The December 19 announcement by the US President of the withdrawal of his troops from Syria provoked diplomatic consultations all over the place implicating all parties involved, members of the anti-ISIS coalition, Turks, Russians, and of course the authorities of the Federation of North Syria, who simply fear for its survival. While Mr. Erdoğan multiplied threats and rantings, they continued their negotiations with the Damascus regime and its Russian protector, while calling their Western allies in the anti-ISIS coalition to react. Despite this situation of existential threat, SDF combatants bravely pursued their hunt for ISIS jihadists, further reducing the latter’s territory.
Turkey now purports to occupy all of northern Syria, from Kobane to the Iraqi border, to “provide security” there. It has shown in Afrin for a year what this “security” consists of: exactions, looting, ethnic cleansing...
In Afrin, on January 5, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), jihadists have even asked Turkey for permission to expel all original Kurdish residents to appropriate all their property. Fearing international reactions, Turkey rejected the request, but many testimonies broadcast on Kurdistan 24 show that ethnic cleansing is already underway. While attempting to terrify the Kurds into leaving, the occupiers continue to grant residence permits to Arab families, rapidly changing the demographic balance, even though some lawyers have tried to plead the illegality of documents issued by Mukhtars (village chiefs) appointed by the Turks ... (Ahval, Rûdaw). Ibrahim Biro, the former leader of the Kurdistan National Council of Syria (ENKS), in the opposition to the Rojava authorities, confirmed to Kurdistan 24 the aggravation of the situation and declared he was trying to prevent through diplomacy a new invasion East of the Euphrates. On the 10th, after the administration of Rojava, responding to a call from the ENKS, announced the lifting of the ban on unregistered political parties, a delegation from ENKS asked Massud Barzani to echo its worries internationally... declaring at the same time it was awaiting the release of its executives still incarcerated in Rojava.
Among the acts of looting reproached to Turkey, the looting of olive groves and olive oil, Afrin's main wealth – and the cause of fierce fighting between different jihadist factions – has been the subject of a joint investigation by the Spanish online newspaper El Público and the Kurdish Firat News Agency, published on the 16th. According to sources, Turkey has sold to the European market from Spain olive oil stolen in Afrin. The profits, 90 million dollars, were funnelled back to the jihadist militias...
Military resistance also goes on. On the 17th, the “Afrin Liberation Forces” announced the death of three pro-Turkish fighters of the “Free Syrian Army”. Then an improvised bomb triggered near passing jihadists killed at least 9 people, including 5 civilians (AFP). On the 19th, was announced the death of at least 16 jihadists in 2 separate operations on the 18th and 19th. One of the attacks killed 4 fighters in the city (AMN). On the 30th, the Kurdish news agency Hawar reported the death of 2 Turkish soldiers and 4 jihadists in a new attack. Meanwhile, the headquarters of Ahrar al-Sham in the village of Deir Mushmush was destroyed and 2 militiamen killed. On the 20th, a bomb exploded in an Afrin bus, killing 3 civilians and wounding 9 others, including militia (SOHR). On this anniversary of the launch of the Turkish invasion, thousands of Kurdish inhabitants of Qamichli, and displaced people from Afrin protested against the occupation (AFP).
Another point crystallizing tensions, Manbij, near which the Syrian army had deployed in late December, much to the displeasure of the Turkish president, while the US military remained in the city. The Syrian Ministry of Defence announced on the 2nd the departure from the city of “nearly 400 Kurdish fighters”, some 30 vehicles having left to the East of the Euphrates, carrying according to the SOHR not YPG but members of SDF-allied militia. Despite the Turkish-Russian talks following the announcement of the US withdrawal, nothing seemed to have changed in this region in early January, even though Turkey continued to concentrate armoured vehicles at the border, and pro-Turkish rebels on the 3rd attacked the YPG North of Aleppo. Like Turkey, the Federal Administration of North Syria sent a delegation to Moscow, seeking the Russian guarantee to pursue with Damascus the negotiations that had started last summer, before being quickly stopped due to the intransigence of the regime. On the 5th, the Ashark al-Awsat newspaper reported that YPG commander Sipan Hemo had visited Moscow and Damascus to propose the return of the Syrian state to the Northern border in exchange for retaining, under Russian guarantee, a local administration. On the 6th, SDF commander Redur Khalil told AFP that an agreement with the Damascus regime was “inevitable”, and that once found for Manbij, it could then be extended to the whole Euphrates East. Khalil even said that the SDF could be integrated into the Syrian Army...
On the 8th, the Russian military police started patrols around Manbij in support of the Syrian army already present. On the 11th, the Manbij Military Council (MMC) reported that joint patrols between its fighters and the Americans were continuing near the city, but that in the city proper, only MMC fighters were present (Kurdistan 24). On the 18th, Turkey would denounce the entry of the Syrian army into Manbij in the name of the US-Turkish “road map” (AFP).
Also on the 11th, the YPG announced that in the first week of the month it had shot down a Turkish surveillance drone flying over the Ayn-Diwar area, near Derik (AMN).
In Idlib, the last region of Syria still controlled by armed opposition groups, fighting between jihadists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front, Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) and pro-Turkish rebel groups have killed 120 people in four days at the beginning of the month... Tahrir al-Cham won, gaining control to the detriment of pro-Turkish groups in Idlib, but also in several districts of neighbouring provinces of Hama, Latakia and Aleppo. On the 14th, the leader of this group, Abu Mohamad al-Julani, wanted since May 2017 by the US FBI against a reward of 10 million dollars (https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices/washingtondc/news/press-releases/up-to-10-million-reward-offered-for-information-on-the-leader-of-the-al-nusrah-front), expressed support for a Turkish offensive against the Kurds East of the Euphrates, which would “free from the PKK”, one of the “enemies of the Syrian revolution, […] regions where many Sunni Arabs live” (AFP)...
In the “ambiguous game” of US-Turkish relations, Donald Trump again added to the confusion by declaring on the 2nd that he would “protect his Kurdish allies from Syria”, challenging (without naming it) the Washington Post, which had announced a withdrawal within 4 months... During the month, several US officials, as Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, reiterated these assurances, which aroused Turkish anger without really reassuring the Kurds, especially as on the 4th, more than 100 vehicles of equipment and US troops moved from Syria to Iraq (Roya News). Yazidis as North Syrian Christians expressed their worries about a “premature” withdrawal, given the risk of ISIS resurgence, Christians also recalling that their parents had fled Turkey during the genocide of 1915, and that being caught by their tormentors 100 years later did not smile to them (Rûdaw). On the 7th, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the Turkish President had pledged to “protect Kurdish fighters in Syria” (an announcement certainly as credible as the tale in which the wolf promises to protect the lamb...), and Turkish presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın firmly denied the information the next day (AFP). Anyway, on the very day of Pompeo's announcement, just hours after a suicide bombing claimed by ISIS had killed four civilians and a YPG fighter at a Raqqa military base, Turkish President Erdoğan described the struggle as SDF against ISIS as a “huge lie”, and declared “unacceptable” the next day John Bolton’s statements of support for SDF (AFP). He even refused to receive him in Ankara, while İbrahim Kalın demanded the United States take back the weapons supplied to the SDS and... transfer their 16 military bases in Syria to Turkey!
The 14th, Trump threatened in a tweet Turkey to “devastate its economy” if it attacked the Kurds, while calling, but without specifying the conditions, for the creation of a “security zone” of 30 km deep in Northern Syria. Turkey retorted that it was not intimidated, while hastening to take up the idea of the “safe zone”. After a telephone conversation with his American counterpart, Mr. Erdoğan said he was ready to establish it… under his control. Damascus, supported by its Russian protector, responded by asking for the return of these territories. The Northern Syrian Federation quickly rejected the idea of Turkish control. One of its leaders, Aldar Khalil, told AFP that Turkey, a stakeholder in the conflict, could not guarantee security, and reiterated that the “only acceptable choice” would be to deploy “UN peacekeeping forces”. Kino Gabriel, SDF spokesperson, said the first objective of such an area should be to protect civilians (Rûdaw). On the 18th, Redur Khalil, SDF commander, declared on Al-Arabiya that a Turkish-controlled security zone would just be a “military occupation”, and on the 19th, Salih Muslim declared in Yeni Özgür Politika that the Turks “will install the people they want in the areas they occupy” and will implement large-scale ethnic cleansing (ANF). Mr. Erdoğan largely confirmed these fears on the 28th by revealing in a speech in Istanbul his plan to resettle in the Syrian North 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey...
On the 22nd, after the Northern Syrian Federation Authorities reiterated their support for a United Nations safe zone, the UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres declared that there was no such project. The Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen, who on 8 January succeeded in Damascus Staffan de Mistura as UN special envoy to Syria, did not comment.
On 23-24-25, Turkish forces continuously shelled the YPG positions in the Tell Rifaat area, 20 km east of Afrin. This city is in the centre of a pocket controlled by the YPG, wedged between the Turks in the north and areas in the south under the control of Damascus or rebels. The Turkish Ministry of Defense said the shelling was in response to shooting at Turkish soldiers in the Afrin region (Reuters).
Discussions between Kurds and Damascus remain difficult. A pro-government source said on the 15th that the regime was ready to accept a common governance of the Syrian North, but not the federalisation demanded by the Kurds... (AMN) On the 19th, they announced they had sent the Russians a 10-point “road map” finally providing for an internal autonomy of the Syrian Northern Administration, which would send representatives to the Syrian Parliament. The SDF would become a border protection force integrated into the national army, Arabic would remain an official language, local languages could be used in education, including at university (Kurdistan 24). On the 25th, Mazlum Kobani, commander-in-chief of the SDF, reiterated to AFP the requirement of a “special status” for this force, which “protected the north-east of Syria. It has liberated these areas [of ISIS] and it is its right to continue to protect them.”
Internationally, France and Germany have also discussed with Russia the situation in Syria. The French president met with his Russian counterpart on the 2nd, insisting that the operations against ISIS were not over. In Germany, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bundestag, Roderich Kiesewetter, suggested a joint Franco-German request to the United Nations to create an internationally controlled security zone to protect the Syrian Kurds (AFP, Kurdistan 24). This was precisely the request of the representative of the Federation in Germany, Ibrahim Murad, together with a no-fly zone (Kurdistan 24). On the 10th, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he thought the security of the Kurds after the US withdrawal should be ensured at the international level. On the 22nd, the Dutch government accepted 2 motions from parliamentarians asking for ways to put pressure on Turkey not to attack the SDF in Syria. One of the motions called for working to this effect “with other NATO countries or the European Union”, the other mentioned obtainaing the support of France and the United Kingdom (Kurdistan 24).
Despite the serious uncertainty about their future, the SDF continued their campaign against ISIS. After the capture of the city of Hajin on December 14, the jihadists, pushed back to the Iraqi border, only controlled at the beginning of January the villages of Sussa and Chaafa and some small hamlets (another pocket in the Syrian desert, further south, is encircled by the Syrian army). On the 2nd, a missile fired by jihadists killed 1 SDF fighter and 2 British soldiers near Chaafa. On the 5th, the SDF expelled the jihadists from the village of Chaafa. On the evening of the 6th, ISIS launched deadly suicide counterattacks, but after a night of fighting, the SDF took back their lost positions, capturing 8 jihadists, including an American teenager and a German (AFP). On the 7th, day of the suicide attack already mentioned against a Raqqa base, the SDF announced that it had arrested on December 30th five foreign jihadists, including two Americans and one Irishman, who were preparing an attack against civilians fleeing their last stronghold. The next day, jihadists again took advantage of a sandstorm to kill 23 FDS fighters in a raid (AFP).
On the 12th, more than 600 people were evacuated from areas still held by ISIS, adding to the 16,000 people who fled these areas since early December. According to the UN, 25,000 people have fled the fighting during the 6 last months. On the 15th, the SDF took control of Sussa, leaving to the jihadists only a territory of 15 km² with the village of Baghuz and some hamlets... For the first time, 120 jihadists surrendered. On the 16th, as fighting continued, more than 2,000 civilians, mostly women and children, were evacuated from the area. That same day, a new suicide bombing, this time near a restaurant in Manbij, killed 16 people: 4 Americans, 5 SDF fighters and 7 civilians, the largest American losses in a single attack since 2014 (AFP). After the explosion, the SDF dismantled 2 ISIS cells in the city. On the 21st, between Hassake and Chaddadi, a car bomb struck a vehicle from a military SDF convoy (according to other sources, the explosion hit a checkpoint). 5 FDS fighters were reportedly killed and 2 US military wounded.
Within 2 days, from 21 to 22, some 4,900 people, mostly women and children, including 470 fighters, fled the last jihadist pocket of Northern Syria (10 km²), according to SOHR. In total, 27,000 people, including 18,000 fighters, who have fled since early December ... On 23, the SDF took Baghuz, the last ISIS-held village, leaving only 2 hamlets to jihadists. An ISIS counter-attack launched the next day failed, leaving 16 SDF and 34 jihadists killed. The SDF also captured 21 enemy fighters attempting to cross into Iraq. On the 28th, the SDF announced ISIS-controlled territory had shrunk to 4 km². The local operations commander, Haval Roni, however, said that even if ISIS lost all its territories, it would not disappear, but would become a clandestine organisation and remain dangerous: “They have been trying to finish off Al-Qaeda since 20 years, and they did not succeed. It will be the same with ISIS”, he warned (AFP). On the 30th, the FDS announced they had dismantled a new ISIS cell in Manbij in a raid launched in common with the US military. The cell is suspected of having planned the attack on the restaurant 2 weeks earlier (WKI). On the 31st, the SDF refused the surrender of fighters who demanded in exchange a safe passage to Turkey or Idlib (The Times).
The SDF also interned fighters who had tried to mingle with civilians flying the fighting. Besides, according to the French TV channel BFM-TV, some 130 French jihadists captured by the SDF should finally be repatriated in the coming weeks and arrested upon their arrival.
The hunger strikes in support of Leyla Güven continued in January, while in parallel the progressive and “pro-Kurdish” HDP party continued preparing its campaign for the March 31st municipal elections. The government continued its campaign of repression, trying to prevent this party from appearing before the voters.
Leyla Güven stopped feeding on November 8 to protest against the isolation imposed on the leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned on the island of Imralı, and more generally against the ruthless repression that has since 2015 been hitting the whole Kurdish population and members of the HDP. On the 9th, HDP MP Meral Danis Bestas announced that her imprisoned colleague was in a “critical state”, and asked the Turkish Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights to intervene, indicating that 162 prisoners in 36 prisons in Turkey, including 27 women, were now on hunger strike. The following day, the HDP confirmed in a statement that Güven's life was in danger: having lost 15 kg, she “can no longer support herself or walk alone”, her heart rate and blood pressure are very low and “she can no longer take liquids, including water”. The statement also counted 171 political prisoners on hunger strike in Turkey (AFP).
On the 12th, HDP co-chair Pervin Buldan announced on Twitter that for the first time in more than two years Öcalan had been visited by his brother Mehmet and appeared “in good health”. His nephew, the parliamentarian Omer Ocalan, confirmed the visit to AFP, saying: “As a family, we ask that Öcalan be subject to the same rules as other prisoners [...]. He has the right to meet his family every week.” During this period Öcalan was also denied any visit by his lawyers.
The following day, MEPs, lawyers (including Margaret Owen, who has been following the trial of Selahattin Demirtaş for months) and other human rights defenders, who had come to Diyarbakir prison to meet Leyla Güven, were denied access. The delegation then held a press conference at the Diyarbakir Bar Association (ANF). On the 14th, Strasbourg fasters announced that they would continue their movement for “the total lifting of isolation and freedom” for Öcalan, adding that a visit did not mean the end of isolation, but rather a “war tactic” to stop the movement (RojInfo). In Batman, police attacked members of the HDP who protested the continued isolation of Öcalan (WKI). On the 15th, as Güven began his 70th day of fasting, a press conference on hunger strikes was held in the European Parliament; Dilek Öcalan read a message from the Strasbourg fasters (ANF), and the following day, 300 Kurds demonstrated in front of the building (Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace). Also on the 15th, in Switzerland, in front of the Grand Council of Lausanne (cantonal parliament), about fifty members of the Kurdish Cultural Center (CCKL) gathered to call out to the parliamentarians. In Turkey, new Kurdish municipal elected officials joined the movement, bringing the number of fasting people to 262, elected local and parliamentarians, including Sebahat Tuncel, the co-chair of the DBP (Democratic Party of Regions, HDP regional sister-party). On the 19th, a demonstration of support for Leyla Güven called by the HDP gathered several thousand people in Diyarbakir (AFP). Dersim Dağ, 22-year-old HDP Diyarbakir MP, elected last June, read publicly a letter from Leyla Güven, where she exalts the spirit of resistance and declares herself ready to die.
On the 25th, a court in Diyarbakir decided to release her under judicial supervision, with a ban on leaving the country, and adjourned her trial to 29 May. Leyla Güven, who had to be taken home by ambulance, said she planned to continue her hunger strike. Pervin Buldan visited her (AFP).
On the same day, a delegation of the HDP was received in Strasbourg by the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Liliane Maury Pasquier, and its Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland. PACE had held an emergency debate on Turkey the day before, after which it adopted a very critical resolution calling on the authorities to release imprisoned Kurdish elected officials and to implement the recommendations of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture concerning Abdullah Öcalan. Recalling the Assembly's concerns about the deterioration of the democratic situation in Turkey, the resolution denounces the anti-terrorist law and its broad interpretation, “the lifting of the immunity of 154 parliamentarians in May 2016”, targeting “at first the HDP”, the use of emergency decrees-laws since 16 July 2016 and the constitutional changes of 2017, as well as the extremely negative impact on local democracy, “particularly in South-East Turkey”, of the arrest of more than 90 mayors of the HDP and the BDP. PACE also denounces the measures to silence journalists, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, academics and all other dissenting voices, and calls for the release of Leyla Güven on the base of her parliamentary immunity, as well as parliamentarians and former parliamentarians deprived of their immunity in 2016, in particular Selahattin Demirtaş, pursuant to the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (Rojinfo).
Meanwhile, the HDP and more generally the Kurdish parties have been courageously starting preparing the municipal elections of March 31. On 7 January, eight Kurdish left-wing and centre-right parties announced a common electoral front, the “Kurdistan Electoral Alliance” to take over more than 100 municipalities whose mayors have been dismissed and replaced by pro-AKP unelected “trustees”. This name will certainly sound like a provocation for the AKP – and still more so for the MHP, its far-right ally. The Alliance insisted on the new importance of local elected representatives after the constitutional changes that diminished the powers of Parliament for the benefit of the President. The parties participating in this front are, besides the HDP and the BDP, the PDK-T (Democratic Party of Kurdistan - Turkey, close to the Iraqi PDK), the Kurdistan Democrats Platform, the Communist Party of Kurdistan, the Freedom Party and Humanity, the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (Azadî), and the Kurdish Democratic Revolutionary Association (Kurdistan 24). On the 15th, the Alliance announced its candidates for 41 cities.
The adoption of this strategy of rallying between “Kurdish liberation movement” and “Turkish revolutionary movement”, to use the words of the HDP co-president, comes in a context of intensification of the repression of the government, which since last December continues its tactics of mass arrests of Kurdish activists to prevent them from campaigning and to discourage their voters. On the 16th, the HDP called for the presence of international observers during the polls, in a letter in which its co-presidents, Pervin Buldan and Sezai Temelli, express their fears that it “will take place under extremely undemocratic conditions”, “as was the case of the presidential elections of June 2018 and the referendum of April 2017” (Rojinfo).
Regarding Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the HDP, still incarcerated, the information website T24 reported on January 1st that his lawyers had again submitted his case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), who in November had asked for his release from a “pre-trial detention” of 2 years! The confirmation on appeal on 4 December that he was sentenced to 4 years and 8 months in prison for “terrorist propaganda”, by technically putting an end to pre-trial detention, had allowed Turkey to avoid applying this judgment. This conviction appears scandalous in many ways, firstly because it is based on statements made at the Newrouz 2013, in the middle of the then ongoing peace process, then because it is based on fabricated “evidence” consisting in voluntarily falsely transcribed statements of the defendant. According to T24, Demirtaş’s lawyers filed a complaint for breach of the principle of a fair trial, violation of the presumption of innocence, the freedom of expression and the right to free elections. In the various cases made against him, Demirtaş risks a total of over 100 years in prison (Ahval). His lawyers also lodged an appeal with the Turkish Constitutional Court on the same grounds referring to the judgment of the ECHR (Bianet).
Many Kurdish activists or party members were arrested during the first week of the month: in Istanbul, police arrested five members of the BDP, and on 3 January, 10 Kurds, including minors, in Yenişehir district of Diyarbakir. At the end of the month, on the 29th, police arrested 22 women activists in raids on their homes, including the HDP candidate for the mayor of Cizre, Berivan Kutlu, and the regional co-president of the BDP for Şırnak, Ayşe Altay, together with many other BDP activists, and DİSK regional co-chair Zeynep İdin. According to Turkish media, these women are accused of “terrorist activities” or “terrorist affiliation” for their links with a feminist organization, the “Free Women Movement”, which the authorities claim to be linked to the PKK. At least 10 other people have been put under arrest warrants in the same investigation (Rojinfo, Kurdistan 24).
To prevent the HDP from campaigning, bullying was also used. On the 6th, MP Ayşe Acar Başaran revealed that several party officials had received anonymous email threats dated January 3rd and signed by "The vengeful team" with this type of contents: “This country belongs to us. Last warning (...)”, and also containing obscenities and insults. Acar Başaran said the people concerned would not give in and were going to file a complaint (Ahval). At every election, HDP electoral offices and candidates undergo threats and attacks ...
As for trials, Bianet indicated on the 8th that the Diyarbakir prosecutor had obtained three different charges against Ertuğrul Kürkçü, Honorary President of the HDP and former MP for Mersin and Izmir. Kürkçü faces 20 years in prison for “belonging to an armed terrorist organization”, “apology of crime”, “unarmed participation in prohibited meetings and demonstrations and refusal to disperse”, “incitement to hatred” or “incitement to disobey laws” etc. The accusation is based, among other things, on several speeches he made in Nusaybin in 2012 and in Diyarbakir in 2015-2016... On the 16th, the former HDP co-president Figen Yuksekdağ, arrested in November 2016 at the same time as Selahattin Demirtas, appeared in Ankara for the last hearing of her case. She is accused of terrorist activities and propaganda for her role in leading the HDP and for speeches given at the funeral of a Kurdish activist. The court decided to keep her in prison (ANF).
Also targeted by the repression were journalists such as Pelin Ünker, convicted of defaming former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and two of his sons: in an article published in Cumhuriyet, he had reported they owned companies in Malta. Ünker said he had expected this judgment, but called it a “world premiere”: this is the first time that defamation has been retained even though the people concerned admitted that the content of the article was true! This did not prevent them from filing a complaint, nor the journalist to be found guilty. The newspaper where the article was published was also fined. One of the companies cited won a call for tenders from the Turkish government (ICIJ, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists).
Last, on 1st January, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that a Kurdish-born German, 56-year-old Adnan Sutcu, arrived in Ankara on 27 December for his mother’s funeral, had been detained for questioning by the police before being released with a ban on leaving the country pending trial. Sutcu is accused of “terrorist propaganda” following his Facebook posts calling for an independent Kurdistan. The German Foreign Ministry said it was following the case, indicating that 49 other German nationals were incarcerated in Turkey, including at least 5 for “apparently political” reasons...
Abroad, six years after the assassination of the three Kurdish activists Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan and Leyla Saylemez, ordered in the heart of Paris by MIT (Turkish secret services), a march organised near the scene of the assassination brought together 15,000 people demanding the continuation of the investigation: “We wish that the French justice works to identify precisely the sponsors, to continue them and to condemn them”, declared Sylvie Jan, president of Association France-Kurdistan. The MIT at the time took its orders directly from the Prime Minister... Mr. Erdoğan. The legal action, started late, stopped at the timely death of the presumed murderer just before his trial (L'Humanité).
In the United States, a group of peaceful Kurdish demonstrators which had been attacked in May 2017 in Washington by the Turkish President's security filed a complaint against the Turkish government (Ahval). In addition, the Treasury Department might decide to fine Halkbank for undeclared lobbying: the Turkish bank paid a US media company to try to influence the investigation into the violation of trade bans with Iran (Al-Monitor Lobbying updates).
Turkish military operations continued, particularly in Kurdistan of Iraq, where they provoked protests from residents. Their anger is understandable. According to the Iraqi Kurdish TV channel Rûdaw, in the district of Amedî (70 km north of Erbil), the Turkish air force in 2018 carried out 98 strikes, killing 12 people ... Mid-December, the Iraqi authorities had summoned the Turkish ambassador to Baghdad to protest this “violation of sovereignty”, but that did not stop the Turkish air force from hitting the Dohuk province again on January 2, bombing several villages in the Metina region then, on the evening of the 5th, other villages near Amedi (Rûdaw).
There were military activities on the Turkish side as well. On the 4th, after an ambush against a military convoy, the Turkish military attacked a village near the Armenian border, provoking exchanges of gunfire which left 1 dead and 2 wounded among the soldiers, the Kurdish losses not being indicated (Nouvelles d’Arménie). On the 3rd, the military imposed a curfew on several districts of Diyarbakir, Lice, Hani and Kocakoy province (WKI). On the 18th, the authorities announced a curfew until the 21st on 43 villages of the Bitlis region.
On the 20th, new air strikes in Iraqi Kurdistan targeted the Saddian district near the Iranian border. But anger broke out on the 23rd, when four residents of Cheladzî, a small town near Dohuk, were killed by a Turkish strike while fishing, two others being reported missing. People protesting against Turkish military strikes and presence gathered at a Turkish military base near Cheladzî. The Turkish military fired on demonstrators (AFP), causing, according to Iraqi press, 1 dead and 10 wounded. Two Turkish tanks were set on fire. The Turkish Ministry of Defence accused the protesters of being members of the PKK... The following day, the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the Turkish fire on Iraqi citizens and announced that the Turkish ambassador in Baghdad would again be summoned to be handed over an official protest note (AFP). The Iraqi Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee called on the Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to secure the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraqi soil (ISHM). On the same day, a KRG official, Dindar Zêbarî, declaring that the Turkish bombardments had destroyed many agricultural and forest areas, gave a count of the Turkish strikes on the border areas between 2015 and 2018: 398 aerial bombardments and 425 mortar shells (Kurdistan 24), or 823 strikes in 4 years, exactly the figure communicated by the Ministry of Peshmerga to Voice of America. According to local accounts, these strikes have caused 23 civilian deaths during the last 2 years, including family picnics (seyran) traditionally organized in the mountains (RFI). On the 29th, the KRG asked the PKK to withdraw from the border villages, its presence giving Turkey a pretext for bombings where innocent people die. Arrests were made among the participants in the Chêladzî demonstration, and the NRT TV channel, the only one present at the scene of the incident, complained it had been prevented from covering the events: some of its journalists were arrested while trying to film the arrival of a wounded protester at the hospital, and NRT office in Dohuk was closed and his director incarcerated. Faced with protests from journalists' associations, the authorities argued for the need to ensure “citizens’ safety” (RFI).
These events, however, did not put an end to the Turkish strikes on Kurdistan, since the Turkish Air Force carried out new ones on the 31st, as details of the previous deaths emerged: according to the Kurdish Institute of Kurdistan, Washington (WKI), after the first 4 deaths, while the family of 2 of the victims was trying to recover the bodies, a second Turkish air strike killed the search team, causing 2 new deaths.
January's highlight is the “snatched” obtaining of an Erbil-Bagdad agreement on the 2019 budget, which was finally voted on the 24th. But in Baghdad as in Kurdistan, the month ended without new governments. Finally, Kirkuk again experienced tensions around the Kurdish flag raising by the UPK over its offices...
In Basra, even though demonstrations have been less frequent, the police had to use tear gas to disperse demonstrators gathered in front of the governorate to denounce the lack of work and basic services. They also asked for the release of about fifteen people arrested during a previous demonstration. Forced to move away from the building, the demonstrators burned a guard post and a police car and injured an officer by stoning him. On the 21st, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi made a surprise visit to the city, questioning the provincial authorities and promising the construction of 2 new power plants which would together generate 1,600 MW (ISHM, Kurdistan 24).
In Baghdad, the budget issue was finally solved after lengthy negotiations. The parliament has repeatedly failed to adopt it, especially on the 8th and 10th of the month, because of disagreements over shares afforded to the Kurdistan Region and several other provinces. On the 20th, several Kurdish media reported on the agreement of “senior Iraqi military commanders” to earmark 68 billion dinars (50 million Euros) from the budget of the Ministry of Defence to the salaries of Kurdish peshmergas who fought against ISIS (ISHM, Kurdistan 24). On the 22nd, a Kurdish parliamentarian gave a higher figure, 168 billion dinars (132 million euros) (WKI), but the vote of the budget was again delayed because of the conditions of allocation of funds: the GRK in exchange was to export 250,000 barrels a day through the state-owned company SOMO. The Kurds refused, not being certain to be able to fulfil this condition because of the payments due to the companies operating in their oil fields (Rûdaw). Then on the 23rd, the Kurdish deputies in Baghdad announced they had obtained the guarantee of the payment of salaries: according to the second vice-president of the Parliament, Bachîr Haddad (KDP), it was agreed that in case of non-compliance with the clause of oil export, Baghdad would make budget cuts not on wages but on investments. This agreement should allow a regular payment of civil servants and especially the end of the unpopular system of wage deductions set up by the KRG; the amounts previously retained will be gradually paid back...
Parliament passed the budget on the 24th. It is one of the highest in the country's history, up 45% from 2018, with $ 111.8 billion in revenue and a deficit of 23, 1 billion. On the 30th, Kurdish deputies announced that Kurdistan had received 12.67% of the federal budget, not counting peshmerga salaries, paid directly by the Ministry of Defence (ISHM). While the Kurds have declared themselves generally satisfied, the deputies of the provinces destroyed in the war against ISIS feel wronged...
Regarding the federal government, still incomplete, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has again submitted on the 8th his candidates to the portfolios of the Interior, Justice and Defence. While proposing Salim Jubouri for the latter post, the Sunni bloc “Axis” announced support for former Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji (ISHM). The vote scheduled in Parliament on the 24th to appoint new ministers finally did not take place...
On the 13th, the Parliament Deputy Speaker Hassan Ka'abi announced that the Electoral Commission had set November 16 as the suggested date for the provincial elections (scheduled for last December, they did not take place, as the parliament failed to legislate to allocate the necessary funds). This date does not concern the Kurdistan Region which has its own Electoral Commission, but concerns the province of Kirkuk, which has had only one regional election (2005) since the fall of the previous regime. The Kurdish deputies, who particularly wanted the election to take place at last, have, according to Kurdistan 24, managed to prevent another postponement.
Another point of interest for the Kurds, the Council of Ministers decided on the 18th that all border posts, including those in Kurdistan, should be controlled by the Federal Customs Office. In Kurdistan, employees will be “Region residents with the necessary skills”. It was also decided to abolish all internal control points, including the three installed at Kirkuk (Rûdaw).
Regarding ISIS, the United Nations Assistance Mission (UNAMI) released on the 3rd the figures of civilian casualties due to acts of terrorism and violence for December: 32 civilians killed and 32 wounded; the highest figures are those of the province of Nineveh (Mosul) where there were 7 dead and 19 wounded, and Baghdad, with 17 dead and 3 wounded (ISHM). Despite the proclamation of victory over ISIS on December 9, 2017, attacks, bombings, kidnappings and assassinations of local politicians continue. The security forces also announced the destruction of 8 tunnels used by ISIS in the provinces of Nineveh and Salahaddin, including 4 in the mountains north of Tikrit (Kurdistan 24). On the 8th, the anti-ISIS coalition launched an airstrike near Hawija, ISIS's former stronghold south of Kirkuk, which killed 2 jihadist commanders (WKI). On the same day, Human Rights Watch (HRW), after collecting testimony from several children, issued a report accusing Kurdistan's security forces of torturing minors in police custody to make them confess their belonging to ISIS. KRG International Affairs Adviser Dindar Zêbarî rejected the accusations (AFP).
On the 13th, a Hashd al-Shaabi militiaman was killed in a jihadist attack in Kirkuk. On the 16th, Suleimaniyeh Security announced the arrest of a dangerous jihadist, arrived in Kurdistan after the fall of Mosul. On the 17th, after a series of attacks, the inhabitants of several villages of Diyala, near Jalawla and Khanaqîn, preferred to leave their homes (ISHM). On the same day, Erbil anti-terrorism force announced the arrest of eight people the day before, two ISIS members and six suspects (Rûdaw).
On the 22nd, representatives of the Arab and Turkmen communities of Kirkuk called for the formation of a new regional security force to fight ISIS more effectively. On the same day in Baghdad, representatives of the KRG and the Federal Government announced the US-led rapid setting up of a Joint Military Committee to coordinate security operations in the disputed territories, in particular Kirkuk. The previous Committee had ceased operations in October 2017 after the entry of federal forces and Shiite militias into Kirkuk, but the US embassy played the mediators to allow its restart (ISHM).
On the 23rd, a car bomb attack took place in Hawija (ISHM). On the 26th, Hashd al-Shaabi militias announced they had intercepted jihadists attempting to infiltrate from Syria. The following night, jihadists attacked a checkpoint in Khanaqin, injuring 2 policemen and 3 security personnel. Exchange of gunfire lasting for more than an hour caused panic in the city. On the 27th, several attacks south of Mosul left six dead and 12 wounded; an improvised bomb exploded near a passing police car, a second exploding as a group of officers arrived on the scene. In another attack, a group in uniform shot and killed a couple at home. Though not claimed, these attacks evoke the methods of ISIS (Kurdistan 24).
In Kurdistan, discussions continued to form the new government. The KDP, visibly worried about the loss of credibility of the KRG to its constituents, called for an acceleration of the process by excluding from the discussion all issues not essential to an agreement, such as the distribution of posts in Baghdad and the governance of disputed territories. On the contrary, the PUK wants to discuss these subjects, for fear an incomplete agreement will later cause paralysis (Kurdistan 24). At the beginning of January, a new dispute has poisoned the relations between the two partners: the security (Asayish) of Garmiyan, in PUK zone, had arrested at the end of December a son of a tribal chief close to the KDP, Akbar Haji Rostam, accused of implication in criminal activities. In retaliation, the Asayish of Erbil, dependent on the KDP, arrested on the evening of the 2nd a PUK official, Peshraw Waisi, linking his release to that of Rostam... On the 9th, according to the Rûdaw channel, 5 members of the PUK were detained by the KDP and negotiations were blocked until their release...
On the 14th, after a new meeting between the outgoing Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and his appointed successor Masrour Barzani (KDP), and Kosrat Rasoul (PUK), the creation of a Joint Committee tasked with resolving disputes was announced. On the 20th was announced the coming conclusion of a 4-year agreement covering all the points concerned, as well as the relations of the KRG with foreign countries, including Iran and Turkey (Rûdaw). Then was announced for the 26th a meeting that would put the agreement in writing. But on the 29th, a political source told Kurdistan 24 that at the request of the PUK, a meeting with the KDP scheduled for the 25th had been cancelled without a date of replacement, effectively stopping the process. Despite other parallel talks involving PDK, Goran and Islamist parties Komal and Yekgirtû, a meeting gathering PDK, PUK and Goran even being announced on the 30th, the month ended with the acknowledgement of a blockage... and without government.
In Suleimaniyeh, tensions between the PUK authorities and the party Tevgeri Azadî, close to the PKK, continued, with the closure on the 8th by the security of the city of the Salim Cinema, where a film dedicated to Sakine Censiz, co-founder of the PKK (and one of the 3 Kurdish activists murdered in Paris in January 2013), was to be shown on the 11th. The next day, security in Garmiyan arrested 9 members of Tevgeri Azadî employed in a cultural structure. In a press conference held on December 12, the party accused the PUK of bowing to pressure from Turkey (Rûdaw). These tensions came one week after Iraqi President Barham Salih, belonging to the PUK, was received by his Turkish counterpart in Ankara.
On the 14th, the director of Suleimaniyeh International Airport, Tahir Abdullah, announced that air links with Turkey would restart on the 24th. Turkey had suspended all flights after the independence referendum of 25 September 2017, reopening those with Erbil, but maintained its embargo on Suleimaniyeh because of the “support to the PKK” of the authorities of the province, which were rendered responsible for the capture by this party of 4 MIT agents in August 2017. The first plane of Turkish Airlines landed in Suleimaniyeh on the 26th (AFP).
Other tensions involving Turkey, this time in Dohuk, controlled by the KDP, followed the death of four civilians in Turkish air strikes: demonstrators protesting Turkish military presence in front of a base established on the soil of Iraqi Kurdistan were targeted by shots of Turkish soldiers who killed 1 and wounded about 10. The NRT television channel, the only one present at these events, complained that it had been prevented from covering them by Security, which also closed its Dohuk office. The Director of the Metro Center for the Rights of Journalists, Diyar Muhammad, denounced this closure as illegal because it did not follow the regulatory procedure.
In the disputed territories, including Kirkuk, tensions, this time with Baghdad, have been escalating for several days. While January had begun positively with the announcement on the 3rd of a normalisation process foreseeing the gradual withdrawal of the Shiite militias Hashd al-Shaabi and the eventual return of the KDP (Rûdaw), on the evening of the 8th, the PUK, defying the ban by the Federal security forces, hoisted the Kurdish flag next to the Iraqi flag on its various offices in the city. The interim governor of the province, Rakan al-Jubouri, deployed security to disperse the Kurds celebrating the raising of their flag. The Turkmen Front issued a condemnation statement. On the 9th, the tensions were so high that the Iraqi Prime Minister made contact with President Barham Salih, who was on an official visit to Qatar, before asking the PUK to lower the Kurdish flag, the raising of which in his opinion constituted “a violation of the Constitution“. He proposed to refer the matter to the Supreme Court. Security gave the PUK an ultimatum, leaving until the 11th at noon to lower the flags. Before it expired, the PUK announced that it had complied at several of its offices, except its headquarters, until the Court's decision. The Iraqi government lodged a complaint against the PUK, and on the 16th, several Kurdish deputies did the same against the interim governor for having had the flag removed by force (Asharq Al-Awsat).
Faced with new US sanctions, Iran is experiencing economic problems that have recently caused a significant increase in its unemployment rate. According to Radio Farda, the President of the Iranian Statistical Centre, Omid Ali Parsai, said on the 9th that it had reached 27% among young people and more than 40% for university graduates. Since the beginning of the year (March 21 in Iran), the country has created 550,000 jobs, while there are 900,000 new entrants on the labour market annually. These official figures may well be lower than the reality, but whatever the truth, it is clear that in all the Kurdish provinces in the western part of the country (Rojhelat), where poverty is the deepest, the economic situation is still deteriorating. On the 10th, teachers in Kermanshah province went on strike to protest the non-payment of their salaries, with dozens of them gathering in front of the Education Branch to claim their salaries. In Marivan, despite several strikes, the last end of January, municipal employees have not been paid for months. Some, according to the Kurdistan Human Rights Association (Komeley Mafi Mirovi Kurdistan, KMMK) have been waiting for their salaries for 21 months, others “only” for 10 months (WKI)...
In this context, it is understandable that some Kurdish farmers are worried about the proposal launched on the 5th by President Hassan Rouhani, according to which Iran should rent cultivable land abroad to circumvent its water scarcity! If the country chooses this path rather than helping them solve their irrigation problems, what will become of them? (Rûdaw)
The political situation in the other parts of Kurdistan also has an impact on the movements of Kurds in Iran. Informed of hunger strikes in Turkish prisons in protest at the isolation of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, Kurdish political prisoners held in several cities in Iran staged a solidarity hunger strike on 5 January (WKI).
Besides, after a bloody 2018 (71 Kurdish cross-border carriers, or kolbars, killed, and 231 others wounded), the forces of repression continue in 2019 their shots to kill. On the 3rd, a first kolbar was shot and wounded near Baneh, the next day 2 more were killed in separate incidents near Urmia and 2 wounded near Sardasht (WKI). On the 12th, a carrier was again wounded near Sardasht, and the Human Rights group Hengaw reported border guards fired on 4 other porters on the 13th near Baneh, leaving 3 wounded, including 1 seriously. In addition, 2 other kolbars died of cold near Salmas and 1 drowned in a river near Sardasht (WKI).
On the 17th, according to Hengaw, five members of the Iranian security forces were “severely wounded” in Kermanshah province in two separate clashes with porters, the nature of which has not been specified. Four police vehicles were also destroyed. On the same day, nearly 100 km further north, another clash occurred in Baneh, after which a soldier had to be hospitalized. Kurdistan 24 states that it was unable to verify the news independently, as the Iranian media did not publish anything about these incidents. Another carrier was shot near Piranshahr, while two kolbars were injured in a fall along a cliff in Baneh. Another was injured by a border mine in Ravansar. On the 27th, another carrier was injured again in a fall, this time in the Hewraman area. The 28th, according to Hengaw, another was wounded by border guards near Maku, whereas he was not carrying any goods, and the next day another lost his leg following his injuries in Sardasht (WKI).
On the 30th, Hengaw counted 9 dead and dozens wounded among the kolbars since the beginning of the month.
At the same time, the regime's law enforcement agencies continued their “work” in Kurdistan. On 1st January, the Etelaat (intelligence service) arrested 3 activists in Mahabad, and on the 2nd, Bokan security forces, according to KMMK, launched a raid on the premises of Welat, a conservationist organisation, closing the office and taking away the furniture. Just before the raid, members of the organisation said the pro-regime municipality had been trying to shut them down. Also according to KMMC, Etelaat also arrested in Kamyaran on January 5th an environmental defender, Essa Faizi, who was held incommunicado (WKI). On the 15th, the Kurdish Institute of Washington announced the arrest by Etelaat of 2 other activists from the village of Salîn, in the Hewraman region, Aram Awdan and Burhan Awdian, also held incommunicado.
Conservationists now seem particularly targeted by the regime, since according to KMMK, dozens of members of the National Unity Party, which carries out regular actions in this field, have been arrested by Etelaat in Sanandaj and Kamyaran. On the 17th, Security also arrested 2 Kurds from Sanandaj and another from Oshnavieh (Shino) for “links with banned parties”. On the 22nd, several Saqqez teachers who had participated in the general strike last November were summoned for questioning by the Security services. They were interrogated for several hours in a row before being released. On the 19th, firefighters from Sanandaj went on strike to protest: they have not received their salaries for three months (WKI).
On the 28th, Etelaat arrested in Kermanshah the eminent Kurdish historian and researcher Naser Amenikhwa. Intelligence officers searched his home and confiscated his laptop, phone, notebooks and other belongings. In Sanandaj and Piranshahr, 2 Kurds were arrested for “helping Kurdish opposition parties”, and Sanandaj activist Mokhtar Zeraa'y was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting the Supreme Leader” (Rahbar-e enqelâb, term referring in Persian the Guide of the Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei).
At the beginning of this year 2019, several organizations or political bodies published reports denouncing the repression continuously exercised by the regime during 2018. On January 8, the European Union imposed new sanctions on the country because of four recent attempts by Iran of carrying out terrorist attacks beyond its borders. These sanctions are the first since the agreement concerning the Iranian nuclear sector. Iranian agents have indeed tried to bomb a meeting of the opposition in France and to assassinate another member of the opposition in Denmark. They also reportedly murdered 2 opposition members in the Netherlands in 2015 and 2017, according to revelations from the Dutch Foreign Minister. Iran responded by denouncing the shelter offered to the “terrorists” of the People's Mojahedin Organisation, notably Denmark, the Netherlands and France (EU Observer).
On January 16, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan of Iran (PDKI) also released a report (available on the UNPO website at https: //unpo.org/downloads/2528.pdf) detailing poor economic conditions and the human rights violations suffered from the regime by the people of Kurdistan of Iran. As one might expect, much of this paper is devoted to the situation of kolbars. The report is not limited to denouncing, however, it also contains recommendations that, if implemented, could improve the lives of Kurds in Iran. On the 24th, Amnesty International's Middle East official Philip Luther also denounced in a report a campaign of repression triggered by protests against the high cost of living, corruption and authoritarianism of the regime, which led to thousands of arrests during 2018. The report mentions the specific crackdown on Kurds and other ethnic minorities in the country (WKI).
On another level, Kurds in Iran have again suffered an earthquake, which hit Kermanshah province on January 6th after 4:40 pm, causing dozens of wounded to be hospitalized. With a magnitude of 5.9 on the Richter scale, it was felt in the neighbouring Kurdistan Region of Iraq and even in Baghdad. The inhabitants, frightened, went out into the street for fear of their homes collapsing. It must be said that this is the 5th earthquake to hit the region since and including that of November 2017, which made 630 victims and left tens of thousands of homeless. Last August, a previous earthquake left more than 200 dead or injured, preceded by another one end of July that killed 150 people, and another in April… The authorities have been severely criticized for their lack of assistance to the victims, especially the people who lost their homes, and for the poor quality of some buildings, which could result from corruption.