Following last April’s Turkish attack on the Kurdish YPG, the principal component of the Arab-Kurdish alliance of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the month of May opened with the announcement on the 1st, that SDF units had entered Tabqa and, the following day, had captured over 80% of the town. The jihadists, at first driven back to three quarters along the Euphrates, now only hold the 2 most Easterly ones, locally called “N° 1” and “N° 2”. The SDF also announced they had helped 5,000 civilians to escape the fighting. In spite of a surprise attack on some displaced people, that caused at least 21 deaths, ISIS was unable to regain the lost ground. On the 9th, the SDF liberated Tabqa’s “National Hospital” and announced the elimination of 77 Jihadists.
In parallel to this, negotiations between the countries involved in the Syrian conflict have continued while accusations of atrocities by the regime were laid: on the 9th, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused it of “using chemical weapons” [ ] on at least four occasions in the last few months”, some of them being in residential areas without any military objective and causing only civilian deaths. In a 63-page report (Death by chemicals. The Syrian government’s widespread and systematic use of chemical weapons) HRW talks of “frequent and systematic” chemical attacks against civilians, making them Crimes against Humanity. On the 15th the State Department in its turn accused the regime of having carried out cremations daily in its Saydnaya prison to get rid of the corpses of the some 50 prisoners a day being hanged there.
On the 3rd, at Sochi, the Russian President, in a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart, proposed the setting up of “de-escalation zones” covering rebel areas in the Northwestern province of Idlib, in certain parts of the Homs Province, in the centre, and in the South in the Eastern rebel enclave of Damascus Ghouta. The two leaders hoped that the agreement signed by Turkey, Iran and Russia would enable a calming down of the hostilities. At Astana, however, the armed opposition delegation suspended its participation, demanding that the Damascus regime end its bombing of the regions they control. Ilhan Ahmed, co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC, the political representation of the SDF) called for a “decentralised Syria” and described the agreement as “the result of a […] convergence of the interests of three States and nothing else”. The US State Department expressed its concert at Iran’s participation. On the 5th, the CDS’s co-President Ilham Ahmed, declared she hoped that Russia “had not betrayed the Kurds” by signing an agreement with Turkey that would be unfavourable to them. As the agreement was starting to be applied in the field early on Saturday 6th, without the areas concerned being made public (!) the rebels rejected it, describing it as a “threat to the territorial integrity of the country” and refusing to consider Iran as a guarantor of any cease fire. However, on the 8th the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, in a conference to the local press, described the roles of the Syrian Kurds in the struggle against ISIS as “legitimate in the context of their real determination to preserve Syrian unity and territorial integrity” – a position probably aimed at expressing Damascus’s opposition to Turkey’s support of certain Islamist rebels. In parallel to this, following negotiations with the regime, some rebel fighters, together with their families have started to leave the Barzeh district, near Damascus, which is besieged by the Syrian Army, to go to Idlib, which is held by the rebels. UNO has criticised all these sieges, from whatever side, that have led to these plans, which it considers a kind of forced displacement of populations. On the 16th, the new session of the Geneva talks was principally about the “de-escalation zones”. The Kurdish YPD was unable to take part following Turkish opposition, but Salih Muslim, the party’s co-President declared he had communicated with the team round Staffan de Mistura, the organiser of the talks and UNO’s special envoy. He added that the Americans, like the Russians, are fully aware that no advance is possible without their participation, either at Geneva or al Astana.
As in Iraq, the different actors are beginning to prepare for the post-ISIS situation. The importance of Badia, the South-eastern semi-desert that extends towards Iraq and Jordan and is crossed by the strategic Damascus–Baghdad highway, is beginning to be considered seriously. The Syrian Army has started deploying there to forestall the rebels in towns taken from ISIS and to make its junction with the Iraqi Shiite militia. On the 19th the US Air force struck at a group of pro-regime militia advancing towards US-backed fighters. Rojava’s political leaders have also begun to position themselves for the future. In an interview to the Guardian, Hediya Youssef, co-Speaker of the Constituent Assembly of the North Syrian Federal Region, stated, on the 8th, that the Syrian Kurds were hoping for US support for them to extend their territories Eastwards as far as Deir-Ezzour, but also Westwards to the coast, driving out the coalition of islamists and jihadists that are holding Idlib. This, she pointed out, would open up Rojava, economically strangled by the closing of the Turkish borders as well as those of Iraqi Kurdistan, and would open new trading routes. On the 24th Rojava’s leaders told Middle East Eye they hoped the advance of the mainly Shiite “Popular Mobilisation Units” (Hashd al-Shaabi) to the Iraqi-Syrian border would enable them to open a direct link with Baghdad, thereby “circumventing the embargo imposed by the KDP”. The spokesman of Hashd al-Shaabi, Ahmed al-Asadi, nevertheless denied any relations with the PYD and declared they fought under the orders of the Iraqi Armed forces …
These various moves are taking place in the context of the interest recently expressed by Iran for the opening of a means of direct access to the Mediterranean, the recent struggle between Kurdish factions for control of the Iraqi border and strategic region of Sinjar, as well as the advance of Iraqi Shiite militia to the South of this region, criticised by the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, Masud Barzani …
Could the US support Rojava in such a project? The Trump Administration, even though it seems increasingly distrustful of Turkey, kept excluded from all military operations, is showing itself increasingly worried by the perspective of the Syrian-Iraqi border being controlled by pro-Iranian fighters. It is true that the US military support of the SDF is increasingly made clear: Tuesday 9th the Pentagon announced that President Trump had authorised the provision of arms and military equipment to the Kurdish fighters in Syria, in the context of the offensive against Raqqa – an announcement done a mere week before the planned meeting between Trump and Erdoğan! However, Washington is being careful not to go beyond the military alliance and, at the political level, still distances itself from the PYD: on the 25th, Salih Muslim, this party’s co-President, invited to speak at an event in Washington, was refused an American visa. Last year he had been obliged to speak online for the same reason. Perhaps Washington does not want to increase still more the tensions in its relations with Ankara. At a meeting with the Turkish Minister of Defence, the head of the Pentagon, James Mattis, tried to minimise the decision to arm the SDF by explaining that these arms will be limited and delivered in accordance with the objectives achieved in the offensive, adding that Raqqa would be governed by Arabs, not by Kurds. Ilhan Ahmad, a member of the PYD in Washington, unsurprisingly said that this decision “had a political meaning” and “legitimised the YPG and the SDF” in their march on Raqqa. The YPG spokesman, Redur Xelîl, stated that this decision, although “belated”, would have rapid results and would allow them to play a more important part in the struggle against ISIS and “would give an important impetus to all the democratic forces fighting terrorism”. The Turkish Deputy Prime Minister, Nurettin Canikli, on the contrary, described the decision as “unacceptable”, adding that he hoped that “this mistake [would be] corrected”. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavusoglu, in turn stated that “any weapons coming into the hands [of the PYD] were threats to Turkey” — argument taken up by the Turkish President. On the 3rd Ilnur Çevik, one of the Turkish President’s advisers had even threatened to strike any Americans who happened to be with the YPG: “[Our forces] will not worry if American troops or armoured vehicles are there (…); they might “accidentally” receive a few rockets”. Colonel John Dorrian, spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition in Baghdad, stated that the arms deliveries would be begin “very quickly”.
On the 10th the SDF captured the town of Tabqa and its dam, stating that they had “completely liberated” it of Jihadists, then, later in the day, that they had cleared it of the mines left behind by ISIS. On the 11th, while Mattis and Yıldırimn met briefly in London as a side-line e to the conference on Somalia, Redur Xelîl called on Turkey to “drop its unjustified fears”, adding that his organisation wished for “neighbourly relations with Turkey”. On the 12th a major of the SDF announced that he hoped to take Raqqa during the summer, confirming that the campaign would begin as soon as they had received the arms from the Pentagon. On the same day the Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yıldırım, stated that the USA had assured him that the YPG would not remain in Raqqa once the city had been taken and that the demographic balance of the city would not be altered. On the 13th the SDF were only 4 km North of Raqqa and, according to the SCHR, were fighting the Jihadists 4 km North-East, 6 km North and 13 km North-West of the city.
The United States is continuing to play at “riding two horses at once” with its allies: on the 16th, even while the Trump-Erdoğan meeting was taking place at the White House, a State Department delegation led by the presidential envoy to the Anti-ISIS Coalition, Brett McGurk, was visiting Rojava to meet the Raqqa Civil Council and assure it of US support (on receiving news of this, the Turkish President is told to have asked his American counterpart to sack McGurk!). On the 31st the Pentagon announced that the delivery of arms to the SDF had already started the day before. As might be expected Turkey described the carrying out of this decision as “extremely dangerous”, again urging Washington to “change course”. Excluded from the the field operations, Turkey has according to the Anadolu news agency increased its training capabilities to the “Free Syrian Army” — an indirect means of maintaining pressure on the PYD.
There is no slackening of repression nor any sign of reopening of the peace process with the Kurds. Arrests, sackings and sentences by decree, attacks on civilians in Kurdistan are continuing full scale. Even poetry is now under repression: on the 2nd the police in Dargeçit (Mardin Province) seized a poster of the imprisoned HDP co-president Selahattin Demirtaş in the local HDP offices. The poster displayed a poem he had written in jail, “Contagious courage”, which the Mardin Public Prosecutor had banned as “terrorist propaganda” — the poem will be one of the offenses with which Demirtas will be charged… The day before in Istanbul, the police arrested dozens of demonstrators trying to reach Taksim, dispersing others with tear gas and guns firing rubber bullets…
On the 5th, the appeal by Wikipedia against the blocking of its site was rejected: Turkey demands first the withdrawal of the pages in English that “falsely present Turkey as linked to terrorist groups”. On the same day the third wave of purges since the “coup d’Etat” took place: 107 judges and prosecutors were stripped of office on the grounds of “Gulenist links”; the next day 3,900 civil servants civilian employees of the armed forces were fired, bringing the number of civil servants fired to 150,000, including 4,238 magistrates subject to arrest warrants (on the 24th, 139 staff members from Ankara municipality and two Ministries were arrested — also for “Gulenist links”).
On the 9th, upon a motion read by the Prime Minister, Parliament stripped the HDP MP Nursel Aydoğan of her elected mandate. She had already been sentenced to 4 years and 8 months jail in January for “terrorist propaganda” for attending, in 2011, the funeral of a suspected member of the PKK whose body was one of the hundreds brought back to the town. On the 19th, a Kurdish activist for Human Rights, Mukaddes Alataş, former employee of the Istanbul office of the Human Rights Association (İHD), was incarcerated for 8 days after a police raid on her Diyarbekir home and then arrested for “membership of a terrorist organisation”. According to Eren Keskin, lawyer and İHD co-president, the real reason was her having discussed the Armenian genocide on the social networks. Employed by a Diyarbekir municipal centre for women victims of violence, she was sacked after the arrest of the HDP municipal councillors and their replacement by a pro-AKP “trustee”… On the 21st, according to the ANF news agency, the prosecutor demanded 15 to 22 years imprisonment for Nurhayat Altun, co-mayor of Dersim, arrested in November following a complaint by the Prime Minister’s Communication Centre, accusing her of “managing a terrorist organisation” and of “criminal activity”: having taken part in demonstrations of protest against the arrest of the HDP co-Presidents and in commemorations for the three women activists assassinated in Paris. She is also charged with “spreading the PKK’s ideology” for a speech at the Munzur Cultural Centre in which she used the word “Kurdistan”. The first hearing of her trial will be on 3 July. On the 29th, Besime Konca, HDP M.P for Siirt, arrested on 13 December but released on bail pending trial on 3 May and forbidden to leave the country, was arrested at Batman airport for “membership of a terrorist organisation” and “propaganda for a terrorist organisation”. On the 30th the authorities announced they had issued a warrant for the arrest of the HDP spokesman, , Osman Baydemir, without specifying the charges against him. Finally on the 31st, the first session of the trial of the imprisoned HDP co-President, Selahettin Demirtaş, was set for 6 September at Ankara. Arrested last November, he faces 142 years jail. On Saturday 17th, Serpil Kemalbay was elected co-President of the HDP to succeed Figen Yuksekdağ, arrested in November at the same time as Demirtaş, but since stripped of her status of Member of Parliament.
Repression is still striking at academics and journalists — including foreign ones. Nuriye Gülmen, lecturer at Konya’s Selcuk University and Semih Özakça, primary school teacher in Mardin were both arrested in the night of 21st to 22nd in the Ankara flat where they were as well as Özakça’s wife and their lawyers. Fired from their posts by decree, free on bail and obliged to report to the police every day, they have been on hunger strike for six and a half months. The Prosecutors have called for 20 years jail sentences for them. Veli Sacilik, the lecturer’s 70-year-old mother, who had come with her son to support Gülmen et Özakça, was beaten and dragged out into the street by the police — the picture became viral on social networking apps.
As for journalists, Mehmet Güleş of the Dicle News Agency, closed by the government after the coup d’état was sentenced on the 3rd to nine years imprisonment by an Elazığ court for “membership of a terrorist organisation” and “spreading the propaganda of a terrorist organisation”. On the 8th, the French journalist Mathias Depardon was arrested in Batman Province and imprisoned at Gaziantep. Accused of “terrorist propaganda” for having published in France a report containing pictures of PKK fighters, he started a hunger strike on the 21st but interrupted it after a week.
Is Turkey trying to intimidate the international press outside its own borders? Reporters sans Frontières described Depardon’s treatment as “unacceptable” and concern is growing abroad. On 1st May, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, expressed concern regarding the mass arrests and the renewal of the State of Emergency, while the EU Commissioner responsible for membership candidacies, Johannes Hahn, declared that the perspective of Turkey’s joining had become more distant and that relations should now be to other issues to renew cooperation. However the incident that gave the country its most negative image occurred on the 16th, during Erdoğan’s visit to Washington, and was made known all over the Internet through an appalling video, shot by Aran Hamparian, executive director of the National Committee of Armenians in America. It shows members of the Turkish President’s security squad attacking in front of the Turkish Embassy demonstrators carrying the PYD flag following what looked like verbal instructions by the Turkish President from his car, resulting in 12 wounded and sent to hospital. The Mayor of Washington, Muriel Bowser, described the incident as “a violent attack on a peaceful demonstration” and “an affront to the DC’s values and our rights as Americans”. Those enquiring into the events arrested two men who had attacked the American staff responsible for the delegation’s security (!), but were obliged to release them as they had diplomatic passports. On the 19th, two Senators, John McCain (Republican, Arizona) and Dianna Feinstein (Democrat, California) published a statement condemning the attack in unusually severe terms: “Your staff’s violent response to peaceful demonstrators is completely unacceptable and unfortunately reflects the way your government deals with the press, the minority ethnic groups and political opponents”. Senator McCain, in an interview, also called for the expulsion of the Turkish Ambassador. The latter was indeed summoned by the State Department. However, in Ankara the US Ambassador was summoned, on the 22nd, to receive a note demanding explanations regarding “the unprofessional and aggressive attitude of the American security staff” during the Turkish President’s visit!
Relations have also deteriorated with Germany: it’s Parliament recognised the Armenian genocide, its leaders have been accused of “nazi behaviour” by Mr Erdoğan for having refused to allow AKP meetings on its soil, and Germany has refused to extradite several Turkish soldiers accused of being involved in the “coup d’Etat”… The recent declaration of the German Chancellor will not reduce tension: on the 8th, she declared that in the event of a referendum on restoring the death sentence in Turkey (a consultation Mr Erdoğan has repeatedly said he wants to organise) Germany would not authorise the Embassy or consulates to hold voting operations on its soil. Another subject of discord is the NATO air base at Incirlik, to which Turkey has again refused access to a German Parliamentary delegation wishing to visit its forces there. The German Foreign Office spokesman, Martin Schaefer, described this refusal as “unacceptable”, adding that the Foreign Affairs Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, would raise the question at the next NATO meeting in Washington. On the 17th Schaefer indicated that, in the event of another refusal, Germany could move its reconnaissance and supply planes to Cyprus or Jordan. On the 20th, the controversy rose by a notch when Gregor Gysi, a German Left wing politician, called for the withdrawal of the German contingent, declaring, in a video that went viral on internet, that Germany was, indirectly, helping Turkey to mass-murder the Syrian Kurds, since the Turkish Army uses the German information transmitted from Incirlik to NATO to direct their bombardment and shelling. And then the Deputy Speaker of the German Parliament, the Green MP Claudia Roth, cancelled a visit to Turkey when the Turkish government told her that she would not be able to visit the Parliament and that there would not be any security measures for her protection...
Military operations are continuing in the country’s provinces with a majority Kurdish population. On the 1st, the inhabitants of two quarters of the city of Sur (Diyarbekir walled city, now partly razed), were obliged to leave their homes from which the authorities had cut off all water and electricity to force them to leave. Many of them said they did not know where to go and do not have any confidence in the promises of reconstruction. On the 28th, the police forbade access to the quarter to a delegation of Danish Members of Parliament and local councillors who had come to show their solidarity with the residents. The next day, according to ANF news agency, also in Diyarbekir Province, 59 villages were placed under curfew in several districts, with another 43 villages added later. On the 30th, in an operation involving 7,000 men, including gendarmes and 800 members of the Special Forces, police and “village guards”, several villages were shelled and the access roads blocked by the police. Regarding casualties, 24 police were killed in Beytussebap district (Şırnak Province) close to the Iranian border, plus 2 others the next morning and 4 injured near Doğubayazit, not far from the Iranian border. On the 26th, in contradictory claims, the Governor of Ağrı announced that the Turkish Army had eliminated 29 rebels in the Provinces of Van and Ağrı in an operation in which 3 Turkish soldiers and one village guard were killed. However the HPG (the armed branch of the PKK) claimed 57 Turkish soldiers killed. On the 28th, there were air strikes aimed at PKK targets in Van province and on the 31st according to police sources 3 Turkish soldiers were killed in Diyarbekir Province. The Turkish Army also announced that it had eliminated two rebels in Lice district of the same Province.
Air strikes against alleged PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan are continuing: on the 3rd, near Amêdî (one civilian killed and one wounded), on the 9th against several villages, on the 14th again against Amêdî followed by the announcing of 10 Kurdish fighters killed and again on the 16th, two successive strikes having caused a fire. On the 28th Turkish planes hit the Basyan region and on the 22nd and on the 31st at Qandil area.
The Iraqi forces are continuing their advance in West Mosul. On the 5th they entered the Musherfa quarter, North of the city, then on the 8th they announced they had retaken the al-Haramat quarter, in the outskirts of the city, then on the 9th they had freed other quarters to the Northwest including the industrial zone. The Jihadists seem to be regrouping in the old city for their last stand. On the 11th, the Iraqis resumed their advance, also attacking from the North to increase the pressure on their enemy, and announced on Tuesday 16th that ISIS now only controlled 12 km2 — less than 10% of West Mosul — and that they hoped to take the whole of the city before the end or Ramadan, at the end of June… According to an assessment published on the 17th, 16,000 Jihadists were killed and 394 captured since the start of the offensive in October. People are beginning to talk about reconstruction, but, according to some of the province’s elected representatives, it would cost about some billion dinars and take about five years to redevelop a functional economy. Just re-establishing basic services like water and electricity could take 6 months. Finally the funds would have to be found: the 2017 provincial budget is only 53 billion dinars against the 738 billion in 2013 before ISIS’s invasion.
While the Kurds are not in Mosul, their front against ISIS involves regular skirmishes. On the 5th, near Tuz Khurmatu, south of Kirkuk, a Peshmerga Major was killed by a roadside bomb as his vehicle was passing by and 3 other fighters were wounded. Before dawn on Sunday 7th the Peshmergas repelled a suicide attack by 5 Jihadists near Kirkuk that caused 2 deaths and 6 wounded. In the morning of Saturday 13th, a new attack was repelled near Tuz Khurmatu, another in the night of 17th to 18th, and finally a last one on the 28th, in which 5 Peshmergas including an officer were wounded and one captured. Parallel to this, the plans to reorganise, unify and “depoliticise” the Peshmergas are continuing. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) announced, on the 14th, that it had approved the project to this effect drawn up jointly with the Americans, the British and the Germans, which it plans to carry out over the next 10 years. This involves transferring the allegiance of the fighters of the two “historic” parties, (Masud Barzani’s KDP and the PUK created by Jalal Talabani) to the KRG — a project being carried out jointly by the Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani (KDP), and the Deputy Prime Minister, Qubad Talabani (PUK). On the 8th, the KRG also asked the anti-ÎSIS Coalition to help create a Peshmerga Air Force capable both of combat operations and of evacuating the wounded from the front.
While most attention is drawn to the military operations in the Mosul theatre because of its symbolic importance, a second front is that of Kirkuk Province, particularly the South including Tuz Khurmatu. Yet another region is beginning to assume a strategic importance regarding the post-ISIS settlement — the Syrian border area, West of Mosul and South of Sinjar —the areas of Baaj and Qairawan. There is also the Hawija region, South of Kirkuk, still controlled by ISIS, from which it launches its attacks on Tuz Khurmatu. The Governor of Kirkuk, Nejmeddine Karim, answered Sunni Arab leaders asking for a more rapid offensive against this town by pointing out that this would have to wait till Mosul and the border regions with Syria were freed… On the 12th, the mainly Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi militia launched an offensive on this region, aiming to complete the surrounding of the Jihadists, and announced on the 16th that they had taken 4 villages in the Qairawan region. On the 29th they advanced towards Baaj, taking several villages round the town, which was still in ISIS’s hands, and cutting the Jihadists off from the Iraqi-Syrian border area — their last way for flight. These manoeuvres led them close Tell Qasab and Tell Banat, on the road from Mosul to Rabia, putting them in a position to cut Sinjar off from Kurdistan, which prompted on the 15th a warning from Masud Barzani not to approach Yezidi areas any closer... The pechmerga commander in Sinjar, Sarbast Lazgin, for his part, accused Iran of having pushed this advance so as to set up a corridor to Syria, condemning an Iranian collusion with the Shiite militia and the PKK. The Hashd al-Shaabi answered that they were in contact with Masud Barzani before announcing, on the 21st, having recovered several villages to the South of Sinjar from ISIS. On the 31st it was the Peshmergas’ turn to sent a warning to Hashd al-Shaabi, after Masud Barzani had repeated on the 30th that the Kurds would not withdraw from the areas they controlled before the launching of the Mosul offensive, adding the necessity for an agreement between Baghdad and Erbil regarding the management of these regions. Barzani added that the fate of Sinjar should be decided by the people living there and no one else. While, regarding Kirkuk, things seem to be moving towards a referendum about this issue, such a popular consultation has been rather less mentioned concerning Sinjar.
In internal politics, the Kurdish political parties are continuing to argue whether the organisation of a referendum on self determination must involve the re-activation of Parliament or not… The major disagreement is still between the KDP, that wants to set up an inter-party organising committee, and Gorran, for whom Parliament remains “the only institution representing all the parties and people of the Kurdistan Region” (communiqué published 17 May) and must be reactivated if the referendum is to take place. The PUK tried to act as a mediator between the two by proposing the “reactivation of Parliament but replacing the Speaker, Yusuf Mohammed Sadiq, who is rejected by the KDP, by another member of Gorran” a proposal accepted by the KDP but rejected by Gorran. However, on the 7th it seemed that the KDP, which was the only party to send delegates to the “inter-party committee” remained isolated in its position. On the 8th the Deputy Speaker, Jaafar Ibrahim Eminki, a member of the KDP, declared in an interview with Rûdaw that he thought the Erbil Parliament could reopen after another month and that the referendum on Kurdistan’s independence from Iraq would take place in September. According to a news item broadcast by the NRT Channel on Tuesday 9th, the PUK and the KDP might have reached an agreement at their last meeting to reactivate Parliament without needing Gorran’s contribution — which would refuse to take part in a session without its present Speaker, Yussif Mohammed – and elect a new Speaker. The PUK and KDP are basing themselves on Article 6 of the Council of representatives that provides for the possibility of holding a session in the absence of the Speaker if he is invited and a quarter of the Members are agreed. This would need the help of a third party, which could be the Islamic Union (Yekgirtû). However on the 24th the committee for organising the referendum was not yet formed and at the end of the month the parties were still discussing the possibility of reactivating the Erbil Parliament without its present speaker — an option still favoured only by the KDP…
Meanwhile Iraqi Kurdistan lost one of its “historic” politicians, a former member of the PUK and the founder of the Gorran movement by breaking away from the PUK: Nawshirwan Mustafa. Mustafa, who returned to Kurdistan on the 13th after 9 months in the UK for medical treatment, died on Friday 19th, aged 73. The KRG’s Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani (PDK), sent his condolences and Barham Salih, the PUK’s second vice-secretary, declared the late leader “was a guide who had had an enormous impact on the history and situation of the Kurdish people”. Mustafa was buried in Suleymaniah, and a 2-day mourning was declared. Representatives of the 5 principal parties of Iraqi Kurdistan sent messages of condolence to the Gorran offices in Suleymaniah and the movement decided to put the its flags at half mast at all its offices throughout Kurdistan. Following Mustafa’s death the PUK called Gorran several times to accept reunification but the movement replied on the 29th that such an option was not envisaged, and that despite the announcements to this effect that appeared in certain Kurdistan press organs on the appointment of a successor to its founder, Gorran remained directed by a committee formed by Mustafa.
The news of the month in Iran was dominated by the Presidential elections, which took place on the 19th and opposed the ultra-conservative Ibrahim Raissi to the sitting President Hassan Rohani. A third candidate, also a conservative, the Mayor of Teheran, Mohammed Ghalibaf, withdrew just before the vote calling his supporters to vote for Raissi.
Hassan Rohani, who was running for a second term of office, is considered by observers to be a “moderate” and close to the technocrats. During his first term of office he had carried through the international agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, concluded in 2015. On the other hand Ibrahim Raissi, appointed by the Supreme Guide the year before as the man in charge of Imam Reza Meshhed’s mausoleum, was an ultra-conservative, close to the country’s security forces and representing the theocracy. Even if he had not expressed it openly, it was whispered that he enjoyed the support of the Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khamenei. But above all, Raissi was also known by the Iranians – and especially by the Kurds – as a member of a Committee that, in the 80s, just after the Islamic Revolution, sentenced to death thousands of political prisoners…
The Iranian Kurdish parties had all called for a boycott of the elections, as they all denied the legitimacy of a vote organised in the framework of the Islamic Republic. However, the result appeared uncertain up to the last day of the election, Raissi having waged a populist campaign, attacking his opponent on his lack of economic results, seeking to attract the poorest and the youth hit by mass unemployment. This line could have led some Kurds to support Rohani to keep Raissi out — a strategy adopted by many Iranians opposed to the conservatives, even if they found Rohani too lukewarm in his first term in office, which, all in all was pretty disappointing. Thus the reformers, Karoubi and Moussavi still under house arrest, since 2011, both called to vote Rohani.
On the 19th, finally, the vote gave Rohani a much bigger victory than expected with 57% of the votes as against 38,5% for Raissi – which gives the outgoing President 5 million more votes for than at his first election. As for the Kurds, who have long felt abandoned by the State at the economic level, it might be thought that Rohani’s announce of a railway line from Iran to the Mediterranean across Syrian Kurdistan and starting in Iranian Kurdistan could have aroused some hope and won him some support in this region. Probably, however, most Kurds only expected that their vote would have a minimal impact on the results of this election, both because of the limited powers of the President compared with those of the Supreme Guide and the relatively disappointing results of his first tern in office. Indeed, just as he was unable to end the house arrest of Karoubi and de Moussavi, the outgoing President was unable to alter the conditions the Kurds were living under. They continue to be exposed to abusive treatment from the security forces and to the repression by the judiciary. According to official statistics, between May 2012 and May 2017, 328 Kurdish citizens were executed in Iranian prisons, mainly those of Urmiah and Karaj… On the 4th, according to the Association for Human Rights in Kurdistan (KMMK), the security forces shot down a civilian and wounded three others, one seriously in the Shapatan quarter of the town of Oshnavieh. The Kurds also accuse the Islamic Republic of systematically putting aside their regions when there are development projects. Thus on the 2nd, protest demonstrations by Kurdish residents of the town of Hassan Abad, in Sanandaj region, because of the poor quality of the State services, particularly the bad roads, were followed by several arrests. On the same day, Rahman Ibrahimi, a 19-year old kolbar, was wounded by the police as he was crossing the Iraqi border and died in the Tabriz hospital. The kolbars are poor porters obliged in order to survive to carry smuggled goods across the Irano-Iraqi border. This makes them easy victims of the police and frontier guards and so they have become the symbols of the complete absence of economic development of the Iranian Kurdish regions. The Supreme Guide himself expressed the stereotype mingling of ethnic and religious minorities and smugglers by calling the smugglers of Sistan and Balouchistan by the Kurdish word of kolbar… During Rohani’s first term of office, 444 of them were killed or wounded by the police: 195 killed by gunfire and 249 wounded, and another 48 kolbars were arrested.
The list of sentences and executions in Kurdistan continues to get longer. On the 22nd, that is only two days after the Presidential elections, the 31-year old Kurdish political prisoner Kemal Hesen Remezan was sentenced to death. Arrested near the Iraqi border in 2011 with two other people, Remezan was sentenced to 10 years in prison for membership in the PKK. However this first sentence was reduced to 7 years, then annulled pending a second trial. It was this second trial that sentenced him to death. It appears that Remezan was tortured to force him to confess to murdering a senior police officer, killed 10 years previously, whose murderers had not been found. Then the 24th was marked by the first hanging of a Kurd since Rohani’s election — Mehrdad Askarî was hanged for drug trafficking. Iranian Kurdish activists stated last March that the government had executed 138 Kurds in the year for a variety of offences, including drug trafficking. A week later the former wrestler from Kermanshah, Hojatollah Tedro, was hanged. He was accused of attacking someone—an accusation he had denied.
The Kurdish activist, Mohammed Sadiq Kaboudvand, was released on May 13th from the ill-famed Evîn Prison in Teheran, where he had been incarcerated since July 2007. Kaboudvand, an Iranian Kurd, was not a political activist, but had never stopped struggling pacifically for democracy, freedom and basic rights. Born in the town of Divandareh, in the Iranian Kurdish Province of Sineh (Sanandaj), he had founded, in 1996 “Unity for Democracy”, an movement aiming at promoting Democracy in Iranian Kurdish society and publishing an internal bulletin, The Voice of Freedom, which had been forced to cease its activities after a year. In 2003, after a 5-year administrative Marathon to collect the necessary authorisations, he had created the Persian and Kurdish language weekly Payam-e mardom-e Kurdistan, “The Kurdistan People’s Messenger”, of which he was the chief editor until it was suspended in June 2004 by a Sanandaj Court. According to Reporters sans Frontières, the charge was “separatist propaganda and publishing false news”. At the same time as three other journalists, he had been threatened with arrest for “disturbing public opinion and propagation of separatist ideas”. In 2005 he had founded in Teheran the Organisation for Human Rights in Kurdistan, which published until 2007 reports and interviews — until Kaboudvand was arrested in his office and sentenced by a Revolutionary Court to 11 years jail for “activity against national security” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic”… Among the charges leveled against him were also “having opposed the Islamic criminal laws by making publicly known penalties like lapidating and executing”. Kaboudvand, a tireless worker, also tried to publish several of his own works, including one on the situation of women but none were accepted by the censorship.
Kaboudvand’s health deteriorated during his 10 years imprisonment. To protest against the continued refusal by the authorities to authorise him to visit his son, Pejman, who had a serious blood disease, he began a 59-day hunger strike. In July 2012 Human Rights Watch accused the Iranian authorities of ill-treating him, demanding that he be given medical care and be unconditionally released. He has suffered from two heart attacks and high blood pressure with neurological and prostate problems. In December 2014 he received the prize of the International Centre for Human Rights for his contribution to the protection of the rights of Kurds in Iran and neighbouring countries.
During the last year of his detention Kaboudvand was interrogated three times by the prison’s Prosecutor on his relations with the Kurds in Turkey and particularly about a letter he had written to the co-President of the “pro-Kurdish” HDP party, Selahattin Demirtaş, in which he urged him to promote peace between the Kurdish groups and the Turkish government. As he had also written a doctoral thesis on the situation of minorities in Turkey, he was also questioned about this dissertation, which his interrogators thought covered the rights of prisoners in Iran! In 2016 he went on a new 34-day hunger strike in protest against the new offenses of which he was being charged. Amnesty International described the charges being made against him as “fabrications”. It can be observed that none of the activities for which he was criticised are illegal — the persecution to which he is being subjected only demonstrates the extent to which the Iranian State does not even observe its own constitution…
KURDISTAN “Poussière et vent” (Dust and wind), by Sophie MOUSSET.
After the countryside and towns, Kurdistan is the first region to be the subject of a publication in the collection “L'âme des peuples” (The souls of peoples).
How can one understand such a rough and stubborn people, at the same time so welcoming?
Is Kurdistan, split up between its powerful neighbours, an insoluble tragedy?
“Free women fighters” and other Kurdish myths.
What a formidable challenge, this little book published at a time when Kurdistan, in the shadow of the war that is making a blood bath of Syria and Iraq, is struggling to give a divided people a future.
This little book tells us the story of this society that today is opening up. Because we cannot understand the Kurdish people without loving it and facing up to it.
A great account followed by several interviews with Frédéric Tissot (a humanitarian doctor, founder of Action Medicale Internationale), Nazand Begikhani (a poetesse, sociologist and researcher specialising in the area of violence against women) and Hiner Saleem (author and film director).
Sophie Mousset has often visited Kurdistan over the last fifteen years. She is living near Nantes and works in particular with Kurdish organisations.
Quand les montagnes pleurent (When mountains weep), by Gharbi MUSTAFA, a Kurdish writer. Translated from the English by Célia MERCIER, a journalist.
This story is largely inspired by the author’s childhood memories. He grew up in Iraqi Kurdistan and, with an ironic and sometimes caustic style he describes the life of a Kurdish family during the Saddam Hussein period. Through a series of pages and lively anecdotes he reveals the daily life in Mosul, the indoctrination by the Ba’ath Party in the schools, the honour crimes, the fight of the Peshmergas in the mountains, youthful loves, forced enrolment in the Army … Young Hamko, the story’s hero, gradually loses his childhood’s happy go lucky attitude until the terrifying exodus of the Kurds to the Turkish mountains in 1991.
This fascinating novel tells us all about the Kurdish question through the eyes of a young boy and echos strangely today’s news.
Gharbi MUSTAFA is is a lecturer of English and foreign literature at Dohuk University, in Iraqi Kurdistan. He has a PhD from the Faculty of Oriental Studies of Warsaw University. When Mountains Weep was published in English in 2013 and is his first novel.
The Kurdish People, the Keystone of the Middle East, by Olivier PIOT
Weakened by the Arab Springs, the civil war that is ravaging Syria since 2011 and the conflict that is splitting Iraq, the Middle East needs to be pacified and rebuilt. Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, UNO and France are all actors who weigh heavily on this reconstruction and know that the region cannot be stabilised on the long term without taking into account the political demands of Kurdish people.
Betrayed by the Allies in 1922, oppressed since then in four countries, the Kurds have, over the last six years, become the vanguard of the fight against ISIS. Their military role in the field like the weight of the territorial autonomy they won in Iraq and Syria, have made them the keystone of the Middle East. In the light of the tormented history of this people since the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, this book analyses the Middle Eastern crisis through the lens of the Kurdish national questions, their changes in identity and the past and present divisions that plague the main Kurdish political parties.
In this way this work throws a new light on this ethnic, religious and geo-political chess board on which the future of the Middle East will be played.
Olivier Piot is a freelance special correspondent and author of several books on the situation in Africa and the Middle East. He is regularly published in Le Monde diplomatique, Géo and Le Monde.