On Saturday 10 October, Turkey was hit by the most murderous terrorist attack in its history. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the middle of a demonstration for peace, organised by several Trade Unions and Left organisations together with the pro-Kurdish HDP that took place in front of Ankara’s main railway station. At least 128 people were killed and 246 were injured. Even a day after the explosions, 160 people were still in hospital, 65 of whom were under intensive care. The victims are mainly people opposed to the AKP — Kurds and progressive Turks.
This terrible terrorist attack took place in an already very tense atmosphere marked by acts of violence — especially by unprecedented violence carried out by the police and government supporters. On the 7th th body of a young Kurdish activist, Haci Lokman Birlik, had been caught on the mudguards of a police car and dragged through the streets of Sirnak. This recalled a sinister incident last August when soldiers had published on social networks photos in which they posed before the naked body of a dead PKK woman fighter, who had suffered the same fate.
After years during which political relations seemed to have calmed down, this extreme violence carried out with impunity against those considered to be enemies of the State seems again to have become the norm in Turkey. Since their defeat in last June’s elections, the country’s AKP leaders have unceasingly pinpointed in their speeches the enemies against whom it was necessary to fight. This is exemplified by the long speech by President Erdogan on Sunday 4 October during his election meeting at the Zenith in Strasbourg, before 12,000 Turks of the diaspora. After a collective prayer, let by an Imam brought specially from Turkey, this meeting called a “Citizens’ meeting against terrorism” was the occasion for a very offensive speech by the Head of State, larded with Islamic references and comments exalting the Turkish nation. In this speech Erdogan clearly pinpointed the enemy not as being ISIS, (that he didn’t mention even once) but the PKK and by implication, the HDP.
Indeed, immediately after the news of the bomb attack in Ankara, Prime Minister Davutoğlu, far from questioning the responsibility of the State for such an attack taking place in the very heart of a capital city reputedly the most security conscious area in the country, rejected for of the responsibility … on the organisers of the demonstration!
As was remarked in Le Monde of 13 October: “the Government reacted by accusing the victims, by forbidding the media from coving the attack and by blocking access to social networks, especially Facebook and Twitter”. No official ceremony of respects to the victims has been organised.
One can well ask how a State with secret services as efficient Turkey’s could have let such a bomb attack take place in Ankara. The demonstration had been duly authorised but the Turkish police — and especially the many plain=clothes ones who normally cover and control such events were notably absent. The police suddenly appeared a few minutes after the explosions — to disperse the crowd (in a state of shock after the explosions) with water cannons and tear gas.
A Turkish member of Parliament, Lütfü Turkkan (CHP), summed up the opinion of many observers following this attack, that it was “either a setback for the intelligence Service or had bee carried out by them”.
Who is behind this attack? The question must be raised since, unfortunately, such attacks have been multiplying in Turkey for several months: in Diarbekir, last June, just before the elections, an HDP election meeting had suffered from two bombs that caused four deaths and several hundreds of injured. In July, a suicide bomb attack at Suruç, near the Syrian borders, killed 34 Left activists who had come to take part in the reconstruction of Kobané. The victims are always to be found amongst the Kurds or those close to them and the modus operandi are always very similar — in the last two cases metal pellets were found on site that had been added to the explosive to increse the damage.
The Jihadist ISIS organisation did not claim either the Suruç attack or the Ankara one, whereas it has always claimed credit for the attacks it committed in Kurdistan, Syria, Iraq or elsewhere. Members of the Kurdish community point out that whenever they have been targeted, no one is ever found or charged while anyone who dares to accuse Erdogan of corruption or who has uttered the initials PKK is immediately taken to court, and the Law, with a capital “L” is applied most rigorously.
For his part, Selahettin Demirtaş, the HDP co-President, so often targeted by such attacks, pointed out that the government authorities “have never been capable of finding those guilty of the Diyarbekir or Suruç attacks, just as they will never identify those responsible for the Ankara explosion”. He then added “There is no mysterious power behind this attack. We are being sent a message: “We can kill you in broad daylight, in the very centre of Ankara and we can kill whosoever rises against us and cover up the operation”.
An immediate advantage to the government, the HDP, to avoid ay more killings, has decided to cancel its election meetings and id this obliged to tackle the elections in the most unfavourable circumstances, in increasingly insane threats … This s a sad reminder of the situation in the 90s, when the offices of the pro-Kurdish party were systematically attacked before the elections. While the HDP finds itself prevented from campaigning. the AKP, for its part, has closed down or taken control of those media that were not fully in its favour.
Is Mr. Erdogan succeeding in creating his “islamo-nationalist synthesis” by adding a fourth Jihadist partner to the “deep State” (derin devlet) — the traditional alliance of the police, the secret services and the criminal underworld? In the 90s the Turkish State had manager to use to carry out its dirty work the islamsts of the Kurdish Hezbollah, of which the recently created “Huda Par”, (a name that also means the “Party of God”) is the heir. Will the Turkish President thus succeed in taking complete control of power and “stifling the files of corruption that begging to come out publicly” as Ahmet Insel, Professor of political science at Galatasaray University, wrote in Le Point on 15 October?
The problem is whether the present Turkish State, with 7% of those polled saying theu supporty ISIS coud long survive such a “success”.
During October, the Turkish Special Forces, backed by the police, have all month long carried out operations of “punishment” if several towns considered as strongholds of Kurdish nationalism like Ferqin (Silvan), Cizre, Nusaybin, and several quarters of Diyarbakir. Subjected to curfews, frequently suffering cuts in the supply of electricity and water, these towns have experiences devastating violence. Hundreds of homes and businesses have been searched and burnt by the Turkish forces on the excuse of destroying barricades set up by the youth.This war being carried out “in camera” has already caused fifty civilian deaths and provoked the exodus of thousands of in habitants. Amongst the victims are, inevitably many children. Those responsible for these murders has not be charged.
It is in this intolerable context that courageous Public prosecutor decided to react. Mid-October, the Kurdish lawyer, Tahir Elçi, Chairman of the Diyarbekir Bar Association, stated to CNN that the PKK was not a terrorist organisation but an armed organisation. “Even of certain of PKK’s actions have a terrorist character, the PKK is an armed political movement” he said in the course of a discussion programme. “It is a political movement with political demands which enjoys considerable support in society”.
This distinction — fairly classical in political sciences — was not appreciated y the Pulic Prosecutor of Bakırköy (an Istanbul suburb) who ordered that Mr elçi be charged. Le latter was arrested by the anti-terrorist police at his home in Diyarbekir in the middle of the night of 20 October and taken to Istanbul. After a week’s detention he was released till his trial but under control of the court. The Prosecutor’s office sent the charge sheet to Bakirköy’s Second High Criminal Court, which will have to decide within 15 days whether or not to sue the lawyer. It the case is followed through, Mr. Elçi could be sentenced to between one and a half years to seven years in prison.
Bakirköy’s Public Prosecutor’s fury can be understood. Mr. Elço is, amongst other tasks the lawyer of Mohammed Rasool, an Iraqi Kurdish journalist who had been arrested last August in Diyarbekir while he was working as interpreter intermediary for two journalist from Vice News. Mohammed Rasool had previously worked for Associated Press, where he was appreciated for his on-site qualities. At the time he was helping his British colleagues Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, to cover the clashes between young Kurds and the police in Diyarbekir Province. They had, in particular, interviewed a 13-year-old girl who had bee wounded by three stray bullets at the beginning of the clashes.
Arrested with Rasool in front of their hotel on 27 August the two British journalists were accused of “working for ISIS” — a particularly odd charge, especially in Rasool’s case. He had, earlier, in his native region of Iraqi Kurdistan, collected evidence from witnesses of the atrocities committed by ISIS.
The three men were then imprisoned in a “Type F” prison at Adana. Then. 11 days later the two Brits were released and expelled to the UK while Rasool remained in a high security prison. The Turkish authorities did not charge him with anything nor explain the reasons for his detention. They only let it be understood that they had found some “suspect documents” on his computer’s hard disc. After a while the journalists were accused of carrying out propaganda for the PKK — which, however was not exactly on good terms with ISIS …
On 10 October. The US State Department spokesman, Mark Toner called on Turkey to observe the law in Rasool’s case: “We earnestly ask the Turkish authorities” he stated “to see to it that their actions regarding Mr. Rasool observe universal democratic values, including a due process of law and a fair trial, (observance of) freedom of expression and access to media and information”.
The Turkish legal system does not set a time limit between the arrest of a suspect and the issuing of a charge sheet by a Prosecutor — especially in the case of suspicion of terrorism. Consequently, despite the mobilisation carried our by his British colleagues and the call made by the US State Department. Mr. Rasool can, in al legality, remain in prison for years to come without any clearly defined charges being made against him.
And now his lawyer, Mr. Elçi, is himself in prison …
While Bakırköy’s Prosecutor may not have read the State Department’s communiqué he has probably read the open letter addressed to the Turkish President on the 30th of the month and published in about fifty international publication — amongst which are the Agence France Presse, the New York Times and… Vice Media. In it he could have read the signatories’ concern for Mr. Rasool’s fate — as well as an appeal that journalists, be they Turkish citizens or members of the international press be protected and authorised to do their work in safety.
These media leaders stressed “the negative impact for Turkey’s image if these attacks on press freedom” and (which should interest the legal official) warning against the “culture of impunity” regarding actions against independent journalists. lead
This month has seen a remarkable development in the political and military situation in Syria. In the first place, the beginning of the month was marked by effective start of Russian intervention, with many air raids co-ordinated with deployment on the ground of Russian and Iranian troops nacking a major offensive launched by the Syrian Army from Damascus.
On the Kurdish front, a military alliance formed several months ago round the YPG (People’d Defence Units) which is linked to the PYD (Democratic Unity Party) that includes several Arab and Assyrian rebel groups has announced on 12 October that it had formally organised itself and adopted the name of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This new military force, which includes several Syrian groups that had already fought against ISIS alongside the YPG, like the Burkan al-Furat (The Euphrates Volcano) and tribal based Arab groups as well as Assyrians, announced that it envisaged rapidly launching an attack against ISIS to the South, with the support of American air strikes. Their aim is ti=o increase pressure on Raqqa, the jihadists’ “capital”. The SDF now enjoys more US support, the Pentagon having announced that it was totally abandoning its earlier strategy of training rebel fighters eho would them enter the country — a strategy that, in fact, has never really worked.
The YPG: announced the creation of the SDF in a communiqué that stressed the Syrian context: “The rapid developments in the political and military fields in Syria require the setting up of a national military force for all Syrians, that would include Kurds, Arabs and Syriacs and al lthe others”.
The SDF should have between 3000 and 5000 Arab fighters, to which should be added some 20,000 Kurdish YPG members. They could advance on Raqqa in a few weeks, thus closing the border with Turkey so as to prevent fighters and goods reaching the areas held by ISIS. The aim is not, however, to rake the town but rather to isolate it. This operation, planned before the launching of the Russia operation, is said to have been prepared by training several thousands of YPH in camps located in Iraqi Kurdistan by members of the US Special Forces. Should this be true, Turkey’s reaction can be imagined …
The inclusion of the Kurdish YPG in a broader alliance than the SDF would be a means whereby the Americans overcome the “classical” limitations of the Kurdish fighters, who are considered less useful outside the areas inhabited by Kurds, that they are called on to defend.
Ten days later (the 32nd) the PYD announced that the council of the ethnically mixed town of Tell Abyad (in Arabic) / Girê Spî (in Kurdish) and the autonomous administration of the three “cantons” of Rojava had reached an agreement to integrate the town with Rojava., The town had been an important route for the Jihadists towards their “capital” Raqqa and had been taken back from them by the YPG last June and administered by a local council.
This decision aroused Turkey’s fury, as it was interpreted as strengthening the Kurdish “takeover” of the North of Syria, and it launched a series of air strikes on the region concerned and on Kobané.
Nevertheless, whatever Turkey’s worries about the recent gains by the Kurds in Syria, the new Russian presence in the country obliges it to show some restraint, and makes any large scale operation by it even less probable than before.
From the start of the Russian air raids in Syria, the PYD co-President, Salih Muslim, had declared that since it was a case of fighting ISIS, he was ready to ally himself with the Russians, adding that the Russian intervention was, in his opinion a protection against the possibility of any incursion by Turkish troops into the areas his party controlled:
“In the context of the defence agreement reached with Damascus” he stated on 1 October in a note on the Al-Minitor site, “the Russians will prevent any Turkish intervention — not to defend us Kurds but to protect Syria’s borders”.
The PYD seems, thus, to have benefited by recent developments. Certainly it is still in a sensitive geo-strategic situation, hemmed in between ISIS to its South and Turkey to the North. But the inclusion of the Kurds in a broader alliance allows the Americans to envisage operations against ISIS outside the Kurdish regions and also provides Rojava with some safety for its autonomous region on a political level — even as the inclusion of the Tell Abad region provides it geo-strategically
Faced with ISIS, the Syrian Kurds have shown the world, by their victory in Kobané, their ability to resist. While this feat was dearly bought by the deaths of many fighters, it enabled the administration of Rojava to appear as an indispensible partner in the struggle against the Jihadist organisation — both to the Russians and the Americans.
In contrast, Turkey has gradually succeeded in the feat of putting itself out on a limb in the eyes of the Americans because of its ambiguous attitude to ISIS and of the Russians by its unacceptable demand for the removal of Bachar al-Assad. Quite apart from strictly military considerations and the unforeseeable consequences of direct Russia-Turkey confrontation, Turkey is also restrained economically by its always vital need for Russian and Iranian oil and gas. This need is also certainly felt by the AKP, since a flourishing Turkish economy is one of the conditions for it remaining in office.
At diplomatic level the PYD leaders have were welcomed to Moscow by the Russian Foreign Minister — a meeting in the course of which the future opening of a Rojava representative in the Russian capital was raised. The Kurdish leaders stressed that they were ready to be involved in any alliances against ISIS, while reminding their interlocutors that they had a special interest in the fate of Aleppo, since prior to 2011 its population was 20% Kurdish and that the Cheikh Maqsoud quarter, at present surrounded by the rebels is Kurdish and should be linked to the nearby Afrin canton, from which the majority of the Kurds of the quarter originally came.
At the same time, the PYD co-president, Salih Muslim, announced from Rojava that it would also be opening representative offices in Paris and Berlin
As far as ISIS is concerned, the impact of recent developments is rather contrasted. When this Jihadist group first appeared the Al-Assad regime had played on the fears that it inspired and deliberately concentrated its attacks on other organisations. This tactic partly paid off since the country’s other minorities came to consider the regeime as the lesser evil (exactly as the PYD co-president expressed it recently) and even to support it. This situation was also shown at the beginning of the Russian air strikes, which at first were aimed at other opposition forces. ISIS was able to take advantage of this situation by advancing, especially in the Aleppo region.
However the time for these advantages could now be over. After months of ambiguity about it, Turkey, put in the hot seat by ts allies has had to adopt a tougher line towards it — it has become harder for foreign fighters wishing to join ISIS in Syria to travel through Turkey. The daily number of such border crossings is now 5 as against 50 in 2014. In Iraq, the offensives against ISIS are beginning to reduce the area it controls — 26% of Iraqi territory now as against 43% last year.
Economically, since its loss of the Iraqi oil field of Ajil in April, ISIS has had to reduce its fighters’ wages by 30%. While the group continues to make some progress, since it now controls 40to 50% of the land as against 20% in 2014, the creation of an alliance aimed primarily against it and supported by the Western Coalition could well signal the beginning of an ebb.
On 31 October the SDF announced that their first operation against ISIS would be aimed at expelling the Jihadists completely from the South of Hassakeh, which it still controls.
The struggle against ISIS is continuing and is still as bloody — the Peshmerga Ministry of the KRG announced on 2 October that since last summer (the moment of ISIS’s attack on the Kurdistan Region) 1,300 Peshmergas have lost their lives, 52 are reported missing and 5,000 have been wounded.
Clashes between Jihadists and Peshmergas intensified in October, the Kurdish fighters having repulsed several ISIS and also taken part in a attacks joint operation with the Americans and Iraqis that enabled the liberation of 69 hostages held in one of ISIS’s prisons near Hawija, in Kirkuk province.
The persistence of the financial crisis and the constant inflow of displaced people towards Kurdistan is arousing a wave of social discontent and is reviving differences between the political parties. This crisis also affects the morale of the fighters and harms the effectiveness of their struggle against ISIS. This the Yezidi Member of the Kurdish Parliament, Dakhil Vian, warned the Ministry of the danger of not paying the fighters wages. According to her, 5,000 Yezidis in Sinjar, who had joined the Peshmergas have not been paid for the last 5 months and dozens of them are in danger of leaving the ranks to fins some other work. As she pointed out, their families are mostly living in camps or rented flats and desperately need this pay.
On 9 October afternoon, a crowd of demonstrators assembled before the town hall at Qala Diza, a town 100 Lm East of Erbil, demanding payment of arrears of pay and the end of the current Presidential term of office.
The then demonstrators moved to the local offices of the KDP, which they surrounded before staring to throw stones. The building guards opened fire, killing two people, including a young boy of 14, and wounding 21 others. The demonstrators attacked the building and burn it down. Four security guards were also injured in the fighting. Additional police forces were deployed in the area to maintain order. Later the same day KDP offices were attacked in the towns of Zharawa, Hajiawa and Sangasar. The one at Zharawa was also set alight. At Erbil and Dohuk, safety cordoned of police were set up round Gorran party offices to prevent attacks in reprisal by KDP supporters. On the 11th, demonstrators set fire to KDP offices in Halabja.
How have things come to such a pass? The term of office of the President of the Region, Masud Barzani, (who is also President of the KDP) after having twice been extended for two year again expired on 20August last. Since then, the KDP has argued that the military situation Kurdistan is facing faced with ISIS, requires another two-year extension, pending the adoption of a new Constitution for Kurdistan, defining, inter alia, the powers and mode of election of the Region’s President. At the moment, these powers and are defined in a special law that some parties wish to amend. Kurdistan’s other political parties, in particular the former opposition party Gorran (Change) that entered the coalition set up on 18 June 2014, propose that the President be either elected by Parliament or by referendum — but with powers more strictly limited than at present.
There have long been two “camps” in the Region, the one defending a presidential Regime and the other a Parliamentary one. This long-standing political disagreement has been exacerbated recently. Four parties (the PUK, Gorran and the two Kurdish Islamic parties) are more in favour of the election of President by Parliament, as they know that a direct election by universal suffrage would give an easy victory to the KDP candidate. Many meetings between Kurdistan’s five principal parties have taken place since August reaching an agreement that could end the crisis. The combination of these political tensions with the increasingly serious economic and social tensions are an explosive cocktail for the Kurdistan Region
For nearly two years the central Iraqi Government has not paid the KRG the 17% of the country’s budget that is its Constitutional due. Erbil and Baghdad each blame the other for this situation. Baghdad justifies this measure by reproaching Erbil of exploiting and selling its oil without passing it through the central Government. Erbil reproaches Baghdad for not paying it its share of the Federal budget. It argues that it has no other means of meeting its financial obligations but by selling its oil independently! A Baghdad-Erbil agreement negotiated after the ISIS attack has harfly altered the situation, partly because of the drop in oil prices. On 7 October the KRG Finance Minister, Rebaz Mohammed, pointed out that, since the start of the war against ISIS, Kurdistan had devoted 756 billion Iraqi dinars (about 644 million euros) to this struggle.
The principal consequences of this situation — the wages of many KRG civil servants have not been paid for several months. Many strike movements and major demonstrations against the KRG have taken place since the beginning of October, around economic demands. On the 3rd hundreds of teachers demonstrated and blocked Salim Street, one of Suleymaniah’s main roads. The nest day the clerks of Suleymaniah’s ’s court went on strike. The teachers renewed their strike at Halabja, Suleimanieh, Garmyan and Raparîn — a strike that continued till the end of the month. On the 5th, the staff of the Ministries of Health and Social Affairs at Erbil struck too. While some school heads resumed work some teachers came to protest before the Erbil parliament on the 7th while the staff of the Environment Department blocked a main street in the dame city — always in protest at the non-payment of wages. On the 8th a the biggest demonstration against the non-payment of wages in three months tool place before Suleymaniah’s town hall where the five main Kurdish parties were meeting to negotiate the Presidential issue. The police who were protecting the meeting acted with tear gas to disperse the crowd, and there were at least 17 injured, including two policemen.
A few days after the Qala Diza incident, an the morning of the 12th, the KDP security forces prevented the Speaker of Parliament, Yusif Mohammed (Gorran), from entering Erbil. On 13 October the Prime Minister, Neçirvan Barzani (KDP), informed the four Gorran Ministers that he would replace them in the government and announced his intension of starting consultations for forming a new coalition government. In the interim, the work of the (replaced) Gorran Ministers would be carried our by their deputy ministers. Neçirvan Barzani also informed the political parties that they should elect a new Speaker of Parliament before Yusif Mohammed could be allowed to enter Erbil. Indeed, new Ministers were appointed on 27th — the other parties having refused to take part in discussions that were aimed at setting up a new government. The new ministers are all KDP members, the Gorran Ministers being “suspended”, not dismissed.
The new Ministers are the following: the Peshmerga Ministry is gi given to Karim Sinjarî, at present Minister of the Interior. The Minister of Planning goes to Ali Sindi, at present Minister of Commerce and Industry. The Ministry of Religious Affairs (Waqf) is given to Pishtiwan Sadiq and the Ministry of Finance goes to the KDP deputy of the suspended Gorran Minister. The President of the Investments Office, who had been a Gorran member, has also been replaced.
This political crisis is paralleled with sharp tension with the media. The social networks were temporarily blocked all day on the 11th at Erbil and Dohuk, while the offices of some media were subjected to attacks or even arbitrarily closed. The Suleymaniah office of the Rudaw channel, close to the KDP, was attacked by demonstrators who were repelled by the police with tear gas, and those of the NKT channel at Erbil and Soran were closed down by the police. The NKT staff in Erbil was even forced to leave the city and their photographic equipment confiscated.
In Suleymaniah, the offices of six Television channels were attacked by demonstrators, including the Kurdish language Turkish channel TRT-6, one of whose journalists was injured. A journalist with NRT, Babar Anwar, reports he was prevented from covering the Suleymaniah demonstrations by members of the police, who damaged his team’s photographic equipment and stuck him …
Following the Qala Diza incident, the Iraqi President, Fuad Massum, called on the KTG and its institutions to show some restraint while maintaining the Kurdistan Region’s security. On 26 October the Ministry of Finance started paying some of Jully’s wages …