version and that they had never intended to confuse people’s minds by making the Kurdish flag a symbol of terrorism.