Ever since the “failed coup d’état” of 15 July, the Turkish government has been engaged in an all out rush towards the most flagrant forms of authoritarianism. In an unquestionable vicious circle the Turkish authorities are trying to hide their repression by controlling the media that is attacking it. This is the process denounced on 16 December by the Human Rights defence organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) in an English language report entitled Silencing Turkey’s Media. The Government’s Deepening Assault on Critical Journalism that can be downloaded from HRW site. This 81-page document recalls that the repression of the media began well before the “failed coup” and had already tightened after 2014, though greatly intensified over the last six months: 140 medias and 29 publishing companies closed, over 2,500 journalists made unemployed…
While the journalists are especially targeted, anyone who dares publicly to express a “divergent” opinion is in danger of being accused of “terrorist propaganda” or of having “links with a terrorist organisation” as the academics who signed the petition against the war being waged against the Kurds in the “South-East” found out to their cost, or more recently the 9 people being charged in the Özgür Gündem case, whose trial began in Istanbul on the 29th. For having agreed to write in an issue of this “pro-Kurdish” daily, which was closed by decree in October, they found themselves accused of terrorist propaganda for the PKK! Among them is the linguist and translator Necmiye Alpay (70 years-of-age) and the novelist Aslı Erdoğan, who has already served 132 days of “preventive detention” at Bakirköy prison, under very severe conditions of isolation. The silence the government wants to impose on all critical voices is paradoxically echoed in the title of the latest collection of articles by the novelist, due to be published in French early in 2017: Even your silence is not your own… The courts have released the 8 people charged, including Aslı Erdoğan and Necmiye Alpay, on bail and under judicial supervision until the next court session, due on January 2.
Any criticism of the government can now lead to a prison sentence. The authorities keep a close watch on all the channels of expression and generalise by their own admission arrests for “criminal opinions” by describing them as “declarations of support for terrorist organisations” or “insulting political leaders”… In a communiqué published on Saturday 24, the Minister of the Interior pointed out that, since July, he had arrested 1,656 people for statements made on the social networks, was engaged in legal proceedings with 3,710 others and conducting enquiries into at least 10,000 others. It must be emphasized, however, that the authorities did not wait for the July “attempted coup” to increase repression: between January and June 2016, they had demanded that 14,953 Twitter accounts be blocked. But now, having on one’s smartphone certain communication “Apps” said to be used by the Gulenists is enough to justify an investigation…
The “pro-Kurdish” HDP opposition party remains the principle target of a still more implacable repression. The Diyarbakir Public Prosecutor is in the forefront regarding legal actions against the HDP. On 29 November he had demanded 230 years imprisonment for the city’s co-mayor, Gultan Kışanak; on 9 December, still in Diyarbakir, he asked for sentences of 12 to 33 years jail for a deputy mayor in Ankara, the film director and journalist Sırrı Süreyya Önder, charged with and doing propaganda for the PKK and with “incitement to hatred and hostility”. In Istanbul, the local HDP leader, Hüda Kaya, arrested for “propaganda for the PKK” was released on bail. On the 12th, the Turkish Minister of the Interior announced that 235 people had been detained, 198 of whom were members of HDP” on the grounds of “terrorist propaganda” in behalf of the PKK, as part of a nation-wide police operation. Many of these were jailed in the Kurdish provinces as well as in Mersin, where 93 local officials were imprisoned charged with membership of the PKK, but a map of the places where mayors were stripped of office and jailed with fictitious charges is an accurate picture of the area of the country with a Kurdish population.(http://www.institutkurde.org/info/liste-des-maires-kurdes-d-eacute-mis-et-emprisonn-eacute-s-en-turquie-1232550971.html). In Istanbul the HDP leader, Ms Aysel Güzel, was arrested with 20 other activists, and in Ankara Ibrahim Binici and 25 others in Adana in the course of a raid in which the police were supported by armoured cars and a helicopter! On Tuesday 13, two more HDP women Members of Parliament were arrested: the Member for Diyarbakir, Cağlar Demirel, who is also head of the HDP group in Parliament, and the Member for Siirt, Besime Konca — the charges justifying these arrests have not been made public… On the 23rd, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, the HDP Member, Pervin Buldan, was forcibly taken to court by the police, charged with “propaganda for a terrorist organisation”. She declared that she refused to speak in this “politically motivated” case and was released. On Monday 26th, in Ankara, Aysel Tuğluk, the HDP woman Deputy co-President was placed in preventive detention by an anti-terrorist police unit, pending her trial for “links with a terrorist organisation” — following an investigation launched again by the Diyarbakir Prosecutor. Three days later the court decided she should be “incarcerated preventatively”.
On the 17th the HDP published an urgent appeal regarding Müjgan Ekin. This woman, TV newscaster on the Özgür Gün channel and municipal councillor for Sur (the old city quarter of Diyarbakir, now almost totally destroyed by the security forces) had “disappeared” in Ankara on 24 October. Some taxi drivers and friends had testified that she had been removed from her taxi by two plain-clothes men describing themselves as police, and forcibly taken to another vehicle. Contacted by her family, the police stated they had no information about her arrest. There is thus every reason to fear yet another case of “disappearance” — in Turkey the families of some people who’d “disappeared” had been asking the authorities for news of their relations for years. It was only in December that Müjgan Ekin’s father announced that she had re-appeared — in Jerablous, in Syria, in a town controlled by the Turkish Army! This outcome recalls the curious re-appearance in Kirkuk (Iraq) of Hurşit Külter, who disappeared after his arrest in Cizre. This journalist testified that she had bee tortured for 48 hours and attributed her survival and release to the fact that her case had been taken to heart by public opinion and organisations of civil society, for which she thanked them.
The authorities also continue to take advantage of the state of emergency to repress the few linguistic freedoms conceded to the Kurds in the previous period to prove their “openness”. On the 27th, the last of the five Kurdish language schools in Diyarbakir Province, the Farzad Kamengar School (named after a Kurdish activist hanged in Iran in 2001) was closed down. This school, opened in 2014, had 238 pupils aged 5 to 11. The statements made by the Provincial Governor’s office to AFP justified the closing of these schools by their “illegal activities”. Just as it had done a great deal to close down media and civil society organisations, the police simply sealed the entrances, without any official notification. But this was useless, since these schools operated by tacit toleration, without any formal repeal of the law banning the teaching of any other language but Turkish.
The repression also affects other professions, sometimes in unexpected ways. Thus according to the Union of Turkish Doctors, 234 doctors have been sacked by government decree (see web site Turkish Minute).
On the 27th, the first trial opened at Silivri, East of Istanbul, of those who tried the coup d’état last July. On trial were 29 police officers including 3 helicopter pilots accused of having refused to transport the Special Forces who were to defend President Erdoğan’s home in Istanbul. Sentences of life imprisonment for 21 of them and 7 to 15 years for the eight others have been demanded. Yet these are essentially the underlings, the subalterns of the coup’s organisation. The trial of those behind the coup are due to take place in Ankara in the course of 2017.
This intensification of the repression seems to have had no impact whatsoever on the level of violence in the country, except, perhaps, to increase it through the tensions and chaos created… On Friday 2 December, three Turkish soldiers were killed in Hakkari Province, near the Iraqi border, in clashes with Kurdish fighters. According to the Doğan press agency several Kurdish activists were “neutralised”, and the next day the Turkish army stated, without giving other details that it had killed 20 terrorist in this province, who had all come from Iraq to make the attacks. On the 9th, the Turkish air force hit PKK positions in Iraqi Kurdistan, forcing the evacuation of villages in the Amêdî region. However, the bloodiest attack of the month occurred in the evening of the 10th, at the end of a football match between the two best Turkish teams. Two bombs exploded at less than a minute interval near the Vodafone Arena, belonging to the Istanbul Beşiktas team, killing 38 police and wounding 166 others. According to the Deputy Prime Minister, Numan Kurtulmus, at a Press conference some time later, 45 seconds after the explosion of the first car bomb, a suicide attacker blew himself up in the middle of the police in an adjacent park. The Minister of the Interior, Suleyman Soylu, stated on Sunday that the enquiry incriminated the PKK, then, according to the Firat Agency, the attack was claimed by the TAK. This is the fourth attack claimed by this group, following on 3 during 2016: the one on 17 February at Ankara that killed 28 people, another on 13 March that killed 34 and that at Istanbul, a car bomb on 7 June that killed 11. On Monday 12, while the authorities were talking of “vengeance” and the President declared in a fiery rhetoric that “the country would fight terrorism to the very end” the HDP co-President, Selahattin Demirtaş, imprisoned since 4 November, invoked, on the contrary, the prospect of peace in his condemnation of the attack, made from his cell in Edirne: “I condemn in the strongest way this atrocious massacre that occurred in Istanbul on Saturday (…). I invite all our society, our people to stand together in hope round an opposition to violence and (support for) peace, brotherhood, democracy and freedom. Even in difficult circumstances, we must not abandon our call for peace, to which we attribute a sacred value, and we must not loose hope (…)”.A few days later, on the 15th, Demirtaş had to be taken to the Trakya University hospital after suffering from a coronary heart attack in his cell.
During the night of 12 to 13 Turkish plances again struck suspected PKK camps in the Zab region and on Tuesday 13th artillery barrages hit the Amêdi region from the Iraqi-Turkish border. Then on Saturday 17th, at Kayseri, a car bomb exploded against a bus carrying off-duty soldiers, killing 14 and injuring 55 others. The Turkish President immediately blamed “the separatist terrorist organisation” (i.e. the PKK), while following this attack the MHP (quasi fascist Turkish ultra-nationalists) attacked and sacked the HDP premises at Kayseri, covering the whole of its façade with their flag, red with three crescents. Similar attacks took place against several HDP offices in Istanbul, Ankara and Erzincan. The next day the HDP announced that attacks had been made against 20 of its premises, accusing the authorities of having let them happen by ignoring calls for protection. The authorities arrested 9 people suspected of having taken part in these attacks. On the 20th, TAK claimed responsibility for the Kayseri attack, that they justified by the fact that soldiers were members of a mountain commando that had “participated in genocidal actions for many years and spilt the blood of thousands of Kurds”.
On the same day the violence in the country went, for the first time, beyond the national context, showing the extent to which the authorities are now not only unable to put an end to the actions of TAK and the PKK but have lost control over the country’s internal security itself. During the inauguration of an photo exhibition, a young Turkish policeman shot down the Russian Ambassador to Ankara, Andrei Karlov. Before being himself shot down in a gunfight with the police, the murderer shouted he had wanted to “avenge Aleppo” and cried out “Allahu Akbar” and a few words in Arabic about “jihad”. His family and friends have been placed in detention. On the 21st, this assassination was claimed by the Syrian Islamist group Jaysh al-Fatah, a coalition that includes the former al-Nusra Front. Such an assassination committed by an officer of the Turkish police on a foreign diplomat raises many questions about the State’s authority and capacity to control the country, after the mass purges to which the security had been subjected — and of the quality of the subsequent accelerated recruitment…
The development of the country’s internal situation is arousing increasing concern amongst Turkey’s international partners. So far the latter have drawn back from concrete measures such as sanctions (called for by the HDP) or the freezing of discussions regarding its joining the European Union, arguing that they need to “preserve a channel for discussion”. The furthest has been the Netherlands Foreign Minister who stated, on the 2nd, that they should think about “sending Turkey a signal”… However, on the 15th and 16th the European Union’s Council of Foreign Ministers was unable, for the first time in 12 years, to agree on the “Conclusions regarding enlargement” — principally because of the opposition by the Austrian Minister, Sebastian Kurz, to continuing negotiations for membership with Turkey. Kurz cited as his reason the recent vote by the European Parliament calling for a freeze of discussions because of the repression. Despite the defence of continuing discussion by the Hungarian Minister, Péter Szijjártó, who stressed that Turkey remained “a member state of NATO and (…) an essential partner in the fight against terrorism” the summit ended without making any statement …
International organisations have condemned Turkey’s repressive measures many times. On the 2nd, the UN special Reporter on torture, Nils Melzer, following a six-day visit to the country, declared at Ankara that after the failed coup d’état the measures taken by the authorities had created a climate “favourable to the use of torture”, thus confirming the contents of the report published by Human Rights Watch last October: A Blank Check. Turkey’s Post-Coup Suspension of Safeguards Against Torture. Melzer stated that the recent presidential decrees were creating “a climate of intimidation”, discouraging families from filing a complaint or testifying to abuses suffered by close relations. He also mentioned the overloaded prisons, sometimes by 200%. On the same day, Amnesty International published a 31–page report entitled Displaced and dispossessed. Sur residents' right to return home and demanded, on the 6th, that the Turkish government do everything to pay compensation to the 24,000 inhabitants of Sur (the historic old quarter of Diyarbakir) displaced since the curfew of 15 December 2015. It also called for this curfew to be immediately lifted so as to allow them to return home. Amnesty estimates that half a million of the inhabitants of Turkish Kurdistan had to leave their homes following the fighting — most of them being unable to take much away with them as they were only warned at the last minute. Regarding the curfews, the European Court for Human Rights announced on the 16th that it had received over the last year about forty complaints from over 160 displaced people. It has asked the Turkish government to specify in writing the manner in which these curfews had been set up...
If we needed to put numbers to Turkey’s 2016 balance sheet, perhaps the following should be noted following the resumption of fighting between the Army and the PKK: 2,467 killed on both sides (figures from the International Crisis Group), 2,700 HDP elected representatives jailed, 400 people killed by bomb attacks and, since July, 100,000 people in the civil service, the judicial system, the armed forces and the media sacked from their jobs, suspended from them or placed in detention. 37,000 people arrested, some of whom have been tortured. Whereas Erdogan had originally built his popularity on the revival of the economy, the year 2016 saw it shrink by 1.8%. The Turkish President will have to bear responsibility before History for the chaos he started to maintain himself in power.
Military operations against ISIS in Mosul continued throughout December, and, despite their slow progress, entered a “second phase” by the end of the month. On 30 November a brigadier general of the Special Forces declared that his men controlled 19 quarters of the East bank of the Tigris, that is a little less than 30% of the Eastern part of the city, and were now 4 km from the river. In the first days of December, taking advantage of the overcast weather that reduced the effectiveness of air strikes, ISIS tried to slow the advance of the attackers by a series of counter-attacks using suicide vehicles. The Iraqi officers confirmed having to withdraw to avoid civilian casualties, adding that they expected to rapidly regain the lost ground. These difficulties and the slow progress lead one to think that the battle could well last far into 2017. On the 8th, the US Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, while on board the French Aircraft-carrier Charles de Gaulle, spoke of two extra months to take the city, though it would not put an end to the Jihadist threat to the region or the West...
On the 6th an Iraqi officer stated that the troops had advanced from the Southeast of the city and taken the Salam Hospital, less than 1 km from the Tigris. However they had been obliged to withdraw after fierce fighting and a jihadist counterattack with suicide vehicles. On the 10th, an officer announced that, with the help of reinforcements, they had taken the Tamim quarter, mid-way between the Eastern edge of the city and the Tigris, while three different air strikes had enabled the destruction of the workshop in which the suicide vehicles were prepared – that ISIS had set up in the former offices of the PUK! The Iraqi Army is now aiming at taking the International airport.
The situation of civilians in the city remains extremely difficult. At the beginning of the month UNICEF announced that half a million people, half the number of Mosul’s children and their families, had no drinking water as the fighting had destroyed a main piping while the lorry-mounted water tanks sent by the authorities had to stop 35 km short of the town. Some inhabitants who had been able to escape told Human Rights Watch that the jihadists deliberately targeted those civilians who refused to follow them in their retreat, considering them “unbelievers”… On the 22nd the head of the Erbil Health Department, Saman Barzinji, pointed out at a press conference that his city’s hospitals were overwhelmed by the flood of thousands of injured civilians coming from Mosul (7,595 in the last two months) and called on the international community and the central government to help the Kurdistan Region meet the needs, since the Erbil hospitals also had to treat wounded troops. According to an assessment by the Peshmergas Ministry published early in December, 1,614 Peshmergas had been killed since June 2014 and 9,515 wounded.
On Thursday 29th, at 7am, the operation entered into its second phase, with a simultaneous offensive on three different fronts: more than 5,000 soldiers and anti-terrorist police redeployed from the already taken Southern quarters entered several South-eastern quarters in parallel with an attack on the Karama and al-Qods quarters and the advance by other forces to the North. Very early Monday 26th an air strike on the city’s last bridge had taken place to hinder the jihadists movements and prepare for this new offensive. The next day, despite fierce resistance by ISIS in the Southeast quarter of Filistin, the attackers were able to advance in several areas, particularly Intisar.
Thousands of inhabitants of Mosul and the Nineveh Province have continued to flee from the fighting, mostly seeking shelter in Kurdistan. The Iraqi Minister for Migrations and displacements, Derbaz Mohammed, pointed out that the Kurdistan Region was sheltering 118,000 displaced people, while a KRG source estimated that 600 displaced people were arriving every day at its camps, costing US$ 3.70 per head. On the 15th, the Kurdistan Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, assessed the annual cost of sheltering the displaced people at 1.4 billion dollars, while the European Union announced it was allocating 28 million euros to Kurdistan in aid for displaced people, out of a total of 50 million for Iraq. The number of people fleeing the fighting is far from being offset by those returning to the liberated areas. So far, only about 20,000 people have returned to their home regions. On the 25th, a representative of the Kurdish Shabaks in the Nineveh Provincial Council, Ghazwan Dawdi, stated to Bas News that 286 families, that is 1,719 members of his community would return to the Kokjali district, in the East of Mosul, now liberated from ISIS. Other Shabaks would return to Bazway and other villages in the Nineveh plain in the coming days.
While Erbil and Baghdad have cooperated militarily to fight ISIS, their relations are still dominated by disagreements on economic issues and mutual distrust regarding the future status of the areas taken back from the jihadists. The central government fears that the trenches created by the Peshmergas to protect the regained regions would become the future borders of an independent Kurdistan. The Kurds, for their part, are very critical of the Federal Budget for 2017, presented to the Iraqi Parliament by the central government last October. On the 3rd a KRG communiqué criticised Baghdad for having prepared its proposals “without meeting the needs of the Region (…), without the participation or consultation of the KRG or its institutions, which is quite the opposite to the principles of a Federal country”. The proposed budget, which amounts to 85 billion dollars with a colossal deficit of 18 billion, provides for renewing payments to the KRG if the latter exports 650,000 barrels of oil a day through the SOMO. However, the Kurdish Members of the Baghdad Parliament are doubtful of the central government’s ability to honour this agreement. Moreover, the different Kurdish parties disagree about what would be acceptable. Thus 3 of the parties, the PUK, Gorran and the Islamic KIG have secured the agreement of the Baghdad Parliament to a budgetary proposal whereby Baghdad would pay the KRG’s 650,000 civil servants in exchange for the KRG’s export of 200,000 barrels per day from the Kirkuk oil fields and 250,000 from the Region’s, still through the State owned SOMO, while the wages of the Kurdish Peshmergas should be paid jointly by the central government and the KRG. However the means for paying the Peshmergas were left to be agreed later and the KDP, for its part, chose to boycott the vote on the budget — precisely because the wages of the Peshmergas had not been taken into account while those for the Shiite militia were included. On the 22nd, a Kurdish Member of the Baghdad Parliament announced fresh budgetary negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad …
Another source of tension are the territories disputed between Baghdad and Erbil. According to the statements of residents collected by the Associated Press on 3rd December, after the ISIS attack on the city the Kirkuk security forces had entered the suburban quarter of Huzeiran, to the South of the city itself, to destroy with bulldozers over 100 houses belonging to Sunni Arab families. A Human Rights Watch report states that at least 100 houses were destroyed on 23rd and 24th October, forcing 300 families to be displaced. The residents, when questioned, also testified that their identity papers were confiscated. The governor of the Province, Nejmeddine Karim, stated in London during the Kurdistan Oil and Gas Conference that if the city had been administered by Baghdad in accordance with the central government’s current practices, it would have been a disaster. According to Karim, Baghdad had not paid the province its share of the budget and owes it 1.5 billion dollars, equivalent to its share of the income derived from the oil exported from the Kirkuk oil fields (the Province holds about 10% of Iraq’s total oil reserves, estimates at 140 billion barrels). In contrast, Karim pointed out, the KRG pays Kirkuk 10 million dollars in the context of the same agreements on sharing the oil revenue…
Some of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs recall the policy of exclusion practiced by the former Iraqi Prime Minister, Maliki, towards them and share the Kurds’ lack of confidence in Baghdad. For example the 655 fighters in the “Tigris Lions” fighting against ISIS, one of the few Sunni units affiliated to the mainly Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi, when questioned at the beginning of the month, stated they were in favour of a Federal Iraq, which would allow them to manage their own affairs in the country after the defeat of the jihadists.
In addition to the tensions between the KRG and the central government, there are those between the Kurds themselves. They are essentially focused on the Sinjar (Shingal in Kurdish) and the presence, in this region of PKK fighters or forces affiliated to them. On 4 December Human Rights Watch published a report accusing the KRG of preventing the return of Yezidis to Sinjar (KRG Restrictions Harm Yezidi Recovery) — a report that the KRG rejected on the 7th, that criticised factual errors, particularly on the extent of the zones held by ISIS. On the 5th, the KDP official responsible for international relations, Hemin Hewramî, stated that the PKK should withdraw from the Sinjar. Expressing his gratitude to the PKK for having enabled the Yezidis in 2014 to flee from ISIS by opening a humanitarian corridor, he added that now that the Peshmergas had liberated the area, the “illegal and subversive”” presence of the PKK was no longer desirable. On Thursday 15 December the KRG Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, asked the PKK to leave the Sinjar, accusing it of delaying the return of the inhabitants by its presence — an accusation made on the same day by the US State Department’s spokesman, John Kirby, who added that the “PKK should have no role in the Sinjar”. On the 21st, the KCK (Group of Kurdistan communities) the PKK’s political wing, answered with a communiqué taking a stand in favour of “Yezidi self-government”, recalling some of the HRW charges and accusing the KDP of slowing down the return of Yezidis by blocking aid destined for Sinjar at the Semalka control point. On the 26th, Serhat Varto, the KCK spokesman, accused Nechirvan Barzani of speaking “in the name of the Turkish President”, and declared that trying to force the PKK to leave the Sinjar was unworthy of the KDP, and that the PKK fighters “would remain in the Sinjar until the threats to the Yezidis had disappeared”. The next say the Turkish deputy Prime Minister, Veysi Kaynak, intervened in his turn saying that if the KRG’s Peshmergas were unable to expel the PKK from the Sinjar then the Turkish Army could intervene, adding that Turkey would not let the Sinjar “become another Qandil”. On the 30th, a PKK leader, Murat Karayilan, speaking from Qandil itself, replied sarcastically on the PKK’s TV Sterk channel that “the geographic conditions of Sinjar were not suited to be a second Qandil — the region in question is completely flat”. Furthermore Karayilan stated that, following negotiations with the KRG the PKK fighters were going to withdraw from the Sinjar, citing “the necessary unity of Kurds” — a line already expressed earlier by a PUK Member of Parliament, who had criticized the perspective of “a new birakûjî” (fratricidal war, with reference to the KDP-PUK civil war of the 90s).
A second controversy between Kurds and international organisations has been intertwined with the Sinjar issue. On the 22nd, HRW accused the PKK and its affiliated groups of using child soldiers, sometimes recruited and kept under arms by force. (The recruiting of children under the age of 15 is a war grime, even if they are volunteers). The Kurdish Yezidi Yekîneyên Berxwedana Şengalê (YBŞ), affiliated to the PKK, had answered by denying that it recruited child soldiers and inviting HRW to come and check the truth on site, saying it was the victim of a smear campaign aimed at forcing the PKK to leave the Sinjar.
As for the internal situation in the Kurdistan Region, it is still marked by financial difficulties and social and political tensions. The teachers’ strike undertaken two months ago is continuing, punctuated with demonstrations against low wages and the three-month arrears in paying them which has become the norm since 2014. On Thursday 1st, the teachers demonstrated in Sulaimaniya, Halabja, Koya and Chamchamal, and according to a member of the Teachers’ Committee, Adil Hassan, the police (Asayish) arrested over a dozen at Sulaimaniya, including members of the Committee — some in front of the Education Directors offices, some at their homes, even before the demonstration. The strike was resumed the following Monday and on Tuesday 6th the head of the Suleimaniyah Office of education, Dilshad Omar, announced his resignation. Fresh demonstrations took place on 13th at à Sulaimaniyah, Halabja and Chamchamal, extended onto the 18th. On the 31st, there were fresh demonstrations, especially at Sulaimaniyeh, where the teachers blocked the street in front of the Director of Education offices in Salim Street — one of the city’s main streets.
Asunder the double embargo of the 90s the Region’s inhabitants are faced with power cuts — the supply of state electricity has been reduced to 9 hours a day and could be reduced still further. The inhabitants have to use oil stoves to warm themselves — or else go and illegally cut wood from trees — which they are increasingly tending to do, since the KRG hasn’t distributed coupons for petrol this year. The central government promised to send 100 millions of litres of petrol for this year’s winter, but so far only 20 million have been received. On the 5th, a delegation from the PUK, the ruling party in Sulaimaniyah Province, met the Baghdad Oil Ministry and secured a promise for supplementary deliveries… On the 28th, the head of the Sulaimaniyeh Statistics Department, Mahmoud Othman, stated that the poverty level had quadrupled in four years, increasing from 3% in 2013 to 15% in 2016 (the threshold of poverty is set in Iraq at 105,000 dinars or US$ 80 per month). The poverty rate in the rest of Iraq, however, is higher, as it has increased from 15% to 30%. Othman commented that this difference was surprising since in Iraq, contrary to Kurdistan, salaries were paid on time. According to a KRG report published on the 25th, although the austerity measures taken in 2016 had enabled monthly expenses to be halved, dropping to 530 million dollars (as against 1.1 billion previously) the monthly budget still shows a 37 million dollar deficit because of the drop in oil prices.
Regarding the internal political disagreements, a meeting was held on Monday 19th between KDP and Gorran delegations at Sulaimaniyah, in the house of Nawshirwan Mustafa, the leader of Gorran. This meeting followed a proposal to hold discussions made recently by Masud Barzani, to try and end the political dead end in which the Kurdistan Region has been stuck for over a year. While those taking part welcomed the “constructive atmosphere and exchanges”, the meeting ended without a joint press conference, which implies that no significant advance was made. Other meetings are planned, as well as with the MIK (Kurdish Islamic Movement). A second round of meetings between the Kurdish parties began on the 23rd.
The most important event of this month is undoubtedly the Syrian army’s total recovery of Aleppo, the country’s second largest town, which took place on Thursday 22 and was announced the next day. Since the Eastern quarter of the city had been held by the rebels for the last five years, their defeat is the Damascus regime’s most important victory since the beginning of the civil war in 2011 and is a decisive military turning point for the latter. The regime’s forces first announced on the 7th that it had taken the whole of Aleppo’s citadel from the rebels in an attack launched on the 6th and continued through the night. Then, on the 12th, the Syrian Army announced it controlled 98% of the Eastern part of the city before announcing its complete recovery on the 22nd. Besides the SDF announced on the 9th that the Kurdish YPG of the Kurdish quarters of Aleppo had taken control of several quarters of the Eastern part of the city from which the jihadists of the former Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar Al-Sham had withdrawn, while 7,000 displaced people from Aleppo had sought shelter in the Kurdish canton of Afrin. Further South, ISIS took advantage of this upheaval to retake Palmira despite several Russian air strikes, using reinforcement from Raqqa, some 160 km to the Northeast.
The second turning point of the moth, following on the first, was diplomatic, with the conclusion of a cease-fire agreement between the Russians and the Turks, covering the whole of Syria. This effectively sets aside any intervention by the UN (following the Russo-Chinese veto of the Security Council resolution on the 5th) and especially by the USA. It is no accident that Turkey and the US exchanged, on the dame day some acid remarks, the Turkish President accusing the US-led coalition of “supporting terrorist groups in Syria” (ISIS and PYD) while the US State Department’s spokesman, Mark Turner, described these accusations as “ridiculous”. Thus was because the US rejected the Turkish demand of the 26th for air support for its operation against al-Bab, decided by Turkey without any prior consultation with the coalition. This was doubtless because the Pentagon knew that once the Turkish Army had expelled ISIS from al-Bab it would hasten to attack Manbij, held by a local Military Council allied to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) the coalition’s principal ally in the field.
It is too early to assess the impact of these important strategic changes on the SDF and the Kurdish YPG (Kurdish fighters linked to the PYD) who, according to the US make up two thirds of their 45,000 fighters. However Turkish hostility to the PYD leads one to fear that its new rapprochement with Russia and so possibly with the Bachar al-Assad regime might have negative consequences for the Kurds. For the moment the SDF have continued their operation to drive ISIS out of Raqqqa. At Manbij the Turkish air force continued its air strikes on the town’s Military Council positions and on the 2nd the latter announced the death of two of their foreign fighters, an American and a German. On the 8th, an American military official stated that the US had organised several meetings with the SDF and Turkey to avoid a direct clash between the two, who are both US partners in the struggle against ISIS. Understandably, the SDF hesitate about advancing on Raqqa, fearing an attack on their rear by the Turkish Army, whereas the Americans want to attack the town rapidly, simultaneously with the operation on Mosul, in Iraq. On the 10th, the US Defence Secretary, Ash Carter, announced the despatch to Rojava of 200 supplementary troops, including members of the Special Forces, to support the operation against Raqqa, for which 300 US troops are already in the field. On the 19th, the SDF, that had already regained six villages to the North of Raqqa during the previous week, announced it had regained five more villages 50 km from the town, on its Western and North-western fronts. Then on 22nd, it announced, at a press conference held at Jahisha, having taken 97 villages in 10 days in a 1,300 km2 area to the West of the town. These advances have decided several tribal Arab factions of the region to join the SDF. On the 27th, the SDF found itself 5 km south of the Tabqa Dam, on the Euphrates, behind which is the Hafez el-Assad Lake, the largest volume of water behind a dam in Syria.
While relations between the SDF and the Americans still seem very good at the military level, US support is very specifically limited to the military level — the SDF are particularly valuable allies in the field, especially against ISIS but politically the US is careful to distance itself from its “federalist” project for North Syria, and the PYD demands for the Kurds. The US Ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, spelled it out most clearly in an interview on the Turkish NTV channel: “Our first objective is the defeat of ISIS, which would eliminate the danger from it hanging over Turkey. (But …) this result must not be secured at the price of creating another long term strategic problem for Turkey, our ally in NATO. (…) This is the important reason why we do not support and have never supported the connection between the “Kurdish cantons” in Syria”. The next day the Turkish president Erdoğan echoed him by re-iterating that Turkey would never accept the creation of a new State of Kurdistan in Syria, recalling his wish to create a security zone to keep the terrorist threat at a distance from Turkey’s border provinces… Finally the Damascus regime, as well as the Syrian opposition, have in the past clearly expressed their opposition to the federal “North Syrian” experiment taking place under the leadership of the PYD. Nevertheless the 15 members of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political expression of the SDF, meeting in open session on the 27th at Rumeilan approved on the 30th the proposal of Constitution for the “North Syrian Federal Region”, which the SDF calls the Region’s “social contract”. This approval opens the possibility, once the Constitution has been set up, of beginning preparations for local elections and then governmental ones, to be held within six months. Qamishli would become the capital of the new Region.
Also on the 30th, Salih Muslim, the PYD co-President, declared that it had not been invited to the Astana conference in Kazakhstan, where the Damascus regime and the opposition are due to meet and try to negotiate a way out of the crisis. He warned that these meetings would be doomed to fail if they were not more inclusive. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Çavuşoğlu, stated that the US was welcome to Astana but repeated his opposition to the presence of the YPG and the PYD, laying down as condition for their presence that they “lay down their arms and begin to support the territorial integrity of Syria”. Despite the repeated Russian declarations about the importance of consulting the Kurds about the country’s future, it seems that Turkey has succeeded in imposing its point of view at Astana. The Turkish authorities, after having reinforced their “Euphrates Shield” operation with a further 300 commandoes, have, further more, confided the building of a 900 km wall along their border with Rojava to their country’s main public works builder, the TOKI, backed by private operators. This wall should be completed by next April. This construction project is officially aimed at ISIS militants but clearly it is an action by Ankara to reinforce its embargo on Rojava and cut off the Kurds of Turkey from their Syrian brothers…
In the middle of the month, twenty six organisations of the film world mobilised to defend the Kurdish film director Keywan Karimi by signing a letter demanding a pardon for this 31-year old Kurdish film director. Amnesty International also launched an appeal to its sympathisers to write to their country’s Iranian Embassy, and to send copies of their letter to Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, at the Supreme Guide’s Office and President Hassan Rouhani. When the trailers of his film Writing on the Town, which shows the graffiti in Teheran, appeared on YouTube in 2013, Karimi was imprisoned and kept in solitary confinement in Evin Prison for 12 days without being able to see a lawyer. Freed on bail, he was then victim of a series of further accusations such as drinking alcohol, directing pornography or having extra-marital affairs, and in October 2015, after an unfair trial before the Teheran Revolutionary Court, he was sentenced to six years of imprisonment for “insulting Islamic values ” and 220 lashes with a whip for “illicit relations without committing adultery´. The prison sentence was reduced thanks to an international mobilisation in his defence.
The young filmmaker was summoned to start his jail sentence on 23 November by the authorities who also declared they wanted to carry out the whipping sentence. Keywan Karimi’s mother suffers from cancer and is receiving chemotherapeutic treatment at. He had hoped that thanks to a medical certificate from the hospital the authorities would not summon him until the end of her treatment — he also hoped to remain free long enough to finish his latest film.
Keywan Karimi has directed 12 films, both documentaries and fictions. His documentary Broken Border, which received the “Best short documentary” Prize at the International Film Festival at Beirut in 2013, covers the issue of smuggling between Iran and Iraq by the poorest members of the Kurdish community of Iran as a means of survival. The Iranian security forces regularly shoot down these Kurdish smugglers. Keywan Karimi’s case is representative of the repression that hits artists, who are sentenced unfairly because of their artistic production, like the Rajabian brothers, Mehdi, a musician and Hossein, a film-maker, director of a full length film about the right of women to divorce. Both of them were sentenced in April 2015 to six years jail at the same time as Yousef Emadi, another musician. Sentenced, they have all been accused of the same charges as Keywan Karimi. On appeal their sentences were reduced to five years, subject to “good behaviour”.
Far from easing since the signature of the nuclear agreements, repression in Iran has, on the contrary intensified as the conservatives calculate that once international tension has dropped people will look elsewhere.
According to a judicial source, Ömer Güney, the principal suspect and the only person charged for the assassination of three Kurdish women activists in Paris in January 2013, died on Saturday 17 December in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital of a cerebral disease before the start of his trial, planned for next January. Thus the trial could not take place to the anger of those close to the victims and of the Kurdish community as a whole. The three assassinated women, 54 year-old Sakine Cansiz, one of the founders of the Kurdistan Workers Party, Fidan Doğan, 28 years and Leyla Soylemez, 24, had been shot by several bullets in the premises of the Kurdish information Centre (KIC) where they worked. Their bodies were found in the early hours of 10 January 2013.
Although he began by denying any involvement, Güney was very rapidly considered the main suspect since video surveillance cameras showed him entering the KIC building just before the crimes, the DNA of one of the victims was found on his parka and his bag contained traces of gunpowder. He was to have been tried at the Paris Special Assises for “assassination related to terrorist activity” on 23 January and 10 February. It seems that Güney, known to many of his friends for his ultra-nationalist opinions, had infiltrated PKK circles in France so as to approach its cadres. Although the Turkish intelligence services denied any connection with this triple assassination, some French investigators had concluded in January 2014 that they were involved, though without being able to determine whether they had acted as part of a mission or on their own initiative.
The victims’ families lawyers expressed their anger at being “deprived of a public trial for which they had been waiting for nearly four years” and their dismay at seeing France “once again unable to try a political crime committee on its soil by foreign secret service agents”. The Kurdish Women for Peace published from Germany a communiqué dated 17 December criticising the French legal system for having delayed beginning the trial for so long when the state of health of the suspect was well-known and any delay increased the chances that he be eliminated or die of his illness before the facts could be examined publicly and established. It is certain that if his trial had taken place it would have had a negative impact on Franco-Turkish relations…
On the same day at Hamburg, in Germany, according to a federal prosecutor a Turkish citizen suspected of spying on the Kurdish community and collecting information about its members on behalf of the Turkish Intelligence services has been arrested. This is certainly just a coincidence.
According to the Rûdaw Kurdish channel and website, the International Organisation on Migrations (IOM) has created a World Film Festival on migration which took place simultaneously in 72 cities that suffer from mass humanitarian crises. Among these is Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Barbara Rijks, head of the IOM office in Erbil declared on 7 December during the inauguration of a “Cinema-Café” in the Kurdish capital: “Films are a powerful tool for showing the world through the eyes of people from elsewhere and of different skin colour (…) which is important in a period of xenophobia and anti-migrant feelings which feed on the fear of the unknown and false ideas about the other”. The themes of films chosen for the Festival are of course those of migrations and displacements.
The next day, still according to Rûdaw, the Dubai Film Festival showed for its 13th edition two films that were precisely coming from the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. Reşeba, or Dark Wind, is the story of a Yezidi couple whose life is disrupted by ISIS’s invasion of their region. The film had aroused, when first shown in Dohuk last September, the anger of some members of the Yezidi community, who criticised it for showing things in an unreal manner, particularly regarding the way women who had escaped ISIS were received on returning to the community. The second film shown, Haus ohne Dach or House without a Roof, is the story of three Kurdish brothers and sisters who had grown up in Germany and, on returning to the Kurdistan Region to bury their mother, re-discover their own roots. Reşeba, for which this is the first showing in the Middle East, won the prize of best full length feature out of the 18 in competition.