On Wednesday 1 June, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced from Kobanê a major offensive entitled “Free Manbij”. Located about 50 km Southwest of Kobanê and about half way to Aleppo, the town of Manbij controls the last region adjoining Turkey still held by ISIS. Its capture by the SDF would completely cut the Jihadists from the Turkish borders — from which they continue to receive supplies, military equipment and foreign volunteer fighters. Capturing Manbij would thus still further isolate ISIS’s “capital” Raqqa, to the Southeast, preparing for a future attack on the latter. It would also enable the Syrian Kurds to link their cantons of Kobanê and Afrin, to the East and West of it, as they succeeded in doing last year with Kobanê and Jezeereh by integrating in July 2015 the Kurdish border town of Girê Spî (Tell Abyad in Arabic). Thus the “Federal Region” proclaimed on the last 17 March for Northern Syria would become completely united geographically — and more easily defended. Losing Manbij would be ISIS’s biggest strategic defeat in Syria since its loss of Girê Spî the year before.
This the attack on Manbij is, indeed, the final phase of an operation that has been planned for several weeks. It seems to have advanced fairly slowly because the fighters first gave priority to systematically freeing dozens of villages and farms increasingly close to the town.
While the SDF includes some 5,000 Arab fighters, the bulk of their force is made up of 30,000 members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG – men and YPJ – women) affiliates to the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party PYD).
Manbij is on the Right bank of the Euphrates, to the West of the river. Although Turkey has repeatedly re-iterated for months past that this river was the “red line” that the PYD Kurds should cross on no account, the SDF has well and truly crossed it while advancing on their objective — and with American support! The United States, indeed, decided to support the SDF, which it considers the most effective force fighting ISIS. To do this, it has deployed nearly 300 members of its “special forces” that the Pentagon discretely describes as “advisers”, though many of them are fully integrated into the Kurdish fighting units — as are, by the way, members of the French “special forces”. However much the presence of Kurdish fighters on the West banks of the Euphrates may displease the Turkish Generals, they could hardly now launch air raids or artillery barrages — as they have done until recently — on units that include Western forces.
Even in Turkish diplomatic circles, the government’s almost exclusively anti-Kurdish direction to the detriment of the fight against ISIS is not unanimously supported. The statements of Aydın Selcen, former Turkish consul general to Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan) bear witness to this. The day after the offensive against Manbij was launched, Selen stated, in an interview to the Russian News agency Sputnik, that Turkey was not longer in a situation that would allow it to protest against the international aid being provided to the Kurds in Syria. Implying that his country should review its Syrian policy, he explained that it was just because the Syrian groups supported by Turkey had shown themselves to be incapable of fighting effectively against ISIS that the US had committed itself to working with the SDF. He added that the speed with which the SDF was advancing meant that their taking of the Jihadist-held towns of Azaz (North of Aleppo and facing the Turkish town of Kilis) and Marea (15-20 Km Southwest of Azaz) was only a matter of time. Indeed, the collapse of ISIS defences on the West bank of the Euphrates at the very start of the offensive suggests the possibility of a very rapid advance on Manbij. Even more serious, the former Consul also warned that there was a danger that the ISIS and Al-Nusra Jihadist groups could become an increasing threat to Turkey’s border provinces of Hatay, Gaziantep and Kilis to the extent that they lost ground in Syria and Iraq:
“If we do not engage in good relations with the Kurdish communities of Iraq and Syria (the PYD and the YPG in Syria in particular), we will be unable to guarantee the security of our border territories”. There is, however, little chance that the government would carry out such a complete “about turn” — on 7 June the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mesut Çavuşoğlu, once again stated that Turkey would not accept the presence of YPG members West of the Euphrates, adding that they should leave the river’s Right bank as soon as the operation was completed. The Minister added that the United States had promised their Turkish ally that this would, indeed, take place. It would thus seem that Turkey was obliged to accept the presence of the SDF in the operation against Manbij in exchange for a promise by the US . . .
While advancing on Manbij, the SDF simultaneously increased their pressure on ISIS further East. While the Syrian regime’s Army was entering Raqqa Province from the South on the 4th with Russian support, the SDF with the support of the Western coalition was advancing from the North.
As is its habit, ISIS has not hesitated to use barbarous methods in its attempts to resist the SDF’s advance. According to the SDF spokesman, Sherfan Darwish, they have begun using civilians as hostages — starting by systematically kidnapping Kurdish civilians. These kidnappings have been taking place throughout the month, so that estimations on the 25th June reported that 900 Syrian Kurds had been kidnapped in Aleppo Province in the course of three weeks. Some of them, taken to Manbij were forced to build the fortifications, others forced to fight wearing Jihadist uniforms. At least 26 of the kidnapped people were executed for refusing to obey. In the other camp, once the town was surrounded, the SDF and brigades of the Manbij military council that were fighting with them were unable to shell the town for fear of causing civilians casualties.
On Friday 10 June, according to the London-based SCHR (Syrian centre for Human Rights) the SDF have taken the last road from Manbij to the Turkish border, to the north, thus cutting off the Jihadists from supplies or means of withdrawing. The US special envoy to the anti-ISIS Coalition, Brett Mc Gurk, confirmed on Twitter that the Jihadists were now completely encircled in the town, adding that it was believed that the attacks that hit Paris and Brussels had been planned in that town.
Faced with the SDF’s approach, ISIS has expelled the workers from the town’s silos and mills and transformed the area into a military base, which deprived the city of bread for a week and provoked a series of air strikes from the coalition…
On the 15th, according to reports on the Kurdish TV channel Kurdistan-24, linked to the SDF attacking force, the latter, following heavy fighting with the jihadists, have entered Manbij from the West and reached Kitab Square, the first in the town on the road from Aleppo. On the 23rd, the second column entered the town from the South, backed by the Coalition’s air strikes. However, the fighters know that the fighting will continue to be very tough since, following their usual tactics, the Jihadists have filled the buildings with bomb traps and placed snipers on the roofs to ambush them. Fighting continued in the town for several days following. On the 24th, the SCHR published the following casualty figures: 89 SDF fighters and 453 Jihadists killed since the start of the operation.
At the end of June violent fighting between the SDF and the Jihadists were still taking place in the town.
Can a State of Law be still said to exist in Turkey?
On 3 June, the Turkish Constitutional Court rejected the appeal submitted by the HDP (the pro-Kurdish opposition party) and the CHP (Kemalist opposition party, formerly the sole party) members of Parliament demanding that the law lifting parliamentary immunity be quashed. The law was passed by Parliament on the 20th. Following this rejection, the HDP called for protest demonstrations and announced that it would submit a petition to the European Court for Human Rights. Despite a demonstration of about a thousand people in Istanbul on the 6th and another a little later the same day in Diyarbekir, the Turkish President signed the new law. Although a number of AKP members of Parliament are also subject to legal proceedings for corruption, the new law is essentially aimed at driving the HDP Members out of Parliament, some 50 (out of 59) of whom are being “investigated for links with the PKK” following their statements attacking the State’s Kurdish policy. Thus the HDP co-President (himself a lawyer) is targeted with 87 different charges, the accumulated sentences for which could total 486 years!
Evicting the HDP (the second largest Turkish opposition party) members from parliament would enable Erdoğan to impose more easily the “presidentialising” of the Constitution, which has been his only political objective for many months past — a regime change he has already largely carried out in a totally unconstitutional manner!
Even if Demirtaş, while calling to question the objectivity of the Turkish judicial system, states he is not afraid of being tried, the HDP has obviously expressed its concern at this threat to its very existence — which would make quite meaningless its repeated calls to the PKK (and the State) to lay down their arms. The symbolic date chosen by the Turkish President to ratify this law, just a year after the 7 June 2015 elections clearly expresses a spirit of revenge — it was the HDP’s success in that election that frustrated Erdoğan by depriving him of the majority needed to carry out his Constitutional projects.
The HDP also points out that on 5 June, just before ratifying this law, Erdoğan signed a decree transferring 3,228 judges and Public Prosecutors: “We suspect that Erdoğan only ratified the law after he had “rearranged” the judicial system in the manner required to enable him to control the legal proceedings against the members of Parliament with the help of judges and prosecutors committed to himself and to the AKP”.
Even while the HDP elected representative are losing their parliamentary immunity and the European Union is showing concern at the field of application of the Turkish anti-terrorist law (under which thousands of academics and journalists are being charged just for criticising the direction the government is taking) — Turkey has just granted the armed forces a broad degree of immunity for actions “undertaken during counter-terrorist operations” in the country’s Kurdish provinces. Indeed, on 24 June the Turkish Parliament passed a law giving immunity from legal proceedings to members of the armed forces for any acts committed in the context of military operations in Turkish Kurdistan.
The Kurds are well aware of this type of judicial arrangements, previously used against them in the 1920-40 period and also in the 90s, during the dark period of the “dirty war” against the PKK. However it was Erdoğan who, before becoming President in 2014, had spent a major part of his period in office and Prime Minister to set up “civilian supervision” of the Army… This new law is a complete U-turn, abrogating some of these earlier reforms and it will make much harder investigations regarding breaches of Human Rights occurring during these operations. The associations for the Defence of Human Rights and even the United Nations have expressed concern regarding these measures.
In fact warning signs of such breaches are fast accumulating. The HDP, which had already published an estimation of about 1,000 civilian victims of these operations, published on 6 June two appeals for action to the international community. The first concerns a fresh attack by the security forces on the village of Roboski, which had already been the victim of a massacre by the Air Force on 28 December 2011, which had killed 34 people — essentially young Kurdish peasants and smugglers. Pointing out that 5 years later, no one responsible for this massacre had been brought to court, the petitioners attacked this fresh massacre (this time by artillery) carried out from the neighbouring Army base of Gülyazı. Repeating the appalling attitude of the authorities in 2011, the gendarmerie refused to allow ambulances to enter the village, on the grounds of instructions by the Provincial Governor. The relatives of the wounded were obliged to use their tractors to carry them to the hospital, which they were finally forbidden to enter! The second appeal concerns the disappearance of Hurşit Güler, a regional official of the Democratic Party of the regions (DBP), following his arrest before witnesses on 27 May, after 77 days of curfew. The Provincial governor denies that he is being held by the authorities, which can only arouse grave concerns for his state of health…
Finally, although the Turkish authorities announced on the 15th the end or the fighting at Şirnak, Nusaybin and Sur, they have continued to supervise the demolition by bulldozer of the quarters concerned. Even houses that had not been damaged during the armed conflict have been demolished and burnt down. Moreover, many expropriations have been announced so as to allow specific quarter to be completely razed to the ground. The question must be asked — does the Turkish government intend to completely erase the rebel Kurdish towns? The overall confiscation of Sur (the medieval walled city of Diyarbekir) decreed is particularly worrying in this respect. At Yuksekova, in the middle of Ramadan, the district governor even ordered the taking down of tents erected on the ruins of people’s homes where humanitarian associations were distributing food to local residents at the end of the Ramadan day’s fast…
How effective is such a policy? The HDP fears that its first result could be to still further increase the already widespread feeling among young Kurds that the only way of achieving their rights is by armed struggle. Moreover the constant toughening being applied since the militarist swing of the summer of 2015 has had hardly any impact on the number of attacks and bombings in the country — except, perhaps to increase them. Despite the government’s regular announcements that the eradication of the PKK is imminent, the latter has still further increased its violent actions. Erdoğan announced the (unverifiable) figure of 7,500 fighters “neutralised” since the start of the operations but was forced to admit that nearly 500 soldiers and police had also been killed. The failure of the security forces in preventing these actions by the PKK and especially by the TAK (Hawks of Kurdistan’s Freedom) is clearly noticeable. The latter claimed the very deadly bomb attack of Tuesday 7 June against a bus of the anti-riot police that caused 11 deaths, 7 of whom were police, that occurred in Istanbul’s Vezneciler quarter.
However the deadliest bomb attack of the month was unquestionably the one carried out on 29 June at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, whose modus operandi is very similar to the Brussels attack. Attributed to ISIS, it caused 42 deaths and 239 injured. According to the enquiries, the three terrorists were nationals of the former USSR: Russia, Uzbekistan and Kirgizstan. It should be recalled that from the start of ISIS’s formation the Turkish government had chosen to close its eyes to Jihadist activities so long as they were fighting the Kurds — that it considered the main enemy of the Turkish State. Has the Turkish government’s objective alliance with the Jihadists ended by turning against them? Or will Turkey also be drawn into this whirlpool of violence — for which Erdoğan’s government is very largely responsible.
There was a bad start to the month of June for the Turkish government in terms of International relations.
On the 2nd, the German Government almost unanimously (one vote against and one abstention) took the symbolic decision of considering the massacre of Armenians and other Christians in 1915 as an act of genocide. The Bundestag resolution also mentioned the passivity of the German Empire, at that time allied to the Ottoman Empire. The co-President of the German Green Party, Cem Özdemir, himself of Turkish origin, stated: “The fact that we were accomplices of this terrible crime does not mean that, today, we should be accomplices of its denial”. It should be recalled that many Kurdish communities have long since take up a similar position — recognising both the fact of the genocide and the responsibility that some of their members took for it at the time.
Armenia obviously welcomed this decision but Turkey, unsurprisingly, recalled its Ambassador to Germany “for consultations”. In a Press Conference, the new Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, described this decision as “irrational”, adding that it would “put a test” on the friendship between the two countries, and even going as far as stressing that the things that happened in 1915 were “ordinary event (…) in war time conditions”!! President Erdoğan, for his part, stated that this decision would have “serious consequences on Turko-German relations”, adding that the recall of the Ambassador was a first step and that his government would later consider other measures.
This renewal of tension comes at a bad time for Yildirim, coming just a few days after his assuming office the previous month, when he had said Turkey would “increase (the number of) its friends and reduce (that of) its enemies”, thereby implicitly recognising some problems in its International relations resulting from the policies carried out before his nomination.
Indeed, Turkey’s foreign policy regarding ISIS and Syria and the violence of its domestic policy were provoking increasing questions amongst its partners and led to Ankara’s increasing isolation. Considering Assad’s departure as the only possible outcome of the civil war in Syria had led it to choosing to support the Islamist opposition and choosing to see the main enemy to be the PYD, the Syrian Kurdish party, rather than ISIS, with which it had long maintained very equivocal relations. This has resulted in increasing tension with the anti-ISIS Coalition, and particularly with the USA but also with Turkey’s other NATO partners. As for Russia, it is almost an euphemism to talk of tension, since Ankara had shot down a Russia plane without considering the economic consequences…
The result is Turkey has had set backs on all fronts: Russian support has enabled Assad to remain in power, US support against ISIS has led it to support the PYD and relations with the Jihadists have become so embittered as to produce the most murderous attack committed on Turkish soil. Consequently Turkey’s economy (tourism and Russian hydrocarbons) suffer the consequences.
The Bundestag vote has led to Turkish ill-tempered gestures that went beyond normal diplomatic context. On 22 June, a spokesman of the German Ministry of Defence announced that Ankara had forbidden the visit of an official German delegation of several Bundestag members led by the German Under-Secretary of Defence, Ralf Brauksiepe, to their own troops in the Incirlik air base, planned for July. Germany maintains a force of 250 troops, six reconnaissance and one supply plane on this base, in Southern Turkey as part of the anti-ISIS coalition.
However, it is Turkey’s internal policies, especially those concerning the State of Law, that arouse concern amongst it partners. Indeed the Turkish judiciary system tries to silence all forms of criticism. While one can be glad that the British academic Chris Stephenson was finally acquitted on the 23rd of the charge of “propaganda for a terrorist organisation” against him, it is clear that the case against him was far from being an exception the way the judicial system is running wild. Arrested last March at the entrance to the trial of 4 academics on trial for similar charges whom he had gone to support, this IT teacher, married in Turkey, found himself facing one to five years imprisonment for having, in his pockets, invitations to the Kurdish New Year celebrations! He had also committed the offence of having signed (like about 2,000 other academics in the country) a petition criticising Turkey’s military actions in the Kurdish region. No doubt his acquittal owed much to his foreign nationality and the country’s need for a better image abroad.
Moreover this decision arrived at a convenient time to help forget the placing in detention, a few days earlier, of two journalists on similar charges, Erol Onderoğlu (representative in Turkey of Reporters sans frontières) and Ahmet Nes as well as the university lecturer and Human Rights activist Sebnem Korur Fincanci. All three had taken part in a campaign by the pro-Kurdish daily paper Ozgur Gundem, that daily invites public figures to come as “guests” and run an issue of the paper. Human Rights defence groups, some media, UNO and the European Commission all demanded their release.
Another factor of international tension is the “anti-immunity law” signed by President Erdogan on 8 June. The pro-Kurdish HDP, which is particularly targeted by this measure, has announced its decision to appeal to the European Court for Human Rights and started this month holding discussion on the internal situation in Turkey with leaders of the European Union. Its co-President, Selahattin Demirtaş, visited the Swiss Parliament in Bern on 2 June and then went to Brussels on the 13 with a delegation consisting of members of Parliament Leyla Birlik and Hişyar Özsoy and the HDP representative in Europe Eyüp Doru. After taking part in a meeting of the council of Left parties where Demirtaş spoke, discussions continued all week: on the 14 with Kati Piri, Reporteur of the European Parliament on Turkey, on the 15th with Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s Commissioner responsible for diplomatic relations and on the 16th with Johannes Hahn, Commissioner in charge of negotiations for admission to membership. On the 18th, the Delegation had discussion in Strasbourg with the Council of Europe, meeting its Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks and its General Secretary Thorbjørn Jagland. It expressed its concern at the development of the situation in Turkey and its Kurdish provinces and asked the council and the international community to remind the country of its obligations. On the 14th, relations with Turkey were marked by the resignation, to take effect on 1 August, of the EU representative in Turkey, Hansjoerg Haber, a German. No particular reason was raised but Mr. Hansjoerg’s relations with Turkey had considerably worsened after he had criticised the country for refusing to fulfil the last criteria required by the EU for giving Turkish citizens access to Europe without visas. Indeed, they had worsened to such an extent that he was summoned for a reprimand by the Foreign Ministry… These difficult relations go back to the EU demand for a modification of the Turkish anti-terrorist law — a demand that had the effect of enraging the Turkish President.
Faced with these international difficulties and judging that it could not confront the whole world at once, have Turkey decide to modify its external policy? On 28 June the Turkish President sent a letter of apology to the Russian President for the shooting down of the plane and at about the same time announced the impending normalisation of relations with Israel. This follows the breaking of relations six years ago following incidents regarding the humanitarian flotillas to Gaza that had resulted in the death of nine Turkish citizens. There is little chance, however of Erdoğan abandoning his war-like and anti-Western rhetoric which pleases so much his more convinced followers…
On 19 June the “Fraternity bloc”, the largest in the Kirkuk Provincial Council with 26 seats out of 41, officially rejected the project of forming a semi-independent entity in the province, expressing the preference to integration with the Kurdistan Region in application of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution.
This project had been put forward by the Kurdish Provincial Governor, Najmaddin Karim, but had already been rejected by his own political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The PUK’s political leaders again expressed on 29 June that Kirkuk “has no other choice than to be integrated with the Kurdistan Region”. Karim, a longstanding governor of Kirkuk and a member of the Political Committee of the PUK, considers this virtually impossible at this stage because of the opposition of a considerable part of the local political forces. This is why he submitted the semi-independent proposal, which he thought more acceptable at this time. Thus, as he recently explained in an interview on the Kurdish TV channel Rudaw, Karim thinks that such a stage would eventually bring Kirkuk closer to the Kurdistan region. These disagreements reflect the difficulties as well as the importance of the issues involved. Located just South of the official border of the present day Kurdistan Region, the Province is very rich in oil and houses a mixed population, with a Kurdish majority and a substantial Arab Christian and Turcoman minority. This makes it the area most disputed between the Baghdad central government and that of the Kurdistan Region.
While Baghdad does not want to “give up the oil” that earns its substantial income, for the Kurds it is the city to which they are most attached, culturally and emotionally so that they call it the “Kurdish Jerusalem”. It is for them the natural capital of an autonomous Kurdistan and should first of all be integrated into the Region. This is because they consider the city and province to be historically Kurdish, before their population distribution was altered by force, through deportations, destruction and internal colonisation operations, together with alterations by the authorities of provincial borders. Article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution provided for a negotiated process to cancel these alterations and holding a referendum to enable the original residents of the Province to decide its future. However this article was never carried out, mainly because of the central government’s resistance. This is by no means new — disagreement over the face of Kirkuk was the origin of the break between the Kurds and the central government in the 70s.
Although he considers that passing directly under KRG administration is impossible, Governor Karim is no less critical of the central government, which he accuses of having abandoned the Province. In a Press Conference given on 27 June, he re-iterated his proposal of a “Kirkuk Region”, stating, in particular “All my life I have considered Kirkuk as being in a Kurdistan framework and I hope that the province be administered by Kurdistan because I know that then it will be well protected”. He added that the central government had violated the Province’s rights on many occasions, in particular when full administrative powers were granted to eighteen other Iraqi Provinces while Kirkuk remained excluded because Provincial elections could not be held in 2013.
Yet another bone of contention between Baghdad and Kirkuk covers the revenues from the oil extracted in the province, Kirkuk considering that it gave much and received little: where’s the Iraqi Oil Ministry receives 50,000 barrels per day from the Khazbaz oil field, it has not made any payment in return for the last year and a half. Ahmed Askari, the official responsible for the Oil and Gas Committee of the Kirkuk Provincial Council stated on 16 June: “Baghdad owes us about 1,3 billion dollars”. The Kirkuk administration threatened to stop sending oil to Baghdad to pay its debts to several oil extraction companies in crude oil.
Thus Kirkuk finds itself faced with three possibilities: remain attached to Baghdad (evidently the choice preferred by the central government that has repeated that it considers any other option unacceptable) becoming an integral part of Kurdistan (the position of the Kurds in general and the PUK in particular) or become an independent Region — the proposal put forward by the Governor and, in his view the only realistic solution to the Province’s problems.
The refusal of Karim’s proposal by the “Fraternity” bloc does not spell the last word for this option. According to the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, a province can become a semi-independent Region without a popular vote if the proposal wins two-thirds of the votes in the Provincial Council.
This option has probably been ruled out by “Fraternity’s” negative vote, but another way of setting up such an entity remains a popular referendum which could be organised following a petition signed by at least 10% of the Province’s electors — although such an option is criticised by many Kurds.
During his interview on the Rudaw TV channel, Professor Dalawer Ala'Adeen, President of the Erbil based Middle East Research Institute (MERI) expressed doubts about the concrete possibility of a Province like Kirkuk, once established as a Region similarly to Kurdistan, ever being able to fuse with it: “A Kirkuk Region would have its own Parliament, its own government, its Presidency and its legal system, just like the KRG. Once such institutions have been set up the two Regions would evolve independently and would diverge… Union with the KRG would become irrelevant and even impossible”.
However, Kirkuk could well be called upon to express itself on its future before the end of the year. Since 2014 it has been controlled by the Peshmergas, who replaced the Iraqi Army when the latter fled without fighting when faced with ISIS’s attack. This was clearly necessary to protect it from being overrun, so that, concretely, most of the province is already controlled by the KRG. Moreover, Masud Barzani, the Kurdistan Region’s President, called, last February, for a referendum to decide whether or not the Region would become independent of the Iraqi State. According to Barzani, this referendum would take place before the end of the year — and more specifically before the US Presidential elections in November. Within the present constitutional borders, the question posed would cover the future of the Region— independence or remaining within Iraq. It already seems pretty certain that the overwhelming majority of the Kurds will choose the first option — as, indeed, they did on the last unofficial consultation just after the fall of the Ba’ath regime in 2003. The referendum could well be organised to cover the areas under dispute between Baghdad and the KRG, which are also, like Kirkuk, controlled and defended by the latter, and contain a question specific to these areas asking the inhabitants whether they preferred to link their fates with the Kurdistan Region of the rest of Iraq.
However, another issue will have to be resolved before any referendum on self-determination can effectively be held — the Kurdistan Region’s internal political crisis will have to be resolved so that the Erbil Parliament can meet again and pass the necessary decrees. This will require the cooperation of all the Region’s political parties, whatever may be their other disagreements.
On 6 June the Literary Organisation Pen International appealed to the Iranian authorities to free the Iranian Kurdish journalist, writer and Human Rights defender Mohammad Sediq Kaboudvand, who has been on hunger strike in the ill-famed Evin Prison for nearly a month, along with two other detainees Mohammad Abdullahi and Ayoub Asadi.
Imprisoned for his critical articles, Kaboudvand won the British Press’s Journalist of the Year prize in 2009. His health has deteriorated rapidly since the start of his hunger strike. Amnesty International has also made an appeal for his release and during the Press Freedom Day on 3 May last, the US State Department had chosen his case as examplary. He was arrested at his place of work on 1 July 2007 and his papers, computers and books all confiscated. His crime was to have founded and run the banned daily paper Payam-e mardom-e Kurdistan as well as the Kurdistan Organisation for Human Rights. Charged with “actions against national security” he was sentenced to 11 years jail. Kept in solitary confinement for several months he has had several heart attacks during his period of detention, without receiving any treatment.
Kaboudvand finally decided to end his hunger strike on 11 June. But, in general, repression has intensified since the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme and the ethnic and religious minorities are amongst the first victims. The Kurds, evidently, are the first to suffer. They make up 10% of the prison population and are refused certain rights that are yet written into the Islamic Republic’s Constitution, such as temporary release for medical treatment and are often sent to “internal exile” in prison far from Kurdistan so that their relatives cannot visit them.
It is in this context that on 16 and 17 June a communiqué by the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) announced that its Peshmergas clashed with some Iranian Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) at Shno (Oshnavieh) and at Sardasht in a fighting round that lasted for ten hours. The KDPI claimed in its communiqué to have killed over 20 Pasdaran, soldiers and officers, following an attack by Iranian forces on a Peshmerga patrol that was escorting Party cadres near the villages of Sergiz and Qereseqe, in the Shno district. The KDPI General Secretary, Mustafa Hijri, stated: “The Islamic Republic wants to present an image of peace in the war-torn Middle East by using force and violence against the different voices inside the country — including the Kurds and other nationalities”.
Founded in 1945, the KDPI is the oldest Kurdish party in Iran. It is the indirect origin of the Iraqi KDP and is known for its 1946 proclamation of the Mahabad Republic — the second Kurdish Republic in history, following the one proclaimed in 1927 in “Turkish Kurdistan” (Northern Kurdistan or Bakur) in the Ararat region by the Kurdish Khoybun organisation.
The KDPI had interrupted its armed struggle on the soil of Iranian Kurdistan (Eastern Kurdistan or Rojhelat) after being defeated by the Islamic regime in 1984. Most of its Peshmergas and its leadership had then retired to the Iraqi Kurdistan side of the border.
In February 2015 the KDPI announced it was sending some Peshmergas to Eastern Kurdistan to resume the struggle on the field against the regime’s oppression. These clashes reflect the carrying out of this re-orientation, decided in the context of the intensification of the repression following the nuclear agreements.
The KDPI is not the only Kurdish movement waging guerrilla operations in Kurdistan against the regime’s forces. The Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK, Partî Azadîyî Kurdistan) has also announced it is waging attacks “following the unbearable level reached by the repression in Kurdistan, where the regime’s forces regularly execute civilians” in an extra-judicial manner. The PAK had, in particular attacked last April government security forces at Sanandaj. On 13, 15 and 16 June, at the same time as the fighting between the KDPI and the Pasdaran fighting also took place, in the same region between Pasdaran and the PJAK (Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê), a political organisation of the same trend as the Syrian PYD and the Turkish PKK, which has been carrying out operations in Eastern Kurdistan for some years now.
Following these events, Iran started, on Sunday 26 June, to bomb inside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, arguing that bases of the Iranian Kurdish opposition existed in the targeted areas.
There was intensive shelling of the areas of Haji Omran, Berkma and Barbzin to Sidakan, a few kilometres inside the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan and in the district of Soran, in Erbil Province. Around a half-dozen bombs were dropped in the morning in less than a minute, frightening the local population. Iran also shelled the villages de Doli Alana, Rash Harman and Kuna Re, near Haji Omran, in the Choman district of Erbil Province. The shelling on the area of Sidakan caused major fires in this essentially agricultural region. This is the first time in ten years that Iran has shelled this area, often targeted by Turkey.
The following day the KRG Prime Minister’s secretariat demanded that Iran and Turkey cease these attacks on border areas of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, also stressing to the Kurdish movements that they should not use it to carry out attacks on neighbouring countries. “In the last few days the Kurdistan Region’s borders have been subjected to attacks by the Iranian Islamic Republic and the Turkish Republic. These have injured a number of civilians and forced dozens of people to leave their homes, caused damage to cattle and crops and the natural environment. We are opposed to the use of the border regions of the Kurdistan Region by certain Iranian opposition groups and the PKK to carry out attacks on neighbouring countries. We ask all parties to cease using the territory of the Kurdistan Region and to respect the stability, the legal obligations and friendly relations of the Kurdistan Region with its neighbours”.
The day after this statement, on the 28th, while Turkey launched a new air raid against the PKK in the Ranya district, near Suleymaniah, fresh fighting broke out between KDPI Peshmergas and Pasdaran in the region of Sarvabad, not far from the Iraqi former, facing Halabja). According to Iran, 11 “counter-revolutionaries” and 3 Pasdaran were killed. The commander to the Pasdaran land forces, General Mohammed Pakpour, threatened to strike the KDPI bases in Iraqi territory if the Peshmerga attacks continued and on 29th, 80 families had to leave their villages following Iranian artillery shelling in the areas of Iraqi Kurdistan near the Iranian borders.
For the first time, a documentary film devoted to the Kurdish fighters, the Peshmergas, fighting against ISIS, is in the official selection hors competition of the Cannes Film Festival. It is a film by Bernard Henri-Lévy precisely entitled Peshmerga.
The director, accompanied by three cameramen, one of whom is a Kurd who was wounded during the shooting, closely followed for several months the 1,000 Km long front along which the Kurdish fighters face the Jihadists practically from the Iranian to the Syrian borders.
Since the ISIS attack in July 2014, over 1000 of them have been killed in battle.
The film gives these fighters a human face, and helps the Kurds emerge from the image they given since the start of their political struggle for their rights — that of “war-loving” mountaineers. All the scenes of Bernard Henri-Lévy’s film show clearly how far they are from this simplistic and racist image.
The Kurds are no fonder of war than anyone one else. They have suffered for decades from the curse of having to wage it in self-defence and to defend their rights. The threat exerted by ISIS’s jihadism on the Iraqi Kurdistan Region is a matter of its existence — there is no negotiation possible with these enemies of civilisation and many retired Peshmergas have reenlisted to defend their threatened land.
Apart from the political situation of defending their Kurdistan Region, the film shows that the Peshmergas are also fighting for universal values and a very open approach to Islam that Henri-Lévy says he had never seen elsewhere. This appears particularly in the scene in which his Peshmerga contacts take the film director back to proudly show him the ruins of a former synagogue. The film also shows how, despite the air support by the anti-ISIS coalition, the Peshmergas are alone on the ground against the jihadists. As the former French Consul to Kurdistan, F. Tissot, wrote: “Our survival depends on their deaths”. Indeed, beyond just a war documentary with its anti-heroes, these men, from the simple Peshmerga to the “young white-haired general” who died doing what they consider to be their job, there is also a call to support them.
The film director explained, at the end of a screening which he attended, that the thing that convinced him to make the film was a scene that was sent to him from Kurdistan — the one it placed at the start of the film, even before the credits to show that he had not shot it himself. It shows a young fighter going in to attack coming within a hair’s breath of death, without certainty whether he was really unscathed. Bernard-Henri Lévy spent all his time during the shooting trying to find this Peshmerga and learning whether he was still alive — unsuccessfully.
To sum up, while the film gives the Kurdish fighters a face, it is unable to do the same for their jihadist enemies. Those ISIS militants who want to frighten the whole world, decapitating their prisoners before the cameras, are never shown on the screen in Peshmerga. Throughout the documentary, they seem to flee without fighting, preferring to lay explosive traps for their adversaries in the towns they’ve captured. The overall image they give, behind their megalomaniac propaganda, is one of constant cowardice.
Faced with the everyday courage of the Kurdish fighters, this is also what is salutary about the film. Can we overcome our fears and really do something to support those who are concretely fighting against them in the field?
After the screening at the Cannes Festival where it met a keen success from the public and the media, Peshmergas was distributed to the Paris cinemas where it remained running for almost a month.