On the 1st of the month the UN Commissioner for Human Rights at Geneva expressed indignation and urged Turkey to conduct an enquiry into the death by shooting of an unarmed group of civilians in Kurdistan. The incident occurred about tens days previously at Cizre and was revealed by a video he described as “extremely shocking” which rapidly spread like a virus on the web. It shows a group of civilians led by a man and woman carrying a white flag who are pushing want appear to be corpses on a handcart. Suddenly the group seems to be struck by what appears to be a series of shots, the cameraman’s blood even covering part of the lens. Moreover, the HDP announced that it had been unable to communicate for the last three days with a group of 31 civilians, some of whom were wounded, who had been trapped for several weeks in a cellar in Cizre, which has been under a curfew since mid-December. At least one of them had died during the previous two weeks.
On the same day some hundreds of civilians took advantage of the lifting of the curfew that had been imposed of the Western quarter of Sur (the walled old town which dates to Roman times) of Diyarbakir to flee the fighting area. The Eastern part of Sur, however, remains under a 24-hour curfew.
Following publication of this news, while the Turkish Army announced that it had killed 600 rebels since December (it has not been possible to obtain independent confirmation of these figures) the HDP co-President, Selahettin Demirtaş, accused the Turkish security forces, on the 9th of “carrying out a massacre” in the country’s Kurdish region. The Turkish press reported a raid by the security forces on a building in the Cudî quarter of Cizre on the 7th in which about 60 wounded people were trapped for over a week. The Turkish Minister of the Interior, Efkan Ala, for his part describer the reports of civilian deaths in a cellar in Cizre as “disinformation”, adding that “the place (building) doesn’t even exist”.
A war tactic without any consideration for civilians
The Turkish “security” forces have been using the same tactics since the renewal of hostilities: faced with the PKK youth who set up barricades and proclaimed “democratic autonomy”, they besiege the a quarter or even a whole town, place the area under a total and continuous 24-hour curfew for weeks at an end and subject it to intense shelling, sometimes by tanks surrounding the town
Some buildings become completely uninhabitable either because they have received direct hits from shells that kill civilians in their living rooms or because the water, electricity and heating have been cut off — and this in a region with a freezing cold climate in winter. Because of the curfew, it is strictly forbidden for anyone to go out into the street, so that civilians are caught in a trap. When their supply food and water is exhausted many of them have no other option than to go out to seek supplies and the “security forces” snipers target them for breaching the curfew. These may be children seeking some bread or old people who have nothing left in their homes. Anyone who tries to take the wounded to a place of shelter is shot at as well. Wounded people who have been unable to find shelter in their buildings cellars cannot be rescued because the troops and police forbid ambulances to enter the besieged areas.
Faced with such abuses of power one may well ask, which are the terrorists in Turkey? If the State so describes the PKK youth who set up barricades in their quarters of the how should we describe the force used by the State to “reconquer” them and the war-like tactics used without the slightest consideration for the civilians, whose “security” they are supposed to be ensuring? In this context we can understand why over a hundred Members of the European Parliament launch this month a campaign (so far unsuccessfully) to remove the PKK from the official list of terrorist organisations.
A plan of security and development
It is against this background of violence that, on the 3rd, the Turkish Prime Minister announced, in an almost surrealist manner, that he would reveal during his next visit to Mardin, a “security and development plan” for the Kurdish region. The Turkish media, moreover, have announced that the plan included a substantial security element with a strengthening of the deployment of the Army and police in towns considered to be “sensitive”. Indeed, on the 6th, Davutoğlu did announce at Mardin plans to invest 25.5 billion Turkish lire (about 9 billion euros) — while still refusing the decentralisation called for by HDP or any renewal of negotiations with the PKK.
Since the founding of the Turkish Republic, the various Turkish governments from the Kemalist ones to the AKP’s, who chosen the military option for “dealing with” the country’s Kurdish Question have always announced simultaneously the imminent “eradication” of terrorism and a number of “development plans” for the Kurdish region. What has been the result? Today, 32 years after the first Army operations against the PKK in 1984, the PKK is still ever present and Turkish Kurdistan continues to suffer an enormous arrears of development compared with the rest of the country — to such a point that local councillors have ended up by boycotting any announcements of this kind … Indeed, the only investment the State made in the Kurdish region was the massive “GAP project” of building dams — a project that Kurdish local councillors and many international experts consider to be more a matter of pillaging Kurdistan’s natural resources to the benefit of the West of the country than a real attempt at development to the that would advantage the inhabitants of the areas concerned.
Continuing all out repression
Alongside the acts of violence in the field and some promises of a better economic future in more distant tomorrows, the legal repression is continuing. Also on the 3rd, a lecturer of Political Science at Ankara University, Resat Baris Unlu, was charged with “terrorist propaganda” after he set his student a question in an examination paper regarding the PKK’s imprisoned chief. The question was to compare two articles by Ocalan, one published in 1978 entitled: “The Way to Revolution in Kurdistan” and one published in 2012, “Democratic Modernity for the Construction of local Systems in the Middle East”. Indeed, the PKK’s ideas have undergone considerable changes over this period. The Ankara Prosecutor clearly did not find this a legitimate subject for reflection since he decided to charge the lecturer with having tried to “legitimise Ocalan’s opinions amongst his students” and “transmitting the idea that he was a political leader”. Unlu faces up to seven years imprisonment.
On the 6th, a German-born Kurdish footballer in Diyarbakir’s Amedspor team, Deniz Naki, was targeted — the Turkish Football Federation announced that it had suspended him for a year and fined him 6,200 euros for statements of “ideological propaganda” and “contrary to the sporting spirit”. What was Naki’s offence? He had called, in the Turkish daily Evrensel, for the end of the fighting between the PKK rebels and the Turkish security forces. Questioned about his suspension, Naki commented: “We have no other choice but to call for peace”. Satellite
The authorities have also continued their offensive against critical media. The Satellite RV Channel IMC TV, founded in 2011 is considered the only pro-Kurdish and anti-government channel, announced that the Turks at operator had stopped broadcasting its programmes under written court orders. The Prosecutor’s letter, justified this by the character of “propaganda for a terrorist organisation” shown by IMC’s programmes. It is significant that the broadcast was stopped in the middle of an interview with two journalists of Cumhuriyet, Erdem Gul and Can Dundar. They had just been released by order of the Constitutional Court (one of the few State institutions not yet completely under the orders of the Turkish President) after three months preventive detention pending their trial. Their crime? Having made public a delivery of arms by the MIT (Turkish secret service) to the Syrian Islamic rebels with full proof. The directors of the channel, who promise to use all legal means to “defend themselves against these unfounded accusations” describe the closing order as illegal, since it did not come from RTUK, the official audio-visual supervisory body, which alone id qualified to take such a decision. Deprived of its satellite broadcasting, it continues to broadcast on the Web.
It is thus in this context, hardly favourable for any exchange of ideas, that the Parliamentary Commission for the so-called “Constitutional Consensus” stared work on the 5th. Charged with beginning work on a new constitution to replace the present one (drawn up by the Army coup d’état of 1980) in includes M.P.s from the four parties represented in Parliament:
AKP, President Erdogan’s Party, in office
CHP, the Kemalist opposition, formerly the sole party
MHP (ultra-nationalist & semi-fascist)
HDP a progressive “pro-Kurdish” party that also contains representatives of various ethic minorities
While all the parties are agreed on the need for a Constitutional review that have serious differences on the kind of change required. President Erdogan, backed by his party, wants a Presidential regime that would enable him to have extended powers — which is just what the opposition parties fear most. The previous Commission, which met in 2013, had been unable to reach a conclusion. Moreover the HDP leaders and many of its M.P.s are still threatened with a lifting of their Parliamentary immunity following their “unconstitutional” statements calling for autonomy of the Kurdish region…
Many popular criticisms and protests.
Many voices have been heard throughout the country in protest at the acts of violence by the security forces in the Kurdish region. On the 15th, Selma Irmak, co-President of the Congress for a Democratic Society (DTK), and a M.P. on the HDP list, stated that over 500 people, including 50 children and 120 women, mostly Kurdish, had been killed in the last six months in the clashes between the Kurds and the Turkish Army. In an interview to the Ria-Novosty News Agency, this HDP Member of Parliament added that the figures would be even higher when the number of deaths in the town of Cizre, where operations have just ended officially, are known. Two days later, on the 17th, Selahettin Demirtaş, HDP co-President, while visiting Athens, stated that the European Union had chosen to close its eyes of the violations to Human Rights committed by Turkey in the Kurdish region, of the country as part of an agreement on the refugee crisis. Demirtaş described this policy as a “serious mistake”, since he considered that Erdogan had “neither the will nor the means of resolving this crisis”. The EU had offered Turkey 3 billion euros for him to keep the refugees on his territory — while President Erdogan declared that he had the right to expel the refugees on his land to the EU and was threatening to do so.
The month was also punctuated by many popular protest demonstrations. On the 7th, at Diyarbekir, during a demonstration against the siege of Cizre that brought together 3000 people, a youth of 17 was killed. On the 8th, at Istanbul, the police used tear gas and water cannons against a demonstration against the operations in Cizre. On the 14th, still in Istanbul, there were clashes between the police and pro-Kurdish demonstrators in the Gezi quarter; on the 16th, at Diyarbekir, clashes with the police marked the 17th anniversary of Abdullah Ocalan’s arrest. Finally, also at Diyarbekir the police dispersed a demonstration against the curfew, which the police dispersed with tear gas and water cannons.
There were also demonstrations abroad: on the 27th, at Strasbourg, before the Council of Europe offices (Turkey is a member or this institution) and those of the European Court for Human Rights some Kurdish women protested against the atrocities being committed at Cizre by the Turkish security forces. On this occasion Nursel Kilic, a representative of the Kurdish Women’s Movement in Europe, stated that amongst the civilian victims of these operations were students and human Rights activists — but also children only a few months old. She added that despite the Turkish President’s statements (and those made by the Minister of the Interior, Efkan Ala, on the 11th) that the operations had ended they were still continuing, which she could prove from the pictures she was receiving from the town.
“For security reasons” the Turkish authorities had not allowed the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner to visit Cizre. On the same day the police at Diyarbekir again used water cannons and tear gas to disperse thousands of demonstrators in the Sur quarter who had gathered in the Kosuyolu Park to demand an end to the curfew or even a one-day break to allow the residents trapped there by the fighting to leave.
The Ankara bomb attack of the 17th.
Tensions increase still further throughout the country after a car, filled with explosives. Exploded in Ankara near the Armed Forces Headquarters and the parliament. It took place at 6.30 pm, in the middle of the rush hour, near an Army convoy. The Deputy Prime Minister, Numan Kurtulmus, immediately stated that it had killed 28 people and injured 61 others. Although it was not immediately claimed, some sources close to the security services stated that some factors pointed to PKK, but other sources in the Southeast mentioned ISIS, while Prime Minister blamed the PYD. This last was treated with open scepticism by the United States, who cooperates with this Kurdish group against ISIS. Criticising American support of this organisation, Erdogan repeated, on the 19th, that there was no doubt about this organisation’s responsibility. The Web site of the pro-government daily Yeni Safak, for its part published the fingerprints of the person responsible for the attack, taken when he entered the country with some refugees, which enabled him to be identified as a Syrian called Salih Necar.
On the 19th the attack on the Army convoy was claimed by a group “Hawks for the Freedom of Kurdistan” » (TAK, Teyrêbazên Azadiya Kurdistan), who pointed out that tit had been organised as a reprisal for the operations being carried out in Turkish Kurdistan by the Armed forces. They warned tourists against visiting Turkey. The TAK said that the man who carried out the attack was a Kurd from Van called Abdulbakî Sonmez, whose “nom de guerre” was Zînar Raperîn. This contradicts the identification published earlier. On the 23rd, the daily paper Hurriyet published a report that the suicide bombers name was Abdulbaki Sonmez, but that he had returned to Turkey with forged papers in the name of Salih Necar. Although DNA tests seem to confirm TAK’s claim, Deputy Prime Minister stated that these factors “in no way cast doubts on the joint responsibility of the PKK and PYD”.
The TAK had already claimed the 23 December attack on Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport, which had caused the deaths of a cleaner. The Turkish government describes TAK as a front used by the PKK for its attacks on civilians while the PKK reply is that TAK is a breakaway group over which it has no control … On the day of the attack Cemil Bayik, an senior military commander of the PKK stated that he had no idea who was responsible but that it could have been carried out a s a reprisal for the massacres being carried out in the Kurdish regions.
On the 22nd, the government news agency Anatolia, announced that, following the Ankara -attack, 14 people had been charged and jailed pending trial and 7 others had been released. The 14 are said to have helped prepare for the attack, in particular by forging identity papers. However the published information does not clearly establish their connection with the attack.
The Army and the government’s Anatolia News Agency have announced that over 1000 PKK activists have been killed since December. Early in November President Erdogan had already stated 2000 rebels had been killed during the operations in Turkey and abroad (presumably in Iraqi Kurdistan) … These figures are can absolutely not be verified since the Turkish security forces prevent the presence in the operating zones of any independent person or body — especially journalists! There are also rumours of heavy lo losses by the Turkish armed forces — which are equally unverifiable.
The Iraqi Kurdistan Region is still suffering serious economic difficulties, while the internal political crisis persists. Despite these recurrent problems, the fight against the Jihadist ISIS organisation continues along an over 1000 Km long front.
Carrying out the struggle against ISIS.
On the 23rd of the month the KRG announced that, in the course of 2015 over 16,000 mines had been defused in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Peshmergas had already, on January 10th, announced that they had defused some 7,000 explosive booby traps left behind by ISIS on the Kirkuk front, totalling 22 tons of explosives that had killed 182 Peshmergas. According to a Peshmerga major, this is a characteristic tactic of the Ba’athist party officers fighting with ISIS against the Kurds.
Furthermore, a major part of the front covers areas that are in dispute between Baghdad and Erbil, of which the Peshmergas took control to prevent ISIS from seizing them after the June 2014 attack. The defence trenches dug by the Peshmergas to prevent ISIS car bombs continue to be controversial, some Iraqi members of Parliament and members of the pro-Turkish Turcoman Front accusing the KRG government of thus establishing the borders of the future independent Kurdistan.
However, the most important operation now being prepared is the attack on Mosul, which the Iraqi defence Ministry says in planned for the first half of 2016, and which will be carried out by the Peshmergas and Iraqi troops in coordination. However, prior to the attack itself, the city’s Southern supply lines need to be cut. A preparatory operation carried out between 3 and 20 Km West of Mosul by the Peshmergas and local Arab fighters has enabled the recapture of the village from the Jihadists and the next objective is to take ISIS’s regional base of Qayara, 10 km further to the West.
Concurrently, the Iraqi Army, with the KRG’s agreement, has begun to deploy thousands of men 70 Km Southeast of Mosul, in a base near Makhmur. The first contingent arrived on the 8th of this month, followed by others on the 12th and the 14th then by a 600-strong fourth group on the 24th. Most of these men, who should eventually total 4,500, are Kurds, serving in the 15th and 16th Divisions of the Iraqi Army. Peshmerga forces are also beginning to concentrate to the North of Mosul.
While Baghdad and Erbil are cooperating for this operation, there is still no agreement about the pay for the Peshmerga troops. Discussions carried out in the Iraqi capital on the 1st, ended without any result, as Baghdad arguing that it had only enough funds to pay its own civil servants for four months. The Iraqi Prime Minister also pointed out his opposition to the KRG’s exporting oil without going through the central government. Both governments, however, expressed the wish to continue their discussions.
Economic difficulties and social discontent
Nevertheless, in the Kurdistan Region the KRG’s civil servants haven’t been paid for the last 5 to 7 months depending on the department. These delays are having tragic consequences for the population. Thus every day hundreds of people are searching Erbil’s rubbish dumps to find something they could sell — or consume . . . A housing centre for children in Suleymaniah (whose own staff have mot been paid for five months) announced that it was collapsing and unable to meet the demands from parents who were unable to look after their children. Already last January, the announcement that teachers would only receive half of their September provoked a series of demonstrations. With a monthly deficit of 406 million dollars at the end of January, the KRG was obliged to go even further and, on the 3rd decided to reduce the salaries of all its civil servants by between 15 and 75 percent, depending on the situation. The police and Peshmergas are not affected by this although even the latter are suffering from serious arrears of pay (several have been arrested for trying to sell weapons supplied by Germany). On the 12th, the Finance Ministry announced measures to freeze recruiting and draconian cuts in the budget that might be as high as 70%, letting the Ministries concerned with only 30% of their originally planned budgets. Here too, the police and Peshmergas are not affected.
These decisions, coming on top of the arrears in pay, have aroused fresh protests throughout the region. On the 6th, the staff of Suleymaniah’s 5 Hospitals announced a strike if their wages (already five months in arrears) were not paid. On the 7th, the traffic control police of Suleymaniyeh, Ranya, Derbandikhan and Chamchamal went on indefinite strike against reductions in their wages. A lawyer, who was supporting the strikers, explained that in the absence of a parliamentary decree, reductions in wages were illegal.
On the 8th, the staff of Erbil hospital threatened to organise mass demonstrations if the KRG did nor cancel, in the next two days, its decision to reduce wages. On the 9th, the Magistrates’ Trade Union went on strike following a similar declaration, while at Suleymaniah Peshmergas demonstrated against the arrears of pay and burnt tyres and blocked the roads round their HQ. On the 11th, Suleymaniah University announced it was closing down because of the strike of its lecturers and advised the students to go home. On the 15th the hospitals of the Shahrezour region, to the East of Suleymaniah, closed down because their doctors were on strike against reduction of their salaries.
Discussions and transparency
This situation has led the citizens of the KRG to question the KRG’s oil policy, whose transparency their call into question. At Kirkuk, the police dispersed several demonstrations calling for greater transparency of the oil industry — in particular regarding the profits from oil sales from that city.
However, the issue of transparency of oil income is far broader than the Kirkuk region. At a time when the Kurdistan Region was experiencing its most serious financial crisis since it was recognised constitutionally, the news that Iraqi funds recently discovered in the Lebanon and Turkey could have come from the Kurdistan Region had an explosive effect. Many Kurds began to demand clear information about the management of the revenue from exporting oil. The former Prime Minister, Barham Salih (PUK), spoke publicly on the subject on the NRT TV channel. Faced with a now growing popular movement, the different political parties themselves began expressing such demands.
Thus on the 3rd, sic Kurdish political parties demanded as soon as it reopened the Parliament and the Commission on Integrity conduct an enquiry on funds sent abroad by some companies and political leaders and secure their return. On the 7th, the Kurdistan Islamic Movement (KIM) joined the calls for the return of funds sent abroad, explaining that wage cuts could not solve the economic crisis. On the 12th, the PUC Political published a communiqué urging the KRG to publish the figures of oil exports and the oil contracts with foreign companies and on the 15th its General Secretary, Mala Bakhtyar, called for an enquiry into the finances of the political parties and officials and for putting them on trial if it was found that embezzling went back to the period when the KRG was receiving its share of the Federal Budget from Baghdad…
The Gorran party, in a programme published on the 18th, demanded the “return home of any illegitimate profits sent abroad” and the “transfer to an account opened by the Finance Ministry” of funds deposited in foreign banks by the Ministry of Natural Resources. After the publication by the KRG of the figures of oil exports for the last few months, the critics calculated that the profits should, theoretically, have enabled another two months’ wages to be paid. They thus questioned the government about this. The discussion then moved to the area of the business advantages enjoyed by networks close to political leaders and officials. Thus in its programme Gorran demanded the cancelling of any contacts given without invitation to tender to companies belonging to officials and their relatives.
In this situation of internal conflict in the Kurdish Region, the Iraqi Prime Minister seems to be playing a somewhat double game when he offered, on the 16th, to pay the wages of the KRG’s civil servants (that is to return to the original arrangement where it received 17% of the Federal Budget) if the Kurd stopped independent oil sales. The very next day the KRG accepted this offer! It was, in fact clearly a way of taking the Iraqi Prime Minister upon his words, since the KRG has every reason to doubt Baghdad\s ability to observe its commitments — it had never kept them in to past … On the 18th Nechirvan Barzani described the offer as a “political manoeuvre”, undertaking to send Baghdad its oil share if the Kurdistan Region were to receive its legitimate share of the Federal Budget. Renewing his offer on the 20th, the Iraqi Prime Minister then seemed to encourage the Region’s internal conflicts by declaring that its independent oil sales should have enabled it to pay all its employees: “No one knows where the profits of these sales go”.
Still no political agreement on the Presidency and Parliament
These issues of wages and economic transparency have reactivated a political crisis originally caused by disagreement over the question of the Region’s Presidency. Following on the expiration of Masud Barzani’s term of office, the KDP wanted the President to be directly elected by universal suffrage, which they would have a good chance of winning. The other parties, with Gorran in the lead, preferred that he should be elected by Parliament at Erbil, which allowed them more means of negotiating amongst themselves. This difference became more radical when, during the demonstrations against the KRG’s economic policy, the KDP offices in several towns in Eastern Kurdistan were attacked and some of the party’s cadres killed. Accusing Gorran of being behind these events and of acting as if it was part of the opposition although mow in the government, the KDP, on 11th October, forbade the Speaker of Parliament, Yussuf Mohammed (Gorran), from entering his offices. Two days later the KRG ’s Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani (PDK), suspended four Gorran Ministers in his Cabinet replacing them, on the 28th, with members of his own party, the KDP. Since them the political process in Iraqi Kurdistan has been frozen, the Parliament in Erbil being unable to function and Masud Barzani remaining in his position as “interim” President on the grounds of the exceptional military situation of the war with ISIS. Since then Goran has reused o have any discussions with him, refusing to recognise him as the Region’s President and demanding that the Speaker of Parliament and the four suspended Ministers be restored to their posts — which the KDP has categorically refused.
Between October and February, the other political parties (and especially the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) the party of the former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani) have tried to mediate between the KDP and Gorran, holding various meeting, sometimes without either the KDP or Gorran. An “Inter-Party Committee” that includes representatives of the KDP, the PUK and the KIU created on 27 January to discuss the reactivation of parliament has held several meetings that have succeeded in that have allowed some hope. Parallel to this some external mediations have taken place: on the 1st, a joint delegation of representatives of the European Parliament and the general consuls at Erbil called for unity of the parties and the renewed activity of Parliament. On the 4th, the Deputy Speaker of the German parliament, Claudia Roth, during a visit adopted a similar position. None of these attempts, however, have succeeded and the two camps stick to their respective positions. The “Inter-Party Committee with its meeting held up by the withdrawal of some parties has stopped working.
On the 24th Gorran still further radicalised its opposition, one of its M.P.s having considered that the KRG was responsible for Baghdad’s refusal to pay the Peshmergas, expressed opposition to take any part in the liberation of Mosul.
Relaunching oil extraction operations.
Despite all its internal difficulties, the Regional Government announced early in February that it had maintained
Oil exports to the Turkish port of Ceyhan at the same level as in December (indeed, with a very slight increase). With respect to “reduction of expenditure”, the KRG has resumed extracting hydrocarbons (oil and gas) the Region’s main source of revenue, so as to offset the drop in oil price per barrel. Payments to the oil companies, that had bee interrupted have been resumed and a provisional schedule of regular payments settled. The work of extending the pipeline carrying oil from Kirkuk towatds Turkey began in January as well as negotiations between the KRG and Kirkuk on the sharing of the income. A gas pipeline is also being projected.
By the end of 2016 the Region should start supplying Turkey with gas. Kurdistan’s reserves are said by experts to be great enough to meet that country’s needs for the next 100 years. Following they first payments at the beginning of the month, Genel Energy and DNO announced fresh investments in their oil fields of Taq Taq (near Koya) and Tawke. Unfortunately the estimated reserves for Taq Taq have been reduced by nearly 50% (from 683 to 356 million barrels) and this field’s increase of production will be based on 50-60,000 barrels /dat.
Towards Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence.
It was in a difficult context that, in the evening of Tuesday 2nd that Masud Barzani declared that “the time has come for a referendum on self-determination” (of Iraqi Kurdistan), adding that this did not mean the immediate declaration of such a State, but that it was simply a way of “gaining information on the people’s wishes so that the Kurdish political leadership could carry it out when the time and circumstances were appropriate”. Mr. Barzani also stressed that Kurdish self-determination would increase the stability of the whole region. Analysts have discussed the reasons why Barzani chose this moment to make such a statement and have concluded that he had decided that the time was particularly favourable for this as the international community needed the Kurds for the struggle against ISIS and also that, in a context of doubt regarding the choice of the KRG and the opposition regarding his position, linking this initiative with his name would enable him both to increase his legitimacy and to try rally the Kurds again round a project that could overcome the immediate problems.
The different Kurdish political parties fairly rapidly took a stand on this declaration: Ali Bapir, the leader of Komala (Kurdistan Islamic Group) stated his opposition to a referendum at this time because of the economic crisis and of the fact that several of the Region’s diplomatic missions did not support Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence but were in favour of Iraqi unity. However the Kurdistan Islamic Union (Yekgirtû) expressed its support as did, the Political Committee of the PUK on the 12th.
The so-called Geneva III discussions, already delayed three times finally began on the 1st, with the declared aim of setting up an interim government. To do this each side had to scale down their initial demands. The High Negotiating Committee (HNC) the “official” Syrian opposition (approved by Saudi Arabia and Turkey) that at first refused to negotiate with the regime finally gave in to Western pressure. The latter, for their part, faced with the threat of ISIS, also ceased to make the departure of Bachar El-Assad a precondition. However the chances of any success seem pretty slim — the HNC is not so much seeking to negotiate as trying to use the Geneva platform to prepare its demands to the United Nations, whole the Kurds of the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), are not still represented although undeniably an important component of Syria society.
This is because the PYD’s objectives are diametrically opposed to those of the impost important regional actor — Turkey. This Kurdish party’s main objective is to ensure the security of the Kurdish areas of Syria that it controls, Western Kurdistan or “Rojava”, by linking together the three separate regions that compose them along the Turkish border.
By making alliances with some non-Kurdish groups, frightened by the Jihadists’ violence, and by incorporating the last border town of Girê Spî (Tell Abyad) last October into its autonomous administration it has succeeded in uniting the Syrian Jezeera, at the extreme East of the country to the town of Kobané.
Northwest of Aleppo, however, lies the Kurdish region of Afrin, adjacent to the former Ottoman sajak of Alexandretta (Hatay in Turkish) which is still separated from the other Rojavan cantons by a 100 Km corridor. Taking control of this strip of land, at the moment controlled by Jihadist gangs of al-Nusra and ISIS would enable the PYD to completely break Afrin’s isolation — especially as it was recently besieged by al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida.
On the other hand Turkey, at present waging a civil war against its Kurdish provinces, fears more than anything else seeing its Southern borders controlled by the Kurds of a neighbouring country, which would give the PKK a strategic depth similar to what it has in Iraq. Turkey is thus ready for any alliances against this including objectively supporting the Jihadists enabling their recruits and supplies to cross its borders.
As against this, the PYD has been able to put together a multiethnic military alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the PYD is the main component and which h has proved its military effectiveness. It has now gone further and developed a political organ, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC).
Controlling this corridor is essential to the Kurds but is also a strategic necessity for the other forces engaged in the conflict. The Damascus regime and its Russian ally would like to seal this Northern border to cut the Sunni rebels and the Jihadists of from the supplies, arms and recruits that Turkey allows to enter Syria through this corridor — and the Kurds are the only ones in a position to do this. The United States, coordinators of the anti-ISIS coalition, are not yet ready to break with the SDF, its only reliable allies against the Jihadists. Turkey thus finds itself relatively isolated. Militarily it has not hesitated to shell Syrian territories the Kurds have taken from the Jihadists — but it can hardly go any further without running the risk of a struggle on a much wider scale that would soon become uncontrollable. On the 5th Russia expressed its suspicions that Turkey was preparing ground operations in Syria — a way of pointing out that it was closely watching Turkey’s troop concentrations on Syria’s Northern borders. Turkey is thus reduced to diplomatic actions, while repeating on all international forums that a “humanitarian safety zone” should be created in Syria — precisely on this strip of land. It throws all its weight on ensuring the exclusion of the PYD from the negotiations on Syria, playing on its regional power, its membership of NATO — and its status as the country through which Syrian refugees have to pass! Thus on the 12th President Erdogan threatened to deport thousands of refugees to the European Union…
It is thus not surprising that the HNC, that owes its very existence to Turkey, has repeated its rejection of having the PYD present at Geneva III. Salih Muslim, co-President of the PYD, commenting on this exclusion, the day after the start of the discussions, pointed out that this was not only due to Turkey: the Kurds’ “excessive secularism” probably embarrasses a good number of the members of the opposition described as “moderate Islamists” by the Westerners.
Mr. Muslim also revealed that both the Russians and the Americans had urged the Kurds to be patient, promising that they might enter the discussions “later”. “We answered them that we wanted to be present from the start and that would not recognise any decisions made in our absence”, he declared. He also criticised them for “speaking about democracy and human values in the region while ignoring the only democratic force in the region”. Parallel to this, Haytham Manna, co-President of the SDC announced that it was suspending its participation “until the five Kurds and the Turcoman on our list receive invitations from the UN mediator”. Of the 35 representatives whose names the SDC had submitted to the UN, the five people in question were told that their participation would be examined “later”.
The Syrian Kurds are still considered partners by the USA”
Brett McGurk’s recent visit to Kobané as the US President’s envoy in the struggle against ISIS, despite the fury of the Turkish President, seems to have also been aimed at maintaining links with the Kurds despite their diplomatic exclusion. On the 9th he State Department spokesman, John Kirby, replied to Mr. Erdogan saying that the United States considered the YPG and the Syrian Kurds as “partners in the struggle against ISIS” and thus not as terrorists in the same way as the PKK. (This statement provoked the Turkish Foreign Ministry to summon the US Ambassador to Ankara to attend and another outburst of fury from Mr. Erdogan.) Nevertheless, as par as the US is concerned, military cooperation with the SDF clearly implies recognition of the SDC, their political representative. Indeed, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO General secretary, went even further than the US, since on the 12th he declared that the Kurds were an integral part of the conflict in Iraq and Syria and thus should also rake part in its solution …
However, the discussions at Geneva III have not been extended. On the 3rd, the UN mediator announced that their suspension till 25th February. This was because the regime had, largely thanks to Russian air support, advanced to the North of Aleppo (a city it had been besieging with little success since 2012) and so had cut supply route to the rebels who held part of it.) In this context, neither Damascus nor the Russians had any immediate interest in negotiations, which could have forced them to stop their advance. The next day, however, the Americans and Russians managed to discuss a possible agreement for a truce, which would have enabled humanitarian access to the besieged towns of both sides. The renewal of fighting round Aleppo provoked a fresh humanitarian crisis, since Turkey refused to open its borders to fleeing civilians. On the 6th, he United Nations Office for Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs [OCHA) estimated that 20,000 people were stuck at the Bab el-Salama border crossing, that 5 to 10 thousand others were in the nearby town of Azaz and up to 10,000 others had sought refuge in or around the Kurdish town of Afrin. Since the organisations considered to be terrorist, like ISIS and al-Nusra, were excluded from the truce, Turkey jumped in and demanded that the PYD should also be excluded, although it had announced that it would respect the truce.
The struggle against the Jihadists.
In this new military context, the SDF have continued to advance at the expense of the Jihadists North of Aleppo Province. According to a SCHR of the 8th, the resident of three villages in that province had asked the rebel forces to give way before the YPG so as to avoid Russian air strikes. Two days later Kurds from Afrin, basing themselves on these freshly recovered villages, were able take over the Minagh (or Minaq) air base 15 KM to the East that the Syrian Army had lost in August 2013 and that al-Nusra had taken over from ISIS.
Located due North of Aleppo and South of the border town of Azaz (still held by the Jihadists), Minagh is in the Northern outskirts of Tell Rifaat. As such, it controls the communications between Aleppo and Turkey. The latter tried to force the Kurd to withdraw from it by pounding it with heavy artillery on the 13th and 14th and Prime Minister Davutoğlu stated on the 15th that Turkey would net allow Azaz to fall into the YPG’s hands, threatening to make Minagh unusable if the YPG did not withdraw.
To this the PYD replied that it would not give in to these demands and tension grew acute over this Turkish shelling and the European Union spokesperson for external policy, Federica Mogherini, asked Turkey to stop it, recalling that the time was more suited to de-escalation to enable negotiations. The French Foreign Ministry made the same demand and Damascus described the shelling as a violation of its sovereignty, accusing Turkey of “supporting the terrorist linked to al-Qaida”. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergueï Lavrov, made the same remarks in almost identical terms. Finally Bachar el-Assad stated that the Syrian Army was “ready to oppose the entry of Turkish or Saudi troops into the country”.
On the 16th, the SDF completed their cutting off of communications between Aleppo and Turkey by taking Tell Rifaat, leaving the jihadists only Marea, a few Km to the East and Azaz on the border. Their control of the region opens the prospect of further advances Eastwards and towards Kobané. Sill further East, in Hassaké Province, the SDF helped by substantial American air strikes were able, between the 16th and 20th to retake further areas from ISIS, including the oil field and town of Al-Shadadi, thus cutting two of the communicating routes between that town and Mosul.
Following the Ankara bomb attack on the 17th, Turkey had immediately accused the PYD of being jointly responsible with the PKK for it (see the news from Turkey above). This charge was immediately rejected the next day by the PYD co-President Salih Muslim and the YPG commanders who replied that Turkey was simply trying to justify its interventions in Syrian and hide its relations with ISIS “now known to the whole world”. On the 20th the United States expressed its doubts about the PYD´s responsibility, saying it could neither confirm nor disprove Ankara’s statements on the subject. Turkey as called for group operations in Syria while insisting it would take no unilateral actions (having created enough problems for itself at home …) Being unable to act directly it has enabled at 500 volunteers to cross its borders to join the Syrian rebels at the Babel-Salama crossing 5 Km from Azaz to reinforce the town. It had already, on the 14th, allowed at east 350 others, bearing light and heavy weaponry to enter Syria via Atme (Atimah in Arabic) from Hatay (ex-Alexandretta) due East of Aleppo.
On the 19th, the official or the newly opened Rojava Representative Office in Moscow (see below), Rodi Osman, warned Turkey that it would face a “big war” with Russia if Turkish troops entered Syria. Russia confirmed its military support of the Syrian Kurds, Nikolai Kovaliov, former head of the Federal Security Service stating “Russian planes would bomb Turkish troops if they went into Syria”.
Barack Obama reacted on the 20th by calling for de-escalation: the US President asked Turkey to stop shelling the Kurds and “not to take advantage of the situation to take control of fresh territories North of Aleppo”. On the same day, the Syrian opposition agreed to a two or three-week renewable truce — on condition that Russia stop its air strikes and that . . . the al-Nusra Front no longer be targeted — at least during initial phases of the negotiations.
On the 27th, according to a Russian despatch, the Turkish artillery provided support, from Turkish soil, for a Jihadist attempt to retake the border town of Girê Spî (Tell Abyad) from the Kurds. This partly Kurdish town, 60 Km to the East of Kobané had been a major crossing point for Jihadists going to Raqqa from Turkey before its integration into the Rojava administration last October. This, no doubt explains why they tried to retake control of it once their Western crossings had been cut. However it is also a strategic point for the Syrian Kurds as it links the cantons of Kobané and Jezeera. The attackers were rapidly surrounded and eliminated and Turkey later denied having supported them. On the same day at mid-night a Russo-American agreement of “ceasing hostilities in Syria” came into force — an agreement that does not cover either ISIS or al-Nusra. According to SCHR fighting continued in Raqqa Province between ISIS and the YPG and two days later al-Nusra launched rocket attacks on several Kurdish quarters of Aleppo.
A Rojava Representative Office in Moscow.
In the course of this month the Syrian Kurds also pursued a diplomatic offensive. Although the Syrian Embassy to Russia declared to TASS news Agency on the 9th, that “Russian laws do not allow the opening of a Representative Office of the Autonomous Administration of Syrian Kurdistan”, this Office was indeed, opened in Moscow the next day, managed by Roni Osman. The official opening was attended by Sinem Mihemed, Rojava’s representative in Europe, Feleknas Uca, a German-born Yezidi Kurd an HDP woman Member of Parliament for Diyarbekir, Merab Chamaïev, woman President of the International Union of Kurdish Public Associations. The latter expressed the hope that the Right of Kurds to their “language, culture and autonomous government” would be guaranteed by the future Constitution of Syria and that the Russians would help in this.
On the 20th, Russia announced that the Geneva III discussions could recommence on the 25th, but that his time with the Syrian Kurds also present. The United Nations mediator for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, stated that their recommencing on the 25th was unlikely because the bombing was still taking place and then, on the 26th, gave a fresh date of this — 7th march — specifying that this was on condition that “the ceasing of hostilities” continued till then…