On 3rd November, Talal Silo, spokesman of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic and multi-denominational military alliance mainly led by the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) declared to Reuters that the SDF would launch the operation to liberate Raqqa on their own. He added that they had informed the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition that they rejected any Turkish participation to it. For his part, Salih Muslim, the PYD co-president, described the Turkish incursion into Syria as an invasion, which was opposed “not only by the Kurds but by all Syrians”. He went on to state “if Turkey were to take part [in the advance on Raqqa] it would be to help ISIS not to fight it”. Muslim further added that the Kurdish fighters of the YPG (the military wing of the PYD) would advance on Raqqa as part of the SDF and would return to their own territories as soon as the town was taken. It would then be up to the local administration that would emerge after the expulsion of the jihadists to decide whether or not to join the Federal Region of Northern Syria recently proclaimed by the SDF. A few days later, on the 6th, at a press conference held at Ain Issa, 50 km North of Raqqa, the SDF announced the launching of the operation, named “Euphrates’ Wrath”. The operation, that would involve 30,000 fighters, would be waged in co-ordination with the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition and include alongside the SDF fighters some French and American troops. It would not, however, by agreement with the US, as Talal Silo confirmed to AFP, involve either Turkey or any of the Syrian islamist factions it supports. Indeed, since the beginning of the month the latter have been clashing with the SDF North of Aleppo and shelling villages they had just taken from ISIS… The SDF would then have to fight ISIS while being subjected to attacks from those they described as “mercenaries of the Turks”.
Thus on the 7th, while, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR) the fighting began near the town of Ain Issa, the SDF called not only for regional and international support for the operation but also help by NGOs for Raqqa’s residents. Despite the jihadists’ resistance, using, as usual, booby-trapped vehicles, the SDF had taken several villages. As from the 8th the SDF had begun digging trenches to protect themselves from those suicide attacks. On the same day, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, clearly trying to make the best of the way Turkey had been sidelined, announced that Washington had committed itself to ensuring that the Kurdish Fighters would not enter Raqqa, adding that he hoped this promise would be kept, although the same thing had been promised about Manbij, from which the announced withdrawal had not yet taken place… On the 10th Cihan Ehmed, SDF spokesman for “Euphrates’s Wrath” told Associated Press that the fighters were advancing on two separate fronts North of Raqqa, and that once the tow had connected they would have encircled a area of 550 km2 controlled by the jihadists. On the 14th Talal Silo declared that the SDF had recovered 32 villages from ISIS since the start of the operation. On the 16th the YPG’s overall Command announced that its fighters were withdrawing from Manbij and returning to the East bank of the Euphrates to take part in the Raqqa operation, since the town’s own Military Council could now protect it. On the 21st, however, despite this withdrawal islamist militia backed by the Turks attacked the West of Manbij. The commander of the town’s Military Council, Adnan Abou Amjad, announced that Turkish air raids had killed one of their fighters and wounded several others and accused Turkey of being “a terrorist State that is striking at the positions of the Military Council that is fighting ISIS”. On the same day the Turkish President, in a speech in Istanbul to a meeting of NATO’s parliamentary assembly, criticised the US support of the YPG and expressed the hope that its position would change “so that Turkey be freed from the terrorist danger”. He reminded the US and its NATO allies of Turkey’s proposal of setting up an air protection zone over Northern Syria to ban the Syrian Air Force. The next day, the 22nd, Peter Cook, the US State Department’s spokesman, indirectly replied that the Kurds could well be amongst the local forces charged with defending Manbij against ISIS, but that they would be long time local residents, not necessarily members of the PYD whose withdrawal to the East bank of the Euphrates Peter Cook confirmed it had been announced. However, on the 23rd violent clashes took place between the SDF and the Syrian rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) backed by Turkey near al-Bab, a town of 100,000 inhabitants about 30 km South of the Turkish border in villages on the road to Manbij. According to the SOHR the Turkish troops and their allies had already begun shelling and bombing the town on the 12th, clearly seeking to prevent the SDF from opening a corridor connecting the Canton of Afrin, to the West, with the two Eastern cantons of their Federal Region, Kobané and Jezireh. The Manbij Military Council’s forces continued, in parallel, to confront the FSA. According to the Kurdish news agency Hawar (close to the PYD) three Turkish tanks were destroyed.
It is clear that the US, at its highest level, takes a poor view of these Turkish air strikes against their allies. This is shown by statements made on 27th October by Republican Senator John McCain, president of the Senate Armed Forces Committee: “The United States has long-standing relations with Turkey [but] a series of recent events have raised concern about the fundamentals [of these relations]”. McCain further added that cooperation with the SDF “[served] the interests of national security of both the United States and the countries of the region, including those of Turkey” before insistently asking the Turkish government to abstain from further attacks on the Kurdish groups in Syria… On the 16th US Colonel John Dorrian, spokesman of the Coalition stated at a press conference that Turkey’s action against al-Bab was a “national decision” undertaken independently by Turkey and that it “was not supported by the coalition”, even making the point that the United States had “withdrawn their Special Forces troops originally deployed to help the Turkish forces and their allies”.
It should be noted that, while the United States support the military alliance of the Syrian Kurds in the field (the Coalition has even increased its support of the SDF by supplying it with arms and equipment) Russia, for its part, regularly makes statements defending their inclusion in the political process. Thus on the 21st, The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Guennadi Gatilov, stated that the UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura should, in carrying out his mandate, resume the consultation regarding the future of Syria as rapidly as possible — and on the most inclusive base possible. Thus the opposition delegation would have to include all the opposition groups having a political platform and particularly the Syrian Kurds: “The Kurds must be included in the political process”, stated Gatilov, “They are a real political and military force that controls a considerable part of Syrian land and are actively taking part in the struggle against terrorism”.
Faced with Turkish attacks, the SDF continued their offensive against Raqqa. On the 19th, alongside American troops they encircled the village of Tell Saman, about 25 km North of Raqqa, where there was fierce fighting with the jihadists. On the 29th, over three weeks after the launching of the “Euphrates’ Wrath” campaign, Cihan Ehmed, the operation’s spokesman, announced its second phase — a simultaneous offensive from each of the different front lines that should lead to the liberation of the town. He also announced that the SDF had recruited 1000 men and women coming from Raqqa, recruits who would be included in the coming operation after receiving appropriate training. On the same day, as fighting was continuing between the Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed islamist groups in the villages surrounding the town, the Syrian government unexpectedly intervened in this confrontation: on the 24 The Turkish Army published a communiqué announcing an air strike by the regimes planes early that morning. The raid, at about 3.30 a.m., killed 3 Turkish soldiers and wounded 10 others, one of them seriously. This is the first acknowledged air strike against its troops in Syria, attributed to the regime by Turkey.
Side-lined in the field, the Turkish authorities sought to open a fresh front against the PYD. On the 22nd, they issued an international warrant to arrest its co-President, Salih Muslim, as well as nearly 70 other “suspects” who are members of the PKK. The warrant was justified by charging the PYD with responsibility for the attack on an army convoy in Ankara last February — although it had been clamed by the TAK, a group that had broken away from the PKK. Mr. Muslim, who is of Syrian nationality, commented on Twitter that he did not think “anyone took this warrant seriously”. In an interview to Middle East Eye he added on the 23rd, that the warrant aimed at forcing him to limit his journeys to Europe, which “bothered the Sultan”. These attempts by legal proceedings do not seem, so far, to have had the desired impact. The warrant — which was not sent to Interpol — was issued at a time that Muslim, who enjoys good relations with European governments and has an office in Brussels, was meeting with British Foreign Office officials and was preparing to address the House of Lords. Indeed, the warrant has not prevented the PYD leader and his co-President, Asya Abdullah, from attending the opening of a new Representative Office of the “Autonomous Democratic Region of Rojova” in Oslo, the Norwegian capital. Also present at this opening were Oslo City Mayoress, Marianne Borgen, and the region’s Representative, Sinem Mohamad. This makes the sixth Representative Office opened abroad, after Moscow, Prague, Stockholm, Berlin and Paris.
The Iraqi Special Forces entered Mosul’s suburb of Kokjali on the 1st November. Despite the jihadists’ fierce resistance, the Iraqi troops have continued advancing towards Karama, further into the city’s centre. They are still, however, almost 8 km from the centre and are advancing very slowly. The jihadists had tried, the day before, to block the troops’ advance by bringing, under cover of darkness, about 25,000 residents of Hammam al-Alil, an important town about 15 km Southeast of Mosul, downstream of the Tigris’ West bank, to use them as a human shield. Most of the vehicles transporting them, however, had to make a U-turn after being spotted by the Coalition’s air force. During these forced transfer operations the jihadists executed all the former police they spotted among the civilians, this time about forty of them whose bodies they threw into the Tigris. The Iraqi anti-terrorist forces succeeded, however, later in the day, in taking back complete control of Kokjali and, especially Mosul’s Iraqi Television building. This is the first official building taken back from the jihadists since entering the city. On the 3rd, the self-announced “Caliph” of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Bagdadi, broadcast an audio message of 31 minutes in which he declared he was confident of his organisation’s victory, calling on his fighters to resist and even to invade Turkey! “Turkey, today, has entered into your field of action and the aim or your jihad. Invade it and transform its security into fear”, he said. However, according to the British intelligence Services, ISIS leader fled Mosul after broadcasting his call to resist!
On the 4th, the Iraqi forces announced having taken back six districts to the East of the city: Malayîn, Samah, Khadra, Karkukli, Al-Qods and Karama and to be trying to reach the Tigris, which runs through the city. However, being occupied in “cleaning up” the regained quarters they did not announced any new advances until the 6th. Nevertheless, they have taken control of a quarter on the South, less than 4 km from the airport, and announced on the 7th having taken back Hamam al-Alil: while the East front is now well inside the city, the South front is indeed the one furthest from Mosul.
For their part, the KRG’s Peshmergas who, in accordance with the agreement reached with Baghdad, have not entered Mosul, announced on the same day that they had taken back Bashiqa, on the Nineveh plain, 15 km to the Northeast. This town, before being taken by ISIS had a mixed population of Yezidis, Shabaks, Assyrians and Moslem Arabs. This announcement by the Kurdish fighters, however, proved to be premature as fighting was pursued until the 8th in the quarters to the East of the city between jihadists and Iraqi soldiers and to the North with the peshmergas. The Peshmergas then began “cleaning up” the city — that is to capture or eliminate the jihadists who had dug themselves in certain houses or tunnels. This cleansing was only really completed in the morning of the 11th by the capture of a dozen jihadists killed on the last day. It was from Bashiqa that Masud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region, declared, while visiting the Peshmergas, that ISIS no longer represented a danger to it. On that day, the Iraqi Army announced that it controlled six quarters of the East of Mosul and had taken back from ISIS the ancient city of Nimrud, about 30 km to the South, on the East bank if the Tigris. The next day the Yezidis of Bashiqa organised a ceremony to mark their return and on the 17th the inhabitants began to return, to evaluate the damage and decide whether to resettle there or not.
On the 15th, the Iraqi Minister of the Interior announced that the Iraqi troops had driven the jihadists from a third of the Eastern part of Mosul. On the 17th they advanced from the South towards the city’s airport, while the Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi militia were advancing Westwards towards Tell Afar, and announced on the 21st they were locked in fierce fighting with ISIS on the road connecting that town to Mosul. The objective of blocking the jihadists connections with Syria seemed virtually achieved. Nevertheless, despite the difference in numbers, ISIS´s resistance remained fierce. According to the Pentagon, there were 3,000 to 5,000 jihadists in the town centre plus 1,500 to 2,500 in the external defence belt, including a thousand foreign fighters, against over 40,000 attackers – so no one would risk estimating how long the battle would last. To further restrict ISIS’s freedom of movement between the East and West quarters of Mosul, the Americans destroyed with an air raid a bridge over the Tigris — the third in two months. UNO expressed its concern that these destructions might make the flight of civilians more difficult. On the 23rd the Shiite militia announced they had connected with the Peshmergas West of Tell Afar, thus totally isolating Mosul from the outside. The next objective will be to tighten the stranglehold by cutting Mosul from Tell Afar, whose inhabitants, mostly Turkmen, have already fled. On 24th morning, the Iraqi forces imposed a curfew on the quarters which they controlled in the Eastern part of Mosul, forbidding the entry of vehicles and closing the shops until the inspection of houses was completed.
The fighting has caused considerable suffering to the civilians: many have been able to flee but others have been prevented to do so by the jihadists, who use them as “human shields”. Since the 2nd, the KRG announced the arrival of 9,000 displaced persons in its camps since the beginning of operations. In the new camp Khazir, which shelters 3,000 people, the new arrivals complain they don’t have enough supplies to stand the winter. Its manager, Rizgar Obeid, declared he had ordered more supplies from the KRG and the HCR and other international organisations. On 22nd, the number of people displaced by the fighting was estimated at 68,500. As the jihadists retreat the attackers find mass graves, that bear witness to their barbarity — one was discovered on 8th in the little town of Hamam al-Alil and two others in Sinjar containing at least 18 Yezidi corpses. The mayor of Sinjar declared that 29 others had already been found.
In parallel to the operations in Mosul, the Kirkuk police continued re-ascertaining that city’s security following ISIS’s incursion at the end of October, which had cost the lives of over 100 people, mainly among the police. On the 1st they announced having eliminated a dozen jihadists trying to escape towards Hawija, a town with a population of 100,000 inhabitants located some 65 km West and also one of the last still held by ISIS in the province. On the 8th they arrested some members of an ISIS “sleeping cell” that was sending information to Hawija — probably to prepare another attack. On the 19th following some raids carried out in several of the city’s quarters they arrested 309 people, 87 of whom were rapidly set free. On the 22nd, the creation of a new police regiment was announced: formed of officers drawn from various contol points or local police stations, the new unit is to strengthen Kurkuk’s security with its 500-700 men.
Some of the suspects are of surprising origins. Thus the Japanese journalist, Kosuke Tsuneoka, arrested on 1st November by the Peshmergas on Mount Zardak, near Mosul, carrying a small chain marked with an ISIS symbol. Handed over to the Japanese Embassy on the 7th for expulsion to his own country, he had, according to their Intelligence police, converted to Islam and was suspected of having gone to Raqqa to act as an interpreter to ISIS’s leaders — which he denied to his colleagues once returned to Tokyo.
The operations are, to a great extent, taking place in disputed areas between Baghdad and the KRG, which has led to some tension and accusations of ethnic cleansing. On the 13th, the KRG rejected a report by Human Rights Watch that the Peshmergas were demolishing the houses of Arab families in the Provinces of Mosul and Nineveh (Kirkuk) replying that the destructions in question, noted from satellite images, were due to Coalition air strikes and to ISIS, who had dynamited the houses of members of the police forces. On the 16th Masud Barzani answered these accusations from Bashiqa, where he was visiting the Peshmergas, by stating that there was no place amongst the Kurds for those who had cooperated with ISIS but that the others were welcome: “Different ethnic and religious groups are living together. This is the manner of things in Kurdistan, which we want”. He promised the inhabitants of the disputed territories that the KRG would never allow them to be displaced again. In answer to some criticisms that the Peshmergas should not have shed their blood for Mosul as the place depended on the central government, Barzani declared that Kurdistan would no be safe so long as Mosul was in the hands of terrorists, adding: “Before ISIS’s arrival there were 300,000 Kurds living in Mosul. Could we have turned our backs on them?”
Another traditional issue of difference between Baghdad and Erbil is the status of the Peshmergas. Although the 2005 Constitution recognises them as the self-defence force of Iraqi Kurdistan, Baghdad has always refused to pay their wages. Yet, on 26th, the Iraqi Parliament recognised by 206 votes to 327, the Shiite militia as an official military “support and reserve” force whose members will receive the same pay (and retirement pension) as the regular army. The Sunni Arab leaders immediately rejected the law and appealed for it to be repelled while the Kurdish MPs decided to ask during the debate on the 2017 Federal budget for Kurdistan that it should include the pay for 100,000 Peshmergas, i.e. 42 millions dollars.
Nevertheless things are not all black in relations between communities. During the last two weeks at least 2,000 Arabs of the town of Zêmar, North of the Mosul – Tell Afar road, enrolled in a new “Peshmerga Brigade of West Tigris” composed of Arabs from Zêmar, Rabia, Ayazya and several Sinjar villages. Created at the request of some tribal chiefs of Nineveh Province to protect the region of Zêmar, this brigade will come under the command of... the Kurdish Peshmerga Ministry.
While military operations went on, the Kurdistan Region was still living through a time of financial difficulties and institutional crisis. The teachers, in particular are continuing their boycott of classes to protest against the cuts and arrears in their wages, demonstrating on the 1st of this month in Suleimaniyeh, Halabja, Koya, Garmyan, Raparin, Darbandikhan et Chamchamal… Other demonstrations took place on the 12th, and the angry teachers blocked on the road the Ministry of Education office at Suleimaniyeh on the 15th, threatening the KRG with legal proceedings. After other demonstrations on the 19th, a fresh blockage was organised on the 20th, followed by clashes between over 5,000 teachers and police forces deployed to protect the premises of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the main party in the province. On the 23rd, the KRG Council of Ministers announced a meeting with the Vice-Governor of Suleimaniyeh and the provincial teachers’ union to find a solution, the Ministry of Education saying he was ready to make some concessions. President Masud Barzani himself said he understood the teachers’ difficulties.
Finally on the 21st , Masud Barzani urged the Kurdish political parties to unite so as to find an agreement to elect a new Speaker for the Erbil Parliament and so reactivate the latter and enable the election of a new government and a new President for the Region until the next general elections. On the 27th the KDP announced multilateral discussions with the other political parties: PUK, Gorran, UIK and GIK (Islamists) in order to try a get out of the political deadlock that has paralysed the Region for over a year.
After the decree issued the month before by the Turkish authorities to close the womens’ Kurdish News Agency Jinha, it was learnt on 1st November that the police had forcibly closed the Agency by force and without any official notification during the night of the 29th and 30th October — at the same time as a series of other media, including the Press agencies DIHA (Dicle News Agency), two magazines and 10 dailies. Jinha, created by six women journalists, with teams of women reporters in Turkey, Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan, had as one of its main aims to remedy the absence of any covering of violence against women in Turkey. After the police changed the lock of their office and forbad access to it, the journalists declared they would not bend before the “misogynist party” AKP and would continue to spread information through the social networks.
Now the Turkish authorities have transformed any spreading of information on the arrest of journalists into a legal offence! In the 31st, a court forbad the spreading of information regarding the arrest of Murat Sabuncu, the Chief editor of the daily Cumhuriyet. Some of the paper’s supporters, accompanied by leaders of the opposition gathered in solidarity near its offices in Ankara and Istanbul. On the 5th the Turkish authorities ordered the formal arrest of nine of the executives of Cumhuriyet, including its chief editor, before their trial. A senior official of the European Union described these incarcerations as “crossing a red line” regarding freedom of expression. According to the Association of Turkish Journalists, 170 papers, magazines, TV channels and press agencies have been closed since the 15th July, putting 2500 journalists out of job, and in the last three months over 110,000 people have been sacked or suspended and 37,000 arrested. Since the 2nd, on the occasion of the International Day to put an end to the impunity for crimes against journalist, the organisation defending journalists’ rights Reporters sans frontière (RSF, Journalists Without Borders) had found a choice place for President Erdoğan on its list of “Predators of Press Freedom”… On the 8th, Erol Onderoğlu, who is the RSF representative for Turkey, and two other activists on Journalists’ Rights Sebnem Korur and Ahmet Nesin, arrested after the “coup d’état” and released until their trial, went to its start in Istanbul. For having accepted to act as guest editors during a campaign of solidarity with the pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem, they were accused of “terrorist propaganda in favour of the PKK”. Among the daily’s other collaborators arrested then was the woman novelist Aslı Erdoğan. Then on the 11th the daily Cumhuriyet announced that its general manager, Akin Atalay, had been arrested on Friday at Istanbul on his return from Germany. A warrant for his arrest had been issued in the context of an enquiry into “terrorist activities” and he was immediately taken away in a police car that was waiting for him on the tarmac. On the same day the French journalist, Olivier Bertrand, who works for the French web site lesjours.fr was arrested at Gaziantep, then expelled after being held in detention by the police for three days. On the 10th, according to the Doğa agency, two journalists of the Swedish SVT television channel based on Istanbul and covering events in Diyarbakir, were arrested after having filmed near a military area. After interrogation they were allowed to return to Istanbul. On the 27th two women reporters, Hatice Kamer (BBC) and Khajijan Farqin (Voice of America), were arrested in the Provinces of Siirt and Diyarbakir respectively. Hatice Kamer was supposed to cover a mining accident — has this kind of news also become subject to censorship?
In this poisonous atmosphere the Turkish media is going through there are two items of “relatively good news”: on Monday 13th, the Paris Tribunal de commerce ordered the Eutelsat company to re-establish its satellite broadcasting of the Kurdish channel Newroz TV, which it had interrupted on 11 October at the demand of the RTÜK (Turkey’s Audiovisual High Committee) with a penalty of 10,000 euros per day in the event of any delay. The court judged that “interruption of the broadcasting […] constituted a flagrant violation” and causes “manifestly illicit disruption” to the Swedish company Stiftelsen Kurdish Media (SKM) that broadcasts Newroz TV, and that RTÜK had not clearly established proof of any link between the channel and the PKK. On Thursday the same court gave a similar ruling in favour of the Med Nuçe TV channel.
The repression is aimed at civil society as well as the media. On the 14th, the Ministry of the Interior ordered the closing on grounds of “terrorism” of 370 organisations including women’s groups, and some for the defence of children’s rights! The organisations concerned only learnt of the decision from the police raids and the searching of their premises. The reasons put forward by the Ministry: 153 of the organisations closed had links with the “Gülen network”, 190 with the PKK, 190 with PKK, 8 with ISIS and 19 with the extreme Left party DHKP-C (Revolutionary Army for the People’s liberation — Devrimci Halk Kurtuluş Partisi-Cephesi). Academics were again targeted, arrest warrants having been launched on Wednesday the 2nd against 137 of them for “Gulenist” links, and in the morning of 18th the police, provided with 103 warrants, launched a raid on the campus of Istanbul’s Yildiz Technical University, in the course of which 76 staff members were jailed for “participating in an armed terrorist organisation”. Two other people were also jailed in the afternoon at Istanbul and a third at Ankara.
Regarding the Army, prosecutors ordered on Wednesday 9th the arrest of a further 55 fighter plane pilots, over 300 being already in detention, most of them being based on the Konya air base. On the 12th, the Defence Ministry announced that 163 officers and 123 commissioned officers of the Navy, suspected of complicity with the failed “coup d’état”, had been suspended from active service. On the 18th, the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that several Turkish officers and diplomats holding posts in Europe and recalled to Ankara had decided not to return and had asked for political asylum. Mentioning the testimony of officers that certain of their colleagues were imprisoned without being charged or having access to a lawyer or even their wives, Stoltenberg added that NATO condemned the coup but hoped that Turkey would respect the law in its search for accomplices within its armed forces…
On Tuesday 22nd, two new decrees were published whereby 15,000 further people in the Army, police and State services were stripped of office, and 500 associations, 19 medical establishments and 9 media firms closed. Amongst the establishments affected was the only Kurdish school in Van, which had opened the year before and had three classes with fifty pupils. Thus these decrees enable the government to go back on the few rights granted to the Kurdish language...
Surfing on the wave of violence it itself unleashed, the government is pursuing its statements on the possible restoration of the death penalty, abolished in 2002. Prime Minister, Binali Yıldırım, while declaring on 1st November, that the government “would not close it ears to the peoples’ demands” envisaged, without further details a “limited measure” in this sense, to which the MHP leader, Devlet Baceli, expressed his support. The support of this extreme Right ultra-nationalist organisation, which is being increasingly being courted by the AKP would enable the latter to carry out the constitutional changes needed…
None of these repressive measures, which nevertheless use as a pretext the eradication of the “Gülenist network” and of the PKK’s Kurdish guerrilla, are preventing the latter from pursuing its military actions against the Turkish security forces. Turkish Air Force fighters have struck several times this month the PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan: on 3rd (as well as in Turkey in the Cukurca district), the 7th and 22nd in the Amêdî district, 90 km northeast of Dohuk, the 27th at the Bazyan region and Qandil, then on the 28th and 29th at Amêdî again. The Turkish President himself even envisaged the possibility of a ground attack against the PKK on Iraqi territory. These declarations are being taken the most seriously in Iraq as at the beginning of the month. Turkey has deployed troops near the Iraqi border, in order, according to the Turkish Defence Minister, Fikri Isik, to prepare for “important developments in the region”. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi, reacted violently, declaring in a televised Press Conference: “An invasion of Iraq would lead to the dismantlement of Turkey […]. We do not want war with Turkey […] but if a confrontation takes place we are ready. We will treat Turkey as an enemy”. The tension between the two countries was further increased when the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, replied by accusing al-Abadi of weakness: “If you are so strong why have you abandoned Mosul to the terrorist organisations? […] Why has the PKK occupied your lands for so many years?”
In the country’s Kurdish provinces, an attack with a booby-trapped vehicle that occurred at Diyarbekir on the 4th, which could have been aimed at the imprisoned HDP leaders as well as the police (and who better than the anti-terrorist would have known where they were imprisoned) aroused controversy about its authors: ISIS, PKK, TAK. Then numerous others followed in the course of the month, after the PKK published, on the 5th, a “balance sheet” of the number of Turkish soldiers killed since August, which they established at 1,736 as against 24 of its own fighters. On the 10th, an attack by bomb or rocket followed by a short clash wounded 5 people in the Derik district (Mardin province) including 2 police and the District Governor, Mohammed Fatih Safitürk, recently appointed “administrator” of the Derik, municipality, who died in the hospital. At Adana on the 24th at 8 am an attack with a booby-trapped vehicle in the car park of the Governor’s office caused 2 deaths and injured 30, 2 of them seriously. This attack, not immediately claimed, was attributed to the PKK by the authorities until it was claimed by the TAK.
Following the arrest on 25 October of Diyarbakir’s two HDP co-mayors, Gültan Kışanak and Fırat Anlı, the Turkish authorities appointed Cumali Attila, formerly Governor of an Ankara district, as the unelected “administrator” to replace them while 30 members of the BDP, the HDP’s main regional constituent, were arrested in a police operation in Mardin. Selahattin Demirtaş, the HDP co-President, speaking at a press conference, described the charges against the two co-mayors as “totally false”, adding with reference to the Turkish leaders: “They will give us back all that they have stolen or confiscated — we demand that our co-mayors be returned to their posts and a return to the people’s will. We will not accept any other option; we will not bend and will continue to stand upright. Everyone will go down into the streets and will not retreat until we achieve a result”.
Two days later, however, during the night of 3rd to 4th, Selahattin Demirtaş and the HDP co-President Figen Yüksekdağm were themselves taken into preventive detention, as were 9 other HDP Members of Parliament in the course of a vast operation against the HDP, with co-ordinated police raids throughout the Kurdish region of Turkey, especially Diyarbakir, Van and Bingöl and a search of the head office in Ankara. According to the Anatolia press agency, two other HDP MPs Faysal Sariyildiz and Tugba Hezer Ozturk, could not be taken into detention as they were abroad. According to an HDP communiqué dated the 15th, however, the police had placed in detention Sirri Sureyya Onder, Nursel Aydogan, Ferhat Encu, Gulser Yildirim, Leyla Birlik, Ziya Pir, Abdullah Zeydan, Idris Baluke (head of the HDP Parliamentary group) and Imam Tascier (Member for Diyarbakir). Still according to Anatolia, Selahattin Demirtaş was arrested at his home in Diyarbakir at about 1.30 am while Figen Yüksekdağ was arrested in Ankara. According to the Kurdish television channel NTV both of the leaders were charged with propaganda for the PKK while the Anatolia agency indicated that Demirtaş was accused of provoking violence during the protest demonstrations of October 2014, where several deaths occurred. These arrests were made possible by the vote in Parliament of last 20th of May that lifted parliamentary immunity of accused Members. The day after the incarceration of the two co-presidents a Diyarbakir court confirmed their preventive detention, ruling that they be kept in prison until their trial — for which no date has been set.
The following Sunday, the 6th, the HDP spokesman, Ayhan Bilgen, announced that they were beginning a boycott of Parliament, specifying that the Members leaving the Assembly would be going “from house to house, from village to village, from district to district” to meet people and draw up with them proposals for actions to carry out next. On 22nd November, however, he announced the return the HDP to the Turkish Parliament: “We will not abandon the struggle as you want us to and we will not be your puppets in Parliament”.
The first foreign reactions to the arrest of the two co-Presidents of the third largest party in Turkey with 59 MPs out of 550, were unanimously disapproving. The European Union, through its Commissioner for Foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, declared that it was “extremely concerned” and called a meeting of the different EU diplomats in Ankara. In a joint communiqué with the European Commissioner for Enlargement, Johannes Hahn, Mrs. Mogherini declared: “These developments […] compromise parliamentary democracy in Turkey and aggravate an already very tense situation in the Southeast of the country, for which there can only be a political solution”. Several parties in the European Parliament, including its second largest Parliamentary group, the Social Democrats, also condemned the arrests. In France the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Romain Nadal, expressed his “serious preoccupation” during his daily press conference, calling on “[…] Turkey to observe the primacy of Law and fundamental Rights” including democracy and press freedom. In the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, the Prime Minister of the Regional Government (KRG), Nechirvan Barzani, called in a communiqué on the 4th for the freeing of the arrested HDP MPs and “the renewal of the peace process in the interests of a real resolution”. The secretariat of the Region’s presidency and the Political Committee of the PUK made similar statements. On the 5th the US Assistant Secretary of State Antony Blinken, also expressed anxiety, as did the White House spokesman Josh Earnest, who added that the suppression of fundamental freedoms was not a way to fight terrorism. On the 8th the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, declared that the Turkish President Erdoğan was leading Turkey “far from Europe” and endangering its candidacy.
Alongside these official condemnations, that have had in the past little effect on the Turkish authorities, protest demonstrations, mainly by Kurds, took place in Turkey as well as abroad. In London a policeman was slightly injured when hundreds of demonstrators tried to enter the Turkish Embassy. There were also demonstrations on the 6th in Iraqi Kurdistan, at Koya and à Halabja. At Istanbul the police dispersed the demonstrators with tear gas, stunning grenades and powdered pepper, and also threatened to arrest the journalists who had come to cover the event and confiscated their cameras and equipment. Other demonstrations continued later in the month: on the 12th about 25,000 Kurds and Alevis assembled in Cologne, Germany, with pictures of Selahattin Demirtaş, but also of Abdullah Öcalan, and there were clashes between the police and a small number of the demonstrators. On the 17th thousands of Kurds (2,000 according to the police) marched in Brussels calling for the EU to apply sanctions to Turkey. Finally, on Sunday 20th some 5,000 HDP demonstrators (but also members of the kemalist People’s Republican Party (CHP) rallied in the Asiatic quarters of Istanbul shouting slogans like “Let’s unite against fascism”.
In Diyarbakir, just a few hours after the detention of the 2 HDP co-presidents, there was a bomb attack using a booby-trapped minibus in the Bağlar quarter, aimed at the anti-terrorist police building, killing 11 people and wounding over 100. This action provoked controversy over who was responsible. The Turkish Prime Minister and the governor’s office immediately attributed it to “the separatist terrorist organisation” — that is the PKK in “official language” and maintained this version even after ISIS had claimed it and that a US-based investigation group stated that it had a source confirming the likely responsibility of the Jihadist organisation. The HDP, for its side stated that 6 of its MPs, incarcerated in the police building were targeted by the attack and had a narrow escape… Then the attack was claimed by TAK, a group that had broken away from the PKK, which provided a third potential suspect. In Diyarbakir the concomitance of the attack with the jailing, the proximity of the explosion with the place of detention of the arrested MPs, the insistence of the authorities in attributing it to the PKK and especially the fact that the attackers had been able to approach their target so easily, recalled the anti-HDP attacks at Suruç and Ankara and comments of the type “Three suspects — one responsible: Erdogan” spread rapidly on the social networks — or at least those the authorities had been unable to block!
On the 11th, it was the turn of five parliamentary assistants of the HDP Members of Parliament, including Figen Yüksekdağ’s assistant, to be jailed as well. On the 16th, the HDP mayors of Siirt and Tunceli (Dersim) were arrested and charged with links with the PKK, then on the 17th the Mayor of Van, Bekir Kaya, was arrested at the same time as four other municipal councillors with similar charges for which he risks 15 years terms of imprisonment. Administrators were appointed to replace the arrested elected officials in several towns of the Provinces of Siirt and Mardin. On the 21st, it was the turn of Ahmet Türk, the 74-year-old veteran of Kurdish politics and Mayor of Mardin, after having been stripped of functions the week before, with his co-mayor Emin İrmak, to be placed in detention. Ahmet Türk has already spent many years in Turkish prisons during the coups d’états of 1970 and 1980 and then in 1994 at the same time as Leyla Zana. The un-elected administrator appointed to replace him is none other than the Governor of the province, Mustafa Yaman.
Towards the end of the month other reactions abroad at the implacable repression practiced by the Turkish government have commenced to be expressed. Although the Turkish President had dismissed in advance any value to the anticipated vote of the European parliament to freeze the process of Turkey’s EU membership, it undoubtedly was a blow to the Turkish authorities. On the 24th as the European Parliament approved the freezing of the negotiations for Turkey’s membership, the MPs declared to: “[…] forcibly condemn the disproportionately repressive measures taken in Turkey since the failed attempt tat a military coup d’état” and although “remaining supporters of anchoring Turkey to the European Union […], call on the Commission and the Member States to initiate a temporary freeze in the current negotiations with Turkey”. While the Parliament’s vote is not legally binding, it does, after all send a clear message, even if the Turkish President rightly says he can’t swallow it… Evidently furious, Mr. Erdoğan again brandished the threat of re-opening the borders to the Syrian refugees. In the same day the Austrian Government, justifying its decision by the Human Rights and media situation in Turkey, voted unanimously to restrict the sale of arms to the country. The German Foreign Ministry, for its part, declared its opposition to freezing the negotiations on Turkey EU membership, stressing that, in its view, it was important to “continue speaking with this country, adding that the agreement about the refugees “was in the interests of both parties”. Continuing to speak with Turkey after the declarations on freeing the arrested” Members of Parliament is also the choice made by the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, whose Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani indeed met the Turkish President in Ankara on the 24th.
On the 28th according to a source who prefers to remain anonymous because of the restrictions imposed on statements made to the media, the Izmir Public prosecutor’s office charged the HDP co-President Figen Yüksekdağ and MP Erdal Atas with “propaganda for a terrorist organisation” and another MP, Mizgin Irgat, was accused of “promoting crimes and the criminals”. After examining the speeches of HDP members of parliament at a round table at Izmir last February, in which the actions of the PKK were described as “popular struggles”, the Public Prosecutors Office called for prison sentences of up to five years. On the 29th the MP Hışiyar Ozsoy warned that the government had replaced many prison guards by members of the Special Forces Police and transferred heavy weapons to some prisons. Stating that “The government might envisage carrying out some repressive and even deadly policies in the prisons”, Ozso called on all the international institutions and organisations “to follow up, meticulously investigate and act about the serious situation in the Turkish prisons”. On the same day the Prosecutor of the Diyarbakir Court demanded prison sentences of 230 years jail against Mrs Gültan Kışanak, the co-mayor imprisoned at Diyarbekir
On Monday 28 November a public homage was rendered to Tahir Elçi, an eminent lawyer, chairman of the Diyarbekir Bar and activist on issues regarding Kurdish rights, who was shot down in broad daylight on 28 November 2015 by a bullet in the head while he was holding a press conference in the street to call for an end to the violence in the “South-East” — Turkish Kurdistan.
Hundreds of people took part in the commemorative ceremony, which took place in Diyarbakir’s old town, in front of the historic minaret of the Sur quarter, the “minaret with four feet” that Elçi had chosen for his press conference and where he was shot down. Some of the people present had brought small pictures of the lawyer baring the words “Ambassador of Peace” or “Barış Elçisi”, a pun on his name. All of them lay red carnations in tribute. The lawyers of the local Bar, who came in formal dress welcomed with tears the members of Parliament of HDP and CHP parties who had come to join them. Ahmet Ozmen, the lawyer who had succeeded Elçi as Bar Chairman, criticised the “dark forces” behind his colleague’s murder and declared that the efforts to solve the crime would continue. At the same time, in Istanbul, dozens of lawyers paid tribute to their assassinated colleague in front of the Law Courts with a banner promising “We will never forget you Tahir Elçi».”.
In an interview published the same day in the opposition daily Cumhuriyet, Elçi’s wife, Turkan, criticised the absence of any progress in the enquiry, one year after the event. “There has been neither a charge sheet, nor a witness or suspect. So you see how things have advanced in a year”. Emma Sinclair-Webb, manager of Human Rights Watch in Turkey, stated that despite the formal opening of an inquest, no suspect has appeared, adding that it was both ironic and tragic that Elçi’s case (he who had throughout his career searched justice for unresolved massacres) should “resemble “those for which he had always struggled through all his professional life”. The HDP also criticised the lack of progress in the enquiry into what he called a “political murder”. “For days the legal examinations were prevented, the evidence confused to such an extent that the perpetrator is still unknown”. The sequence of events at the time the lawyer was shot remain suspicious. The police had incriminated the PKK whereas the video of the events shows that one of the police charged with protecting Elçi could well have been the man who fired the fatal shot...
Born in Cizre in 1969, Tahir Elçi was married and the father of two children. He became Chairman of the Diyarbekir Bar in 2010. Shortly before his assassination he was briefly arrested after giving a televised interview with CNN Türk in the course of which he had stated that the banned PKK “was not a terrorist organisation but an organisation of armed struggle” — a remark that earned him several death threats. It is interesting to note that a Court in Brussels (Belgium) used virtually the same terms to refuse to send 36 accused people before the Criminal Court for activities in support of the PKK. They had been accused of propaganda, recruiting underage fighters and collecting funds for the PKK but the magistrates court judged that the PKK could not be classed as terrorists but rather defined as “armed struggle”. Nevertless Elçi himself had never defended violence. He had several times called on the PKK to lay down their arms and his last words during his press conference dealt with the defence of Diyarbekir historic heritage, which the clashes were, already, irremediably damaging. Which was just why he had chosen to express himself before this famous minaret in Sur, saying: “We do not want either confrontations, or guns or operations in this ancient place”.
In the afternoon of Friday 25 November, the Paris Kurdish Institute organised a symposium entitled: “What status for the Christians and Yezidis after the battle of Mosul?”. While the minorities of Northern Iraq, who should have enjoyed protection from their State, have paid a heavy toll following the occupation of their territories by ISIS jihadists, it is necessary consider some factors for reflexion about their future. It is necessary to think about the post-Mosul situation and arouse public discussion on these issues ad especially to listen to what these minorities themselves have to say. Yet this question has, so far, unfortunately been barely considered.
As well as representatives of the two Christian Churches of the East, Mgr. Pétrus Moushé, Syriac Catholic Bishop of Mosul and Qaraqosh, and Mgr. Mikha Maqdasi, Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Al-Qosh, the following speakers were also present at the symposium organised at the Senat thanks to the invitation of Paris Senator Mr. Yves Pozzo di Borgo: the only Yezidi Member of the Baghdad Parliament Mrs. Vian Dakhil; the representative to France of the Iraqi Kurdistan Government (KRG) Mr. Ali Dolamari; the former Speaker of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Parliament Mr. Adnan Mufti; the former US Ambassador to Croatia and Professor at the National War College in Washington, Peter W. Galbraith, who spoke by videoconference from the United States. The former French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, also made a contribution to the Symposium.
The proceedings consisted of two successive Round Tables entitled “The situation of the religious minorities and their aspirations” and “What Status for the Christian sand Yezidis?”, which were moderated respectively by Mr. Thierry Oberlé, a journalist from the Figaro and Mr. Kendal Nezan, President of the Kurdish Institute of Paris.
What emerges from this encounter is that the Iraqi State has, overall, failed in its duty of protecting its own citizens, not only because it has abandoned them — and vast parts of it territory – to ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, but also because, during the period before the arrival of those genocidal jihadists, it allowed a rampant policy of discrimination towards minorities to develop. Mrs. Vian Dakhil, the Yezidi MP, particularly stated that confidence between the Iraqi communities had been lost after decades of ethnic cleaning against the country’s minorities to such an extent that its restoration could only come about if the international community involved itself in it: “The Yezidis have faced persecution because of their faith, which is why international commitment is the precondition to the restoration of confidence”, she declared. The representatives of the Christians of the Eastern churches present at the symposium also insisted on the difficulty of restoring the common life with their non-Christian neighbours without an external guarantee after the central government had “betrayed them by opening the gates of Mosul to the jihadists”. “We want a guarantee from the Western countries to ensure that the central government ensures our rights and our defence” added Mgr. Pétrus Moushé. The difficulty in restoring the former way of living is also that ISIS found considerable support in the local population. Both Yezidis and Christians testified that among those who assassinated, plundered and raped the women of their community, were some of their Sunni Arab neighbours who went over to the jihadists when they arrived. Several speakers declared, in this regard, that it seemed impossible to resume a life in common, as if nothing had happened. “Can you ask us to live with our former torturers?” asked Vian Dakhil in particular, who since 2014 has struggled to help her coreligionists reduced to sexual slavery by the jihadists and to make their condition known to the international community. Moreover, the probable military defeat of ISIS at Mosul will not necessarily lead to its disappearance but rather to its going underground, leaving the danger of attacks against minorities in the future to an extent yet impossible to evaluate.
Faced with these future dangers, besides emigration (many Christians, in the last 10 years, have indeed taken the road to exile) some envisage and have several times called for the sending of an international protection force, which is improbable because of the reticence of the countries the most likely to provide it. Another idea that has been advanced is the creation, in the Mosul plain, of an autonomous Region in which these various communities, who together form a majority there, could ensure their own defence, especially with the support of the Kurdish Peshmergas, who enjoy more of their confidence than the Iraqi Army.
Such an autonomous Region could be established as a Governorate (or Iraqi Province) in its own right even if it means later negotiating its status: being in association with the Kurdistan Region or remaining within the Iraqi Republic, a decision regarding which the local population could express its views through a referendum.
The Symposium was covered by many journalists and the Kurdish and Assyro-chaldaan television channels gave it a wide coverage. For its part the French daily Le Figaro devoted a double page to it. Taking advantage of the Symposium, Mgr. Pétrus Moushé had meetings with President François Hollande as well as with François Fillon, the Right wing candidate for the coming Presidential elections.