On 17 December an offensive by the Peshmergas, supported by Coalition air strikes enabled it to drive ISIS from several villages South of Zummer and near the Syrian border. This will ease their advance to the Sinjar Mountains where thousands of Yezidis have been besieged by the jihadists since last August.
This offensive, whose aim was to recover Sinjar, continued through the 18th and 19th, still in cooperation with the air forces and also supported by armed Yezidi units that have been resisting the “Islamic State” since the summer and YPG units from Syria.
On 19 December a communiqué announced that the Peshmergas had reached Sinjar Mountain (Shingal in Kurdish) and that the siege of the Yezidis had been broken. By a coincidence, this military success and the liberation of Sinjar occurred at the time of the great Yezidi winter Solstice Festival, during which they observe a 3-day fast. Masud Barzani, the Kurdistan President, sent them his best wishes for the occasion and said he was “glad to offer them this unprecedented success of the Peshmergas for their Festival. The Peshmergas’ success is the most appropriate present I can give the Yezidis”.
Questioned by the AFP news agency, Faisal Saleh, one of the Yezidis besieged in the mountains all the autumn estimated that the Peshmergas had liberated about 70% of the Sinjar range and that ISIS still held the Southern part. In their flight the Da’esh forces destroyed with explosives several of the houses in the villages they had been holding.
The Peshmergas have rapidly created two safe corridors to enable the besieged population to come down from the mountains and be evacuated to the safer areas of Kurdistan. Meanwhile the Kurdish Regional Government have sent a convoy or 32 trucks to Sinjar carrying food, tents and medical supplies.
On 20th December, the Peshmergas entered the city of Sinjar from the East, meeting resistance that was at first described as “slight” by a KDP spokesman but which intensified as the Kurds advanced towards the city centre. The Peshmergas have to advance cautiously because of the considerable number of bombs and various kinds of explosive booby traps with which ISIS riddles all positions from which it is obliged to withdraw.
On 22 December the Peshmerga casualty list was 25 wounded and 2 deaths. A Rudaw journalist reported he had seen, with his own eyes, the bodies of about 70 jihadists, while the Kurdish forces consider that enemy losses were over 220.
Moreover, mass graves are gradually being found by the Peshmergas as they advance, confirming the rumours if ISIS massacres of Yezidis. Thus the bodies of 70 Yezidi Kurds, including women and children were exhumed near a village Northwest of the city of Sinjar, as reported by a Yezidi to the Anatolia News agency. He pointed out that they had been executed by shooting and that their clothing clearly identified them as being Yezidis.
President Masud Barzani personally came to Sinjar to congratulate the Peshmergas.
Foreseeing the political situation of the Sinjar region once the war has ended, a KDP spokesman asserted to the Yezidis that the region’s administration and security would, in the future, be in their hands, with a form of administrative and defence autonomy within the KRG. A similar arrangement will, doubtless, also be applied to areas with a predominantly Christian population like Al-Qosh.
“Thousands of Yezidis have joined the Peshmergas as volunteers. We have formed a Yezidi brigade, whose members are fighting at the front at the moment. They have all been trained and will be able to protect Yezidi areas and keep them safe. We now also have a thousand police officers who can be used to ensure the security of the recently liberated areas”.
Last August’s tragedy was due to the sudden withdrawal of Sinjar based Peshmerga units without giving time for the evacuation of the Yezidi population to Erbil or Duhok (unlike the situation with the Christians at Qaraosh). This has led to a feeing of bitterness among the Yezidis, some considering that they had been sacrificed because of their religion. However, the principal officers involved were rapidly arrested and an enquiry is being conducted on their responsibility for what happened. A Presidential Commission has been set up, which has already questioned 200 Peshmerga officers, pending possible disciplinary measures.
Halgurd Hikmat, the communications and media officer of the Peshmerga Ministry, has pointed out that this Commission includes a judge, a representative of his Ministry and one of the Presidency and that they had nearly completed their enquiry. All the evidence given by interrogating the officers and commanders will be recorded in a report, which will be sent directly to President Barzani, since he is also head of Kurdistan’s armed forces. Halgurd Hikmat further added that many of the officers mentioned in this report have been sent back to the front and are fighting ISIS at the moment, at Sinjar or at Khanaqin and contributing to the present military successes. “When ISIS attacked we were not ready. Hence the initial reverses”.
Jabar Yawar, General Secretary of the Peshmerga Ministry, does not dismiss the possibility of disciplinary measures for some of the officers and affirms that his Ministry will respect the conclusions of this enquiry. “I think that some may be penalised, as this Commission is very severe”.
The end of 2014 was again darkened by the filmed and broadcast decapitation of 3 Peshmergas by ISIS in the Sinjar region. Their unchanging scenario was adopted: those condemned were dressed in orange, like the prisoners at Guantanamo, surrounded by their executioners who were all masked.
On 3 December, a second contingent of 150 Peshmergas came from Iraqi Kurdistan to Kobani to replace the first contingent that had come to help save the besieged town last November. According to the Turkish Anatolia News agency, they came equipped with sophisticated weaponry.
The Peshmergas report they have suffered 13 wounded since their entry into the Syria town and that four of them had been evacuated to Iraqi Kurdistan for treatment.
Questioned by the press on their return, the first contingent express regret at having returned before seeing the town liberated, though one of them told the daily paper Rudaw that the morale at Kobani had changed since November: “When we entered the besieged town the YPG only controlled about 15% of it — now over half the town is under Kurdish control”.
While the Peshmergas have, since August, gradually received arms from the Western powers, this has not been the case for the YPG who are treated with distrust by the US (and hostility by the Turks) because of their close links with the PKK.
However, there have already been several meeting between the PYD president, Salih Muslim, and American officials, particularly in November. These meetings probably have been reason why Turkey grudgingly allowed the Peshmergas to cross their territory to reach Kobani.
Now Salih Muslim is trying to persuade the United States to supply arms to the YPG as well, by assuring them that these arms would not be “transferred” to the PKK. In an interview given to the Turkish daily Hürriyet News on 8december, the PYD leader denied a statement Erdogan made on 25 October, that he had been opposed to the arrival of the Peshmergas:
“We have never been against the cooperation between the Peshmergas and the Syrian Kurds. While some sensitive points have arisen between the various groups in the past, ISIS has now pushed the Kurds into uniting, which is all to the good. Nor are we against an improvement in relations between the Kurds and Turkey. We only want Turkey to be on our side against ISIS. If that had been the case, things would have been very different for Turkey, for us and for all the peoples of the Middle East”.
Salih Muslim acknowledged that the Peshmergas had “made things different at Kobani” in military terms, then, questioned about the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad he expressed, without any ambiguity, a wish for his departure:
“We want al-Assad to leave more than anyone. We have the same position as Turkey on this point. Turkey, however, wants to achieve this by supporting the salafist groups — we are opposed to this”.
On 5 December, Salih Muslim met the former US Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, at Erbil, on the subject of future military cooperation to drive ISIS out of Kobani.
However, the total liberation of this canton is far from easy, despite the contribution of men and arms from Iraqi Kurdistan and the Coalition’s air strikes. Still more than at Sinjar, the ISIS fighters are holding on to their positions in the town, and its re-conquest by the Kurds is taking place very slowly — virtually house by house, in ruined neighbourhoods that are often booby-trapped and defended by bombs or snipers.
On 25 December a district leader estimated that ISIS still held a third of the town.
“There is fighting in the East and the South. The ISIS forces are attacking us hard, especially on the East, but most of Kobani is held by the YPG. We are co-ordinating with the Americans and we keep them informed of the ISIS positions. This is street fighting and it is hard to take over new zones in the town”.
However the jihadist casualties hare heavy, especially because of their often-suicidal manner of fighting. Thus a Coalition co-ordinator, retired General John Allen, estimated that in the 30 November assault ISIS “impaled itself on Kobani”, losing over 600 men. In December the Syrian Human Rights Observatory gave a figure of 905 ISIS killed.
Moreover the air strikes have the result of cutting the routes that enable ISIS to send reinforcement. This is born out by Faris al-Qayyem, a major in the Raqqa Revolutionary Brigades, who is fighting alongside the Kurds:
“Before the air strikes ISIS held similar positions to those it holds today but in much greater strength. When we killed 100 fighters they were immediately replaced, just like ants. Now their supply lines are cut, their convoys destroyed”. (remarks gathered by Dominique Soguel, pour le CS Monitor).
Moreover, since the beginning of October, ISIS has occupied 381 villages round the town, and still holds them, while there are 200,000 refugees on the Turkish side of the border. However, now winter has arrived, almost 80 families decided to cross the border back to Syria rather than face the severe temperatures in improvised shelters set up in Suruç, where there is an acute lack of medical equipment and medicines.
On 20 November 29 Kurdish political prisoners began a hunger strike in Urmiah Prison. One of them was transferred, in the first week, to Mahabad Prison — he was Mansour Arvand, an already sentenced political prisoner, waiting in death row. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) that was able to secure testimony from other prisoners, Mansour Arvand was taken to his new prison handcuffed, his feet in chains and blinded by a sack over his head.
Other prisoners were subjected to “disciplinary measures”, namely various forms of harassment and humiliation. Thus the political prisoners of section 12, on their visiting day, were stripped naked and searched by their guards. Another prisoner, Mohammad Abdullahi, was to have been transferred from the political prisoners section to that of the criminal law prisoners but the prisoners apposed this.
The main demands of these detainees was precisely to be kept separate from the common law prisoners, where “politicals” are always in danger of being subjected to gang or mafia rules. Indeed, the common law prisoners themselves (mainly murderers and drug dealers) also signed the same collective request — to return to the section corresponding to the nature of their crimes. (Perhaps because they could there enjoy the protection or support of members of their own network or perhaps because conditions there were better . . .)
Two weeks after the strike started, the authorities were still threatening to transfer the hunger strikers to the Narcotics section or to more distant towns or else to accelerate the legal process prior to carrying out the death sentences for the dozen of them so sentenced. One of the strikers, Osman Moustafapour, was even summoned by the representative of the Ministry of Information (the Secret Services) on 6 December while another, Vali Afshari, by the head guard to try and persuade them to end the strike.
The prisoners’ health began to suffer and on 7 December Alireza Rasooli was taken to the prison hospital in a weak condition. However he refused the intravenous serum injections despite his serious condition. The state of several of the other prisoners is also critical. It should be noted that Alireza Rasooli, who is also suffering from cancer, began the strike because he was being refused treatment. Inded, this refusal of medical treatment is a recurring complaint of detainees.
There is also is a lawyer among the strikers who is acting for some of them. Masood Shamsnezhad, whom the Iranian authorities had arrested for “collaboration” with his clients after his lawyers licence had been withdrawn in 2013 following his arrest in 2011. Masood Shamsnezhad has also applied to stand as a candidate for the Parliamentary elections but the Guardians of the Revolution, appointed to examine the files of all candidates prior to allowing them to stand, had rejected his application. Two years later, in 2013, he was arrested and imprisoned in Urmiah, accused of propaganda against the regime — specifically for having given interviews to several Kurdish newspapers abroad, having spread false information and membership of various opposition groups.
No news is available regarding those detainees who have been transferred, like Salman Khalipour who was sent to Kermanshan, kept in solitary with whom his family no longer has any contact.
On 18 December the head of the Prison promised the detainees to accede to their demands “once they would have ended their strike”, which the latter refused. On 21 December, the 32nd day of the strike the Iranian authorities showed their determination to put an end to the movement and special forces were deployed round the prison, ready to act after a meeting between the Higher National Security Council, the secret services (Itlaat), the Police Department and the Governor of Urmiah. As those taking part in this meeting had decided to put an end to this strike by all possible means, the strikers were attacked and threatened. However, the prisoners did not give up their movement and on 24 Dec27ember a report by the Human Rights Activists News Agency said that the state of health of 13 of them was critical. Two of these, Ali Ahmad Soleymani and Khazar Rasoulizadeh were taken to the prison hospital but refused any serum injections. In the end, at 11 p.m. of 25 December the 27 prisoners in Section 12 ended their movement after 33 days of hunger strike as the authorities acceded to their demands. This was confirmed by one of them to HRANA.
“The prison authorities have promised to accede to all our demands and have transferred 32 non-political prisoners out of section 12 while 13 politicals have come into it. There remain 20 non-political prisoners in section 12 and the rule about “separating the crimes” is not yet fully applied”. According to him, however, the prison authorities have promised that section 12 will be solely reserved for political prisoners.
The only detainee who continues to refuse food is Alireza Rasooli, who is still not receiving treatment for his cancer.
On 13 December the press announced that the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Masud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led (at least in name) by Jalal Talabani, were no longer on the list of terrorist organisations drawn up by the United States’. The news was confirmed on the same day by Brett McGurk, the assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Syria on his twitter page.
“Congress has adopted the NDAA (National Defence Authorization Act) with a clause withdrawing the KDP and the PUK from the list of terrorist organisations, drawn up in accordance with US laws on immigration. This unfair designation has complicated procedures for securing visas for many Kurds wishing to visit the United States”.
Although neither the KDP or the PUK ever resorted to terrorism, be it in Iraq or elsewhere, they had both been paced on this black-list in 2001 in the context of the Patriot Act as “level III terrorist groups” (al-Qaeda and ISIS being level I). The paranoiac atmosphere following the 11 September had described as terrorist any armed opposition movement in the world, including groups considered friends or allies of the US.
In February Masud Barzani had refused to visit the US to meet Obama so long as the two principal parties of Kurdistan continued to be n this blacklist. In April 2014 two Senators, Robert Menedez and John McCain proposed a bill to remove the two Kurdish parties from the list.
According to Kamal Kirkuki, former Speaker of the Erbil Parliament and a senor KDP official, this measure will make easier the US armed support for the Kurds in their fight against the “Islamic State” (ISIS) and enable many Kurds to visit the US without risking having their visas effused.
The Regional Government of Kurdistan has secured a seat as observer for its Representative to the European Parliament in all sessions concerning Middle East questions.
Dlawar Azhgevi, The KRG representative to the European Union explained to Basnews that KRG officials had long desired this and that the Protocol Department of the European Parliament had acceded to their request.
In the last few months, in view of the Iraqi crisis and the humanitarian and military aid that the KRG was receiving, its officials had often been invited by the European Parliament to discuss regional issues and above all, the war against the “Islamic State”. The links and relations between the Kurds and European Union member states are this strengthened and various meetings are virtually monthly.
On 23 December, Federica Mogherini, who runs European Affairs within the EU, visited Erbil, after landing in Iraq, on the 22nd, where she met the Iraqi President, Fuad Massum, the Prime Minister, Hayder al-Abadi, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Al-Jaffari and the Speaker of Parliament, Ibrahim al-Jabouri.
In Erbil, Federica Mogherini met the President Masud Barzani and his Prime Minister, Nêçirvan Barzani. In a joint press conference with the Kurdish President she stressed the “common struggle” of the Kurds and the EU against ISIS and declared that Europe’s vision of the KRG was “very positive”, assuring her audience that military and humanitarian aid would follow and expressing her “gratitude” for the way the Kurds were welcoming the refugees.
However, regarding the referendum the Kurds wished to hold regarding their independence, Federica Mogherini considered that the EU believed that the power and strength of Iraq “lay in its unity”. To this, Masud Barzani replied that Kurdistan had a right to independence and that it was for the people of Kurdistan to decide.