While the takeover by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of ISIS's last reduction in eastern Syria does not mean the end of the jihadist organisation, it should allow them to redeploy their fighters to the West and increase their pressure on the Afrin region. The SDF leaders warned: once ISIS is sufficiently weakened, their main objective will be the liberation of this region, occupied by Turkey and its local mercenaries for more than a year now. Already on the 1st of the month, the Turkish Ministry of Defence announced the death on 31 March of a soldier near the city in an artillery fire exchange with the YPG. In addition, tension in the occupied area also increased following a new wave of abuses by jihadist militias holding the area, including kidnappings for ransom and arbitrary arrests. Taking advantage of the international community's silence during and since the invasion, militias at the Turkish orders have arrested hundreds of people, including leaders of the opposition to the authorities of the North Syrian Federation, such as Hussein Ibish, leader of the PDK-S (Democratic Party of Kurdistan – Syria) and leader of the Kurdish National Council of Syria (ENKS, Encûmena Niştimanî ya Kurdî li Sûriyê), arrested on 31 March...
Kurdish clandestine groups continued their operations against the occupiers. In particular, the “Afrîn Liberation Forces” (ALF) claimed an anti-tank missile fire on 1st April near Azaz against a minibus carrying fighters of the al-Jabha al-Shamiyya faction of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), resulting in one death and two injuries (AMN). In another operation, a position of the same group was targeted by another guided missile, with 4 dead and 2 wounded...
However, the SDF left the door open for discussion if Turkey leaves Afrîn, as their commander-in-chief, Mazlum Kobanê, said on 8 August in a speech celebrating ISIS defeat. The other condition is the end of threats against the Syrian North-East (Kurdistan 24, Ahval). The alternative is “the liberation of Afrîn”, whose “preparation” Kobanê announced by the SDF (Rûdaw).
The situation in Afrîn seems to have convinced the majority of the inhabitants of the north-eastern Syrian Arab Republic that the same fate awaits them if Turkey takes control of their territories, even though Turkish propaganda once again published on 15 January so-called requests from “Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen tribes” in Syria for Turkish intervention to “drive out terrorists” (Daily Sabah). Meanwhile, since the 7th, the Turkish military has begun to train their Syrian auxiliaries, particularly for airborne operations using helicopters, but also for urban combat... (AMN) According to Al-Monitor, the United States is still trying to persuade its SDF allies to agree to a deployment of the Turkish army on its side of the border. Just as Turkey does not seem ready to leave Afrîn, the SDF does not seem ready to let the Turkish army in...
On the evening of the 12th, the Turkish army attacked YPG positions near Tell Rifaat, in northern Aleppo province, with heavy artillery, provoking a response. This attack came just 48 hours after the withdrawal of the Russian Military Police from the area (AMN). On the 18th, thousands of displaced Afrin residents demonstrated outside the Russian “Reconciliation Centre” north of Aleppo to protest Russian complicity in the Afrin invasion, and following rumours of an identical Russian-Turkish “deal” for the Tell Rifaat region... YPG spokesman Nuri Mahmud told Kurdistan 24 that Russia had lost all influence in the region (WKI)... and certainly any SDF confidence. Abroad, several dozen Kurds living in Germany went on hunger strike outside the Turkish consulate in Cologne on the 23rd to protest against the continued occupation of Afrîn (Kurdistan 24).
On the 19th, members of an SDF delegation received by the French President stated that Emmanuel Macron had pledged to maintain French forces alongside the SDF and to financially support reconstruction and public services in the Federation. On 1st of April, the Head of French diplomacy, Jean-Yves Le Drian, announced €1 million in humanitarian aid for the camps for displaced people, including Al-Hol, where thousands of foreign women and children who are members of ISIS are packed (L'Orient-Le Jour). Turkey immediately condemned this meeting with “terrorists”.
On 27 July, the Federation authorities denounced in a statement Turkey's construction of a wall south of Afrîn, isolating the occupied area from the rest of Syria, and called on the United Nations to take a stand against this creeping annexation in violation of international law: “The Turkish State continues to legitimize invasions and territorial annexations, repeating the same scenarios as in Cyprus and Iskanderun” (RojInfo).
On 28 September, Reuters reported anti-SDF demonstrations in several cities with a predominantly Arab population in Deir Ezzor province. The protests concerned among other things the use of local oil revenues by Federation authorities and the conscription they impose in these areas... Local Federation officials reported that they had begun discussions with residents.
On the 30th, a violent artillery battle broke out near Azaz when YPG attacked a Turkish base west of this town in northern Aleppo province. The Turkish Ministry of Defence confirmed the death of at least one soldier, as well as 3 wounded in an attack on a Turkish military convoy. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the gunfire continued for several hours before gradually subsiding (Al-Masdar News - AMN).
Despite its declared hostility and continued threats against the Syrian Northern Federation, Turkey will not launch an attack as long as US military personnel are present. On April 3, the State Department's published transcript of the meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu contained unusually strong language from Pompeo that could be interpreted as a threat of a US military response in the event of a Turkish attack on the Syrian North: according to the transcript, Pompeo warned Çavuşoğlu of the “potentially devastating consequences of a unilateral Turkish military action”in northeastern Syria... (Kurdistan 24) This is because the relationship to the SDF is not the only element generating Turkish-American tensions. Turkey's persistence in its will to acquire the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system despite the risks that the Americans see in it for the secrets of their F-35 fighters, which Turkey also wants to acquire, is an equally, if not more serious, factor of tension. The US Congress could even ban the sale of these fighter planes to Turkey... (Russia immediately declared itself ready to sell its own fighter to Turkey)
In addition, at the end of the month, on the 25th, the Trump administration's announcement of the end of exemptions from sanctions for foreign companies buying Iranian oil further increased tensions: with an oil pipeline crossing the border, Turkey is an important customer of Iran (The Washington Post). But all the avenues for dialogue are not broken yet, since at the same time, the two partners were continuing discussions to find ways to conduct joint patrols in a “security zone” that seems increasingly impossible to set up... More than ever, the United States seems to be torn between the need to protect its soldiers left behind and its links with its Turkish ally. Given the very small number of troops they would leave in north-eastern Syria (about 200), those would be extremely dependent on the SDF for their security. It is therefore difficult to see how it would be possible to ask SDF for too many concessions towards Turkey...
In view of these uncertainties, the Syrian Northern Federation has at the same time continued its negotiations with Damascus and its Russian protector to try to get the regime to accept some degree of autonomy, but the discussions seem to have come to a standstill. On the 12th, a Kurdish official, Badran Jia Kurd, declared that the Russians were responsible for this impasse because they had not launched the promised diplomatic initiative… Paradoxically, on 27 July, after the conclusion of the 12th round of negotiations in Nursultan (the new name of Astana, capital of Kazakhstan), to which Federation representatives had still not been invited, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabov assured Kurdistan 24 that the Federation had “not been marginalized”, and that as long as Syria's unity was ensured, solutions “safeguarding the interests of the Kurds” remained possible. However, the discussions ended without any significant progress towards the formation of a “Constitutional Committee” supposed to suggest institutional solutions for the future Syria...
Concerning ISIS, despite the announcement on 23 March of the fall of Baghuz, the last village held by the jihadists, operations continued in eastern Syria: the SDF continue to hunt down jihadist fighters while the Coalition continues its strikes in coordination with them. On 2 February, Mustefa Bali, the SDF spokesman, said that jihadist groups were “hiding in caves overlooking Baghuz” (Le Figaro). Dormant jihadist cells also continue to carry out attacks in the theoretically recovered areas. Thus seven SDF fighters were killed on 26 March in Manbij, and on 3 April, according to the SOHR, two jihadists managed to activate their explosive belts in an SDF command centre. Another suicide attack killed two SDF fighters in Baghuz (WKI), and on the 5th, jihadists detained in Derîk prison attacked the guards, before a negotiation allowed to stop the movement without human losses (WKI). On the 6th, Manbij Security Police arrested a man suspected of links with ISIS and seized a weapons cache (Kurdistan 24). But the losses were greatest on the 9th, when according to the SOHR a double bomb attack on a busy street in Raqqa killed 13 people, including nine civilians, near a SDF military post. Earlier the same day, a car bomb had targeted a patrol in Chaddadeh, but the attack was foiled and the suicide bomber was the only killed (AFP). During the week of the 15th, a wave of attacks hit Manbij, Tabqa and Raqqa. On the 21st in Manbij, the deminers were able to detonate the bomb without any casualties. In contrast, in Raqqa, three civilians were killed and two others wounded. In Tabqa, a child was injured. However, the deadliest jihadist attack since the fall of Baghuz targeted the Syrian Army north of Palmyra on the 20th, killing at least 35 people, including four officers (Deutsche Welle, DW).
The issue of the fate of the jihadists prisoners and their families, thousands of whom are in SDF custody in several camps, including Al-Hol, remains unresolved. On 5 April, the proposal of the authorities of the Northern Syrian Federation to set up an international tribunal to try the crimes committed by ISIS received strong support: that of the German Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer, who stated in Die Zeit that he preferred this solution to repatriating jihadists to be tried in Germany. However, he recalled that Germany remains opposed to the death penalty, and that it should not be imposed if for example jihadists are tried in Iraq (Kurdistan 24). On the 11th, Iraq did indeed propose to try foreign jihadists, but in return demandezd payment of the costs incurred, i.e. $2 billion, according to an administrative source wishing to remain anonymous. Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the lack of guarantees for fair trials and the “risk of torture”. In 2018, more than 600 foreigners were sentenced in Iraq, many of them to life imprisonment or the death penalty...
In addition, also on 11 November, the authorities of the Northern Syrian Federation announced that they had reached an agreement with Baghdad, a delegation from which had visited its camps, to repatriate some 31,000 Iraqi nationals held there, mainly women and children from the predominantly Sunni provinces of Nineveh and Salahaddine. Men suspected of being combatants would be tried. However, many people without identity documents, including children born under the administration of the “Caliphate”, do not even have an administrative existence.
In France, the lawyers of two women currently imprisoned with their children in Roj camp in Syrian Kurdistan filed an urgent appeal with the Paris Administrative Court to force the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to repatriate them, on the grounds of the deadly risks faced by children. A first appeal was rejected by the Administrative Court last December and then by the European Court of Human Rights. The new appeal is based on the “constitutional requirement to protect the interests of the child”, enshrined in a recent decision of the French Constitutional Council. In response to a similar request, a Brussels judge had forced Belgium at the end of December to repatriate six Belgian children of jihadists held with their mothers in a Kurdish camp, a decision annulled on appeal at the end of February... At first instance, the administrative court declared itself incompetent, considering that the decision to repatriate was inseparable from France's diplomacy. On 19 August 2018, on the basis of a provision that entered into force on 1st August 2018, the mothers' lawyers asked the Council of State (Conseil d’État) to refer the matter to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in an advisory capacity. The Council of State rejected their request on the 23rd, also considering that it did not have jurisdiction over a decision taken by French diplomacy. The lawyers considered that this decision was “far from embodying the mission of the Council of State to act as the guardian of civil liberties”, adding: “There is no precedent in the history of our country of such a situation of neglect by the French State of minor children at a very young age”. The lawyer of another woman imprisoned in Syria has indicated to AFP his intention to refer the matter to the ECHR herself.
On a completely different level, this month the North of Syria suffered from floods, as did the whole Middle East, which was subjected from Iran to the Mediterranean to weeks of incessant rain. In Qamishli, earlier this month, residents asked the authorities for help, and on the 22nd, a man was found dead in the water in the street, presumably electrocuted.
On 19 April, French President Emmanuel Macron received in the Elysée palace a delegation from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with which French soldiers are working on the ground, and the United States-led International Coalition aircrafts from the air, to fight against the Jihadist ISIS organization. After the meeting, the French presidency issued a communiqué reaffirming France's “active support” for the SDF “in the fight against ISIS”.
According to the members of the delegation, Emmanuel Macron made a commitment during this meeting to maintain French forces alongside the SDF. While the latter are in uncertainty about the maintenance of an American military presence, they are threatened from the South by the Damascus regime, but especially from the North by Turkey, whose president considers them terrorists. Faced with this unstable situation, while Turkey has already seized the Afrin region with the tacit consent of Russia and in the indifference of the West – including Washington – the SDF has gone so far as to seek Russian mediation in their discussions with Damascus, without much success till now. The maintenance of a French military contingent, even a small one and for an unspecified duration, is therefore a positive point for the Federation of Northern Syria.
On 1st April, the French Foreign Minister had already announced €1 million in aid for the IDP camps run by the Autonomous Administration, a political offshoot of the SDF in north-eastern Syria. On 19 January, the French President also promised financial support to the Autonomous Administration to support reconstruction and public services, without it being clear whether these are new funds.
Turkey immediately condemned this meeting with “terrorists”. The spokesman for the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hami Aksoy, said in particular: “We condemn the reception by the French President of a delegation of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces”, criticising an interview “aimed at giving artificial legitimacy to an extension of terrorist groups”.
The municipal elections on 31 March were held under particularly undemocratic conditions, with hundreds of members of the HDP, the “pro-Kurdish” party, imprisoned, including some 60 arrested on the eve of the elections, after a campaign during which the HDP was denied access to the media. It should be noted that once again, the HDP had presented the most “gender equal” lists with 50% women, against 33% for the CHP and... 5.2% for the AKP!
The results were mixed. The President Erdoğan’s AKP, despite having scored first, suffered its most serious setback since coming to power, as it lost the major cities of the West, Ankara, Izmir and especially Istanbul, the former city of the President. These cities, where the HDP did not present candidates and called to support opposition, went to the CHP (Kemalist opposition). On the other hand, the AKP gained ground in the East, where the HDP won only 8 provinces, compared to 11 in 2014. The HDP was certainly disappointed by its results in the Kurdish provinces, but it also got back most of the municipalities from which it had been deprived by the 2016 dismissal decrees. However, it conceded to the AKP several cities, as Ağrı, which he had managed for years, Şırnak, and Bitlis... At Muş, where the AKP candidate won by 538 votes, the HDP candidate Sirri Sakik reported fraud leading to the cancellation of 2,500 ballots, and filed a complaint with the High Electoral Committee (YSK). At Ağrı, HDP candidate Dilan Dirayet Taşdemir denounced the pressure and threats against her constituents and the YSK's rejection of the most popular HDP candidates... After the HDP protests, the authorities banned all demonstrations for 15 days in Hakkari and Muş, a city which was literally placed under occupation by Special Forces (Ahval).
In Diyarbakir, where the HDP won by a large margin, its co-president, Pervin Buldan, said in front of thousands of residents celebrating the victory: “The administrators' policy has collapsed, it's over!” Another success of the HDP in the East is the wresting of Kars from the MHP. According to unofficial results quickly announced by the YSK, the HDP won 70 municipalities, including three metropolitan areas with a population of more than one million. HDP female candidates played an important role in its victories: in Mardin, the 5 cities were won by women (Rûdaw).
For the AKP, the hardest failure is the loss of Istanbul, especially since the CHP candidate, Ekrem Imamoğlu, won, after a partial recount, only with 13,000 votes in advance... The ruling party filed an appeal with the YSK to obtain a new election, then requested a recount of the ballots, as well as in Kars and Gevas (Van), where the HDP had won (WKI).
Then the AKP found other ways to prevent the new HDP mayors from taking office. On the 5th, the Diyarbakir prosecutor launched an investigation for links with the PKK against the 2 election winners, Adnan Selcuk Mizrakli and Hulya Alokmen. Together with Ağrı HDP MP Berdan Öztürk, they are accused of having participated in a meeting the day before where pro-PKK songs were sung (Rûdaw). Then on the 10th, the YSK decided to deprive 8 victorious HDP candidates of their electoral mandate on the pretext that they had been dismissed by decree in 2016, a particularly scandalous decision since YSK itself had validated their candidature at the beginning of the campaign! Even more shockingly, the Committee pronounced the award of the mandate to the candidates who came second, generally (as if by chance) to the AKP candidates... Among the winners thus excluded, we find the HDP candidate from the district of Bağlar in Diyarbakir, arrived first with more than 70% of the votes (AFP), but also those from Siirt, from the districts of Tusba, Edremit, and Caldiran (Van), Tekman (Erzurum), and Dağpınar (Kars)... Accusing the YSK of having become a mere tool under the orders of the AKP, the HDP described this unprecedented decision as a “violation of the constitution”, and a “coup d'État by the AKP against the will of the people”. The Council of Europe also expressed its emotion, as its Secretary General, Thorbjørn Jagland, wrote on 15 April to YSK President Sadi Güven denouncing a decision that goes “against the general principles of democracy” (https://rm.coe.int/image2019-04-16-171615-letter-addressed-to-mr-sadi-guven-president-of-/168093fe38).
On the 10th, none of the 70 newly elected HDPs had yet received their election certificate. By the 11th, more than half of them were still waiting for it (Reuters). In Mardîn, where Ahmet Türk, a HDP veteran, had won, the AKP asked for the position for its candidate, who came second, because Türk had been dismissed by decree in 2016. After the rejection of this request, the provincial section of the AKP reiterated its request on the 12th, arguing that Türk was “sick, and too old to perform his duties”! (Ahval). Türk and his co-mayor Figen Altındağ were finally certified elected on the 15th.
Also on the 10th, police arrested at Diyarbakir airport a member of the HDP Executive Committee, Hülya Ertas, who was leaving for Ankara, and eight people at Viranşehir (Urfa), including two of the new Municipal Councillors (WKI).
The first HDP official elected in a metropolitan city to receive the election certificate was a woman, Bedia Ozgokce Ertan, for Van, on the 10th... It was only on the 17th, after two weeks of uncertainty, that the new HDP mayor of Diyarbakir, Adnan Selcuk Mizrakli, received his (like the CHP winner of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu). On the 17th, HDP MP Remziye Tosun was injured at Bağlar (Diyarbakir) during a demonstration attended by about 100 people protesting against the YSK's refusal to issue warrants. After falling, she had to be hospitalized with a back fracture (AFP). Some participants were also attacked with batons, and another deputy from the city, Musa Farisogullari, was also wounded and transferred to hospital (Kurdistan 24).
Even when the transfer to the HDP finally took place, the pro-AKP “trustees” in place made it drag on as long as possible to take with them furniture and computers, sometimes even selling buildings before letting the newly elected officials take office; Necati Pirinççioğlu, co-mayor of Kayapınar (Diyarbakir), reported that most of the district's municipal buildings had been seized, and the town halls of Cizre and Bismil district (Diyarbakir) were transferred to the district governorate and the police respectively! Undeterred, Bismil's co-mayor, Orhan Ayaz, said: “They sold our town hall [...], we will set up a tent”... Even the rest of the opposition, although generally unmotivated to defend the HDP, finally reacted: on the 18th, the CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called on the YSK to cancel its “illegal” refusal to issue electoral certificates (Ahval).
On the 19th and 20th in Mardin and Kocaeli, police beat up elderly women, mothers of Kurdish prisoners, who were protesting in the street, arresting one. The video of these unnecessary brutalities has been widely seen all over the country, prompting CHP MP Sezgin Tanrikulu, himself a lawyer and a Kurd, to criticize the Minister of Interior (Kurdistan 24). On the 21st, it was the turn of the CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroğlu, to be violently attacked by the crowd and beaten while travelling to Çubuk (North of Ankara) to attend the funeral of a soldier killed fighting the PKK. The next day, nine people were arrested. The following week, the Turkish President, mentioning the case, avoided any wish of fast recovery...
On the 24th, Ayşe Celik, the Diyarbakir teacher who had called the Beyaz Show live in 2016 to denounce the deaths of children during military operations in Kurdish cities across the country, was jailed again. Sentenced to 15 months' imprisonment in December 2017 for “terrorist propaganda”, she had been imprisoned with her 6-month-old baby, the footage of her arrival in prison with her child in her arms becoming viral over the country. Having first obtained an adjournment of sentence because of the baby's age, she was again incarcerated and this time entrusted the child to her grandmother. In 2018, according to the Turkish Association for the Defence of Human Rights İHD, 668 infants and children under 3 years of age were imprisoned with their mothers, as well as 2,491 children aged 12 to 17. On the same charge, the German female journalist of Kurdish origin Mesale Tolu had spent 5 months in a cell with her 2-year-old child in 2017 (Deutsche Welle).
The hunger strike movement initiated on 7 November 2018 by Leyla Güven to demand an end to Abdullah Öcalan's isolation and anti-Kurdish repression in the country continued. On the 29th, according to the co-president of the HDP parliamentary group, Fatma Kurtulan, about 3,000 people imprisoned in 92 prisons throughout Turkey were fasting, and there was also support abroad: fasters in Strasbourg, Toronto (Canada), Wales, Germany, Switzerland “and other European cities” (L'Orient-Le Jour, AFP). On April 2, Margaret Owen, an 86-year-old British lawyer who had come as observer to many trials of Kurdish leaders, entered the fast. On the same day, a letter from Leyla Güven was read out to the European Parliament in a session of the Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality. Also present were Izmir HDP MP Serpil Kemalbay and former Siirt HDP Deputy Besime Konca (RojInfo). On the same day, political prisoner Siraç Yüksek committed suicide in his cell, the 7th since the beginning of the movement, despite recent calls from the HDP to stop the immolations (ANHA, WKI).
On the 13th, a rally was held in Paris on the Parvis des Droits de l'Homme in support of Leyla Güven and all Kurdish hunger strikers, and on the 17th, L'Humanité published an article of solidarity signed by several personalities, entitled “No Kurd must die on our soil”, concluding with these words: “Does the human-rights-defending France need the death of one of the 14 Kurdish activists, who have been hunger striking in Strasbourg for nearly 120 days, to wake up?”. In London, Kurdish activists began an occupation of Amnesty International's premises on the 24th to demand greater support from this NGO to the hunger strikers in Turkey and their demands. Amnesty said it opposes the isolation of prisoners, while stating that it issued statements only after independent verification of the information and the agreement of the individuals concerned. Finally, Amnesty called on the police to evacuate the premises occupied on the 26th, justifying its decision by its inability to ensure the safety of its staff on the spot. In France, the Strasbourg Criminal Court on the 4th sentenced seventeen people to prison terms of one month to one year for the damage committed on 25 February at the Council of Europe, for which they will also have to jointly compensate. The “Agora”, the building housing the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), had been targeted (AFP).
On the 22nd, Ankara police fired rubber bullets at a delegation of human rights organisations which had come to the Ministry of Interior to submit a report on the situation of fasters (WKI). On the 24th, 300 Kurds gathered in front of the European Parliament to demand an increased pressure on Turkey (La Libre Belgique).
In an act of gratuitous violence, on the 14th, Diyarbakir police shot and killed a 20-year-old Kurdish man, Recep Hantas, with three bullets at Sümer Park, announcing to his brother that he had been “killed by mistake”. The governor justified the action: Hantas did not stop at the request of the police... An investigation was opened (Bianet).
Abroad, Turkish-American tension continues to increase. On the 1st, the Pentagon announced that it would suspend the delivery of the F-35 fighters to Turkey until Turkey renounced the purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system. Turkey should acquire 100.... At the same time, US State Department called on Turkey to “respect the results” of municipal elections (Ankara denounced interference), while the Times expressed concern that the Turkish President, shaken in the polls, is trying to regain his popularity by attacking “the Kurdish allies of the United States in Syria”. The Congressional Human Rights Commission also expressed its birthday wishes on 10 October to Selahattin Demirtaş, calling him a “prisoner of conscience” – a clear message to Ankara... (Kurdistan 24) In addition, American justice continues to pay attention to the former president of the “American-Turkish Council” (ATC), Kamil Ekim Alptekin (now in Istanbul), charged as an “illegal agent of Turkey” with “conspiracy” and “FBI false testimony” on 4 occasions. Alptekin is reported to have worked with former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn on a plan to transfer Fethullah Gülen to Turkey. In addition, the Turkish bank Halkbank, whose former high executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla was recently sentenced to 32 months' imprisonment for violating sanctions against Iran, continues to pay lobbyists to influence the federal investigation concerning it, officially only “media counselling”; Fethullah Gülen also engages US lobbyists (Al-Monitor, Lobbying updates).
Another factor of tension is the successive arrests of United States consular employees. On 27 March, it was reported that after Metin Topuz, the translator of the American Consulate in Istanbul arrested in October 2017 and charged last month with “attempting to overthrow the government”, a new employee of the Consulate, security officer Nazmi Mete Canturk, was charged on 8 March with “links with a terrorist organisation” and his wife and daughter accused of links with Gülen. In February 2017, an employee of Adana's consulate, Hamza Ulucay, had already been arrested for links with the PKK and Gülen, and released in January 2018 after serving his sentence... Congress recently introduced a bill that would allow sanctions against Turkish officials who detain US citizens or consular staff... (Reuters)
Finally, in Japan, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs reportedly tried to put pressure on the University of Tokyo to prevent the organisation of Kurdish language courses. However, they started on the 1st with 40 students, under the direction of Vakkak Çolak, author of the first Kurdish-Japanese dictionary and the first Kurdish grammar in Japanese. About 2,000 Kurds reside in Japan (Rûdaw).
Turkey has continued its military operations against the PKK, particularly in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the end of March, the Turkish General Staff had already reported that one of the PKK leaders, Riza Altun, had been seriously wounded in an air strike. But the Turkish strikes are causing increasing public anger because of the civilian casualties they have caused, a dozen in the past two years and at least six last month. On 6 April, mortar fire hit a village near Zakho without casualties. The day before, air strikes had targeted PKK positions near Qandil. On the 9th, Rûdaw reported the comments of the village chief of Kolka village (Mergasur district), according to which the villagers had been “terrorized” for days by Turkish strikes launched from the nearby military base. The chief of a nearby village testified about the presence of Turkish military helicopters. It seems that a PKK attack pushed the Turkish military to strengthen their base's defences and launch these operations. On the 8th, the Turkish Ministry of Defence announced strikes on Khwakurk and Avasin. On the 9th, a new series of Turkish shots towards three Christian villages in the district of Amêdî (Dohuk), Meruk, Ribatka and Belmand, caused the inhabitants to flee (Kurdistan 24). On the 13th, after air strikes killed at least 6 civilians, hundreds of demonstrators entered the Shiladze Turkish base in Dohuk province, burning down the buildings and several vehicles. One of the demonstrators was killed. On the morning of the 26th, Turkish air force conducted a one-hour strike in the northeast of Dohuk, according to local residents for the first time in this area. There were no civilian casualties (Rûdaw). On the 29th, further air strikes targeted two villages in Dohuk province for several hours, again frightening residents (Kurdistan 24).
On the Turkish side, according to the Anatolia Agency, four soldiers were killed on the evening of the 19th in clashes with the PKK in Çukurca (Hakkari). The next day, two other soldiers were wounded in the same province. Another operation took place on the 25th in Diyarbakir province, this time by police, who announced having eliminated three Kurdish fighters. The last week of the month was marked by violent fighting on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi border, with the PKK claiming the death of six Turkish soldiers and the Turkish army announcing it had “neutralized” 14 Kurdish fighters. In particular, the PKK announced that on the 28th it had carried out a deadly attack on a Turkish base located in Iraqi Kurdistan near the Iranian and Turkish borders, in Lelikan, near Sidakan.
As in the Middle East as a whole, from Syria to Iran, April was marked by torrential rains in Iraq and its Kurdistan Region, causing heavy flooding. Earlier this month, 60 families had to leave their homes in Kirkuk province, Zab overflowed into Hawija, and schools were closed in Erbil, Suleimaniyeh and Halabja... (Kurdistan 24). In Salahaddin province, the United Nations counted 1,173 displaced families on 3 April. In Suleimaniyeh, landslides damaged roads and bridges, and five of Mosul's bridges were closed. In Dokan, for the first time since 1988, the lake level reached the safety spillway of the dam... (Rûdaw) The floods also caused the loss of large quantities of cereals, wheat or barley, stored in silos. The situation was particularly critical in the south, in the provinces of Basra, Diwaniya and Wasit (Kurdistan 24). However, as recalled in a United Nations report published on 4 February, these floods followed a period of severe drought that had affected 45 different regions in the central governorates of the country, resulting by February in 1,727 families being displaced. This drought is expected to resume in the summer... (ISHM)
In an important political decision, the Iraqi Electoral Commission proposed on 11 November a date for the next provincial elections, which, originally scheduled for 22 December, had been delayed indefinitely: 16 November 2019. The electronic machines used in May 2018, although source of many disputes, would be used again. While this decision does not concern the four provinces of the Kurdistan Region (Erbil, Suleimaniyeh, Dohuk, and the new province of Halabja), which has its own electoral commission, it does however concern the province of Kirkuk, disputed between Baghdad and Erbil...
With regard to Baghdad-Erbil relations, Rûdaw announced on the 1st of the month that, for the first time, Baghdad would proceed as agreed to the payment of Peshmerga salaries to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as part of the federal budget (ISHM). After receiving a delegation from the Peshmerga KRG Ministry in Baghdad, Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi, also acting Minister of Defence, indicated that he had agreed to release 4 months' salary (WKI). Another sign of improved relations was the refusal of both the Prime Ministers of the KRG and the Federal Government to sign the subpoenas presented to them by the Supreme Court on the legal dispute over hydrocarbon exploitation, which forced the Court to delay its session (Iraq Oil Report).
On the other hand, with regard to Peshmerga salaries, the bad news came the day after from the United States: the Pentagon's draft budget, which starts next October, provides for a reduction by more than half in the funding of Kurdish fighters, with a fall from USD 290 million to USD 126 million. While the Department of Defence justified this reduction by the increase in Baghdad's contribution, it is nevertheless a very bad signal sent by the United States to its Kurdish ally in Iraq... As reminded by the Prime Minister of the KRG, the fight against ISIS is far from over. While the contribution of the Peshmerga is essential, and projects to modernize and unify this force under the command of the KRG had been driven in part by the United States, this decision by the Pentagon could have a very negative impact on the possibilities and morale of the combatants...
In Baghdad, the completion of the federal government, which still lacks the portfolios of the Ministers of Interior and Defence, still seems far away: the announcement on 10 October that a Sunni party would withdraw from one of the two main coalitions dominating the parliament, Binah, could make the negotiations even more difficult...
After the discovery on 12 December in the southern province of Muthanna of a mass grave with more than 300 bodies, most of them Kurdish women and children victims of the Anfal, the KRG Prime Minister called on the Iraqi government to “assume its moral duty” by granting compensation to the victims of this genocidal operation carried out 31 years ago by the Saddam Hussein regime, which had claimed some 182,000 victims. The memory of this tragedy is recalled every year on April 14 (Rûdaw). On that occasion, President Barham Salih, himself a Kurd, said after visiting the country that “Iraqis must never forget the crimes committed by Saddam Hussein or allow his party to return to power”.
Regarding ISIS's more recent genocide attempt against the Yezidi community in 2014, Iraqi Minister of IDPs and Migration, Nofal Musa, announced at a press conference on 18 December the launch of the “compensation” programme under which each member of this community would receive two million dinars (about €1,500). The necessary law was passed in Parliament after discussions between Baghdad and Erbil. The announcement was made in the presence of 100 Yezidi women who came with their families to receive their compensation (Kurdistan 24).
On 28 April, a meeting was held in Erbil between senior officials of the KRG and the Federal government, such as the Governor of the Iraqi Central Bank, and many ministers. After this meeting, the most important since Adil Abdul-Mahdi's appointment as Iraqi Prime Minister, KRG Planning Minister Ali Sindi and Federal Trade Minister Mohammed Hashim held a joint press conference during which they commanded the progress achieved. The Kurdish Minister indicated that the meeting was aimed at improving economic cooperation between the two partners and that there had also been talk of the Federal government opening certain offices in the Kurdistan Region to strengthen relations. A delegation from the KRG Ministry of Trade will travel to Baghdad early May to discuss imports (Kurdistan 24).
On the 29th, a member of the Iraqi Parliament called on the Prime Minister to pay “urgently” the amounts due to Kurdish farmers in exchange for grain sold to the central government. Kurdish farmers, some of whom have been waiting since 2014, recently held a sit-in in front of the Iraqi President's office in Baghdad to claim their due... (Kurdistan 24)
In Kurdistan, discussions to try to form the regional government continued. The KDP and Goran signed an agreement on February 18 to form a government, but given the impossibility of governing the region without the PUK, which controls Suleimaniyeh province, KDP and PUK are also continuing negotiations. Goran, for its part, makes its participation dependent on the vote of a draft law to reform the salaries of civil servants in order to limit corruption, for example by cleaning the lists of beneficiaries and avoiding double perceptions. For their part, PUK and KDK still disagree on the distribution between them of several government positions...
On April 3, just hours after KDP President Masoud Barzani warned that “time was almost up”, PUK spokesman Latif Sheikh Omar announced that after “intense” discussions and a conversation between the two leaders, Masoud Barzani and Kosrat Rasul, an agreement had finally been reached with the KDP on the positions assigned to the PUK and was to be signed within days (Rudaw). With Masrur Barzani as the next Prime Minister, the post of Deputy Prime Minister would be held by the PUK, as well as 5 other ministerial portfolios, 3 Deputy Ministers and 3 seats on the Kurdistan Security Council (ISHM). Following this progress, the PUK deputies, who since their swearing in on 6 November had not participated in any parliamentary session, returned the same day to participate in the session discussing the amendment of the law on the Regional Presidency (Rûdaw). Later, it was indicated that the PUK should also obtain the new position of Regional Vice-President, plus those of Speaker of Parliament, Planning and Peshmergas portfolios, and Deputy Ministers of Natural Resources and Interior.
The parliamentary session on the 10th was to be devoted to the 3rd reading of the draft law amending the Presidency, which would make it possible for the next 4 years to have the President elected by Parliament rather than by universal suffrage. Once the law passed article by article in its 3rd reading, the Parliament would have the power to elect the new President of the Region until the drafting of a new Constitution definitively determines its mode of appointment (Kurdistan 24). But the session was delayed by three days. Officially, the Law Commission asked for “clearer wording”, but according to a deputy who wanted to remain anonymous, this delay was due to disagreements between Goran and the PUK: the PUK had asked for the creation of a position of “Second Vice-President in charge of Military Affairs” to be assigned to it; Goran opposed this proposal.
On the 15th, things had not progressed. According to Rûdaw, the contradiction between the KDP-PUK agreement and the PDK-Goran agreement still blocked any progress. Goran, PUK's rival in Suleimaniyeh province, who has no military force, has always campaigned for the abolition of party control over Peshmerga. However, the movement eventually accepted the appointment of a PUK member as the Second Vice-President of the Region in charge of Military Affairs, but requested in exchange an additional ministerial position, either Interior or Peshmerga. To further complicate the situation, the PUK Peshmerga commander then declared that he would not obey the orders of a Goran security official...
Finally, on the 23rd, Goran indicated his acceptance without “ministerial compensation”. According to Rûdaw, the outgoing Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, who is also the KDP candidate for the Regional Presidency, met with Goran and the PUK to remind them of their responsibilities towards the voters and ask them to speed up the discussions. However, at the end of the month, voters were still waiting for the announcement of the formation of the new KRG, while Parliament had still not passed the new law on the presidency...
As the agreement that would allow Kurdish forces to return to certain parts of the disputed territories has not yet been finalised, ISIS's jihadist militants were able to take advantage of the security vacuum and the lack of coordination between Kurdish Peshmerga and federal forces to continue their attacks. Already on 30 March, they had attacked the Kurdish village of Shaykh Mahmud in Daquq district (Kirkuk), killing one resident and wounding another, and on the same day ambushed Iraqi security forces inspecting the village of Tell Zahab, in Salahaddin province, killing two of its members, including a police officer. On the 2nd, Iraqi Air Force conducted air strikes against ISIS on Hamrin Mountains (Diyala), claiming to have killed four jihadists (ISHM). On the 8th, the Anti-ISIS Coalition, responding to an ambush that had killed five federal police in Daquq, also carried out strikes. On the 11th, the Asaysh (Kurdish Security) of Kalar announced that they had arrested a man responsible for helping jihadists fleeing Kirkuk for Diyala. On the same day, the Iraqi Special Forces announced the launch of a “major military operation” on the Hamrin Mountains supported by the Coalition to “clean up” the area of jihadists. After three days of air strikes, they announced on the 14th that they had killed an ISIS commander and four fighters in the North-East of Baquba, the provincial capital (Asharq Al-Awsat). On the same day, ISIS published a video on the Internet showing the execution of several militiamen and mukhtars (village chiefs) accused of passing information to Iraqi soldiers... (Rûdaw)
On the 22nd, it was on the Syrian border, in the West of Nineveh province, that the village of Madfa was attacked, its inhabitants having to flee. On the 25th, Iraqi forces announced they had eliminated six fighters Southwest of Daquq, in the Wadi al-Chai valley, and destroyed several underground shelters and weapons caches with the support of Iraqi and Coalition airstrikes. The next day, the Ministry of the Interior announced on Al-Sumaria News that it had dismantled in Mosul a vast network manufacturing and distributing fake papers to jihadists seeking to change their identity. On the same day, 17 alleged jihadists were arrested in Bashiqa and an individual who was about to carry out a suicide attack was shot dead by the Hashd al-Shaabi in Mosul (Kurdistan 24). On the 27th, a group of Kurdish civilians from Makhmur who had left early in the morning in search of truffles was ambushed, and one of them was kidnapped. Following this case, the Iraqi authorities banned the harvesting of mushrooms in unsecured areas (Rûdaw).
In the disputed territories, seven Turkmen parties in Kirkuk managed, after months of discussions, to agree on two possible candidates for the post of Governor of the province, which they intend to submit to the Federal Parliament, in an attempt to “bypass” the Kurdish-dominated Provincial Council (KDP and PUK have initiated discussions to propose a common Kurdish candidate). The Arabs have no objection to a Turkmen governor, but want him to be approved by the entire Council rather than appointed by Baghdad. The Turkmen have nine seats out of 44 in the Provincial Council, the Kurds 26, including 15 for the KDP, the best represented party. Masoud Barzani said he could accept that the post of Governor should go to a member of the PUK, provided that the candidate had no role in the loss of the city in October 2017... (Rûdaw)
In addition, the Kurds continue to protest against the Arabisation attempts they are suffering in Kirkuk province. On the 19th, demonstrators accused interim governor Rakan al-Jaburi of supporting Arabs who wanted to seize their land gathered with banners in the Sargaran district (on the Mosul road between Kirkuk and Makhmur), and the next day in Bajwan.
Finally, on the 30th, the Barzani Charity Foundation (BCF) announced the suspension of its humanitarian activities in the city of Sinjar following the obstruction of groups affiliated with the PKK. In particular, the BCF accuses the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ) of regularly attacking its teams, and of having arrested and detained the head of their local office on 28 July during a food distribution jointly conducted with an American NGO (Kurdistan 24).
Most of the environmental activists arrested and imprisoned since the beginning of the year in Iran, and in particular in Kurdistan, are still in prison. According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), 12 of them are detained in Sanandaj by the Etelaat (Security Agency) or the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran), deprived of lawyers and visits from their relatives. Several lawyers volunteered to defend them, but the magistrates rejected their requests. Other detainees have been released for huge bail, ranging from 500 to 700 million tomans (US$ 118,000 to 167,000). With their phones and computers confiscated, they were threatened if they talked. Some are members of the (perfectly legal) Party of Iranian National Unity, others belong to the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), a legal organization registered in Tehran. All are accused of actions against national security, propaganda against the state, or contacts with opposition groups. Several Iranian security agencies have testified that there was no espionage, but they are judged on the basis of “confessions” extracted under torture. The PWHF leader, Kavous Seyed-Emami, suffered an extremely suspicious death in custody at Evîn prison, near Tehran, all the more suspicious as the authorities, who told his family that he had committed suicide, returned the body to his family only on condition that he would be buried immediately and with no autopsy… Seyed-Emami had dual Iranian-Canadian nationality, as had 11 of the detainees, who were either bi-national or foreign nationals. At a time of rising tensions with the United States and as the country's economy suffers more and more from American sanctions, Iran is seeking in turn, with these arbitrary arrests, to raise the pressure. Thus, on April 24, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, very officially proposed an exchange of prisoners: American nationals detained in Iran for Iranians detained in the United States... These statements contradict many previous ones affirming the “independence” of the Iranian judicial system.
Not only is the economic situation deteriorating steadily, but moreover, like the whole of the Middle East, Iran has been hit for several weeks by torrential rains that have caused major floods. Luristan province in particular has been badly affected, with many roads and bridges damaged, and by early April there were already 67 deaths, while further rains were expected. The provincial Governor reported on the 5th that water had blocked access to 132 villages, 12 villages were without drinking water and 27 others without electricity. The streets of the provincial capital, Khorramabad, were overrun with mud, and 3,000 soldiers had to be deployed to clean them up (Radio Farda). Another consequence of the floods is that 5,000 people lost their jobs. Residents of the affected areas have strongly criticised the authorities for their insufficient action, including food distributions, accusing them of discrimination against the Kurdish provinces. It seems that the authorities reacted much more slowly in Kurdistan than in the rest of the country, even preventing aid collected in Khanaqîn, in neighbouring Iraq's Kurdistan, from reaching its destination. According to the KMMK, most of the people who provided aid preferred to entrust it to NGOs rather than government entities, which they no longer trust to convey it to the victims. Donation campaigns have been launched in Ilam, Sanandaj, Kamyaran, Baneh and Salmas (WKI). In addition to the floods, Iran's Kurdistan was hit in the afternoon of the 1st by a 5.2 magnitude earthquake, with its epicentre in Sumar, Southwest of Kermanshah and just a few kilometres from the Iraqi border near Mandali. The earthquake was felt as far away as Baghdad. There do not appear to have been any casualties, partly because the region is sparsely populated (Kurdistan 24).
The kolbars, these cross-border Kurdish carriers, continue to be targeted by the repressive forces, who shoot them on sight in the mountains as smugglers, despite the fact that they are unarmed and hence pose no danger. According to the KMMK, since the beginning of the year the Kolbars have had 21 dead and 64 wounded... On the 11th, a group of porters was ambushed by Iranian border guards near Chaldiran and one of them was seriously injured. On the 14th, another was shot dead near Khoy, on the Iran-Turkey border, and another on the 16th. According to the testimony of a kolbar, border guards are now demanding payment from families for ammunition used to shoot their relatives... Another was shot on the 19th near Urumieh. Others die of cold or fall into ravines, the roads being very dangerous. On the 9th, the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) reported that a porter had been seriously injured near Mariwan by a mine from the Iran-Iraq war, the 7th such mine victim since the beginning of the year. Despite these risks, the catastrophic economic situation and high unemployment rate are forcing more and more Kurds in Iran to engage in this dangerous activity, the only way to survive (WKI). On the 30th, the body of a young kolbar from Saqqez, married and father of a child, was found in a valley near Baneh when the snow melted. He had been missing for 3 months, when his group was fired upon by the regime's forces (Rûdaw, Hengaw).
As part of the escalation of Iranian-American tensions, on April 8, the Trump administration announced that it was placing the Revolutionary Guard Corps on the list of terrorist organizations (to which Iran responded by declaring the American Command Centre for the Middle East, CentCom, a terrorist organization). On the 11th, the Kurdish parties in Iran, gathered in the “Centre for Cooperation of the Kurdish Political Parties of Iran”, including the two branches of the PDKI and Komala, expressed their satisfaction with the American decision and asked the European Union to do the same. Kurdish parties accuse the pasdaran of murder, kidnapping and terrorist actions abroad, including the recent bombing of their bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. Two successive leaders of the PDKI had also been murdered abroad, Abdulrahman Ghassemlou in Vienna in 1989 and Sadegh Sharafqandî in Berlin in 1992, in actions in which the Pasdaran had participated. In Iranian Kurdistan, the regime has launched a campaign to show public support for the pasdaran, in which it forces young Kurds to appear with slogans and photos (WKI).
In this context of growing tensions, Kurdistan in Iran is still experiencing repression and arrests. In the first week of the month, Etelaat (Intelligence Agency) arrested a Kurd from Bokan, Qadir Alawesyan, for “disrespecting the Supreme Leader”, Ali Khamenei. In Kermanshah, activist Said Iqbali was summoned to appear before the Tehran Revolutionary Court for “organizing an anti-government campaign” (WKI). Etelaat has also increased the number of investigations and arrests of Kurds for “cooperation with an opposition party”, such as in Bokan (two people arrested) and Oshnavieh (opening of an investigation against two municipal councillors from Hassan Noran village for having organised festivities for Newrouz!). On the 11th, the Islamic Court in Kermanshah upheld the 10-year sentence for “belonging to an opposition party” against Kurdish activist Kianosh Qaramani, already jailed by Etelaat for two months. In Sanandaj, the trial of activist Mokhtar Zirai for “insulting the Supreme Leader” began on the 13th. The accused faces several years in prison. The Divandarreh Islamic Court (between Saqqez and Sine/Sanandaj) sentenced a Kurd to 7 years in prison for “insulting sacred symbols” and “publishing false news”. On the 17th, another person was arrested by Etelaat in Mahabad without any indication of the reason, as well as two environmental activists in Sanandaj and Kamyaran.
Finally, on 25 April, two 17-year-old cousins, Mehdi Sohrabifar and Amin Sedaghat, were hanged in secret in Shiraz prison, their families having only been informed when the authorities asked them to come and collect their bodies. Accused of rape, they had been sentenced after a trial marked by irregularities, such as the absence of any lawyer or relative, as provided for by law for minors. Amnesty International recalled that international law prohibits the death penalty for acts committed during the minority. The bodies also bore whiplash marks applied before the execution.
On the 24th, a Revolutionary Guard (pasdar) was killed in clashes near Kamyaran, in Kurdistan province. The Mehr agency, which reported the news, did not precisely identify the authors, simply talking about “counter-revolutionaries”.