Several serious events marked January in Iran, after the foundation of the Islamic regime had been already shaken by the monster demonstrations of November and their repression which reportedly killed up to 1.500 people. On the night of January 2nd, in another slap in the face to the regime, General Qasem Soleimani, architect and military leader of the country’s aggressive policy throughout the Middle East, was killed in Baghdad by a strike from an American drone. Organising a vast staging on the occasion of the funeral of the “martyr” on the 7th, which was broadcast on television from Kerman, the regime seized the opportunity to drum up support by all its supporters throughout the country; a stampede during the ceremony left more than seventy dead and forced to delay the funerals. Then on the 8th, the regime launched its retaliation, apparently a trompe-l’oeil and above all for internal use: the dozens of missiles launched on two American bases in Iraq seem to have caused no casualties. But the same day, a Ukrainian plane that had just taken off from Tehran crashed, killing its 176 passengers, including 140 Iranians. The regime denied any responsibility for four days, even talking about a foreign media conspiracy. But on the 11th, the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) had to admit having shot down the plane “by mistake”. This revelation triggered an explosion of anger, expressed in a new wave of demonstrations, repressed just as ferociously as those of November.
The month had already begun with unusual news marking the tension in the country and the regime’s concern about its growing rejection: in early January, several of those responsible for the November crackdown went to the cities where it had claimed the most victims to distribute aid, a paltry attempt to regain public support. Thus in Mahshahr and then in Ahvaz, in the Arabic-speaking province of Khuzistan, the commander-in-chief of the Pasdaran, Hossein Salami, arrived on 1 January to distribute financial aid to couples who had to get married and food parcels to underprivileged families. Six weeks earlier, the same pasdaran on their armoured tanks had left behind piles of corpses…
The next day, in an unprecedented criticism, some 100 conservative students and academics published on Telegram an open letter to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, warning him of the people’s total loss of confidence in his government: if this growing gap is not closed, they wrote, “there will be nothing left of the regime’s legitimacy”. Reminding Khamenei of his declarations in which he called for respect for the law, the signatories reproached him for having marginalised parliament by setting up an Economic Council composed of the heads of the executive, legislative and judicial powers: it is this Council, of which the signatories contest the constitutional legality, that sparked everything off by deciding in mid-November to triple the price of petrol... The text also denounces the use of the terms “thugs” (used by Khamenei himself) and “rioters”, which encouraged the security forces to use violence against legitimate protests, firstly due to “political corruption, inefficiency and ignorance of the government...” (Radio Farda)
After the carrot of food and cash distributions, the regime continued its usual use of the stick: HRANA estimates that at least 7.133 participants in the November protests were arrested. There were also a number of extrajudicial executions, the latest victim being Hashim Mouradi, whose body was found in early January in Javanrud near a river, bearing traces of torture (WKI) – like that of Nadir Rezaei, arrested during the protests, and whose body was returned to his family at the end of December (Kurdistan 24). Iranian journalists working abroad have reported repeated telephone threats from Intelligence since November, especially those based in the UK, who have been threatened if they do not resign with kidnapping “on the streets of London” or retaliation against their families who have remained in Iran (Radio Farda).
In Kurdistan, where around 400 Kurdish activists were arrested in 2019, the government continues its repression. During the first week of the month, political prisoner Hoshmand Alipour was sentenced to death in Sanandaj for “armed rebellion against the state”, based, according to Amnesty International, on a confession extracted through abuse, which Alipour later retracted (https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde13/1690/2020/en/). Mohammed Qadir (Ostadghader according to HRANA) from Saqqez, who was arrested with him, was sentenced to five years for the same reason. Their lawyer has appealed. Both were arrested in August 2018 and both deny participating in an armed attack on a security base in Saqqez. Also in Sanandaj, environmental activist Homian Bahmani was sentenced to two years and six months’ imprisonment for “membership of a Kurdish opposition party”. On the 13th, the activist Madhi (or Mobin) Moradi, arrested on the 3rd in Kermanshah, was sentenced to six years imprisonment for “cooperation with an opposition group”. Being already under a suspended sentence of execution since 2013 for “membership of a Kurdish party”, he is therefore now at risk of an execution (WKI).
Many other activists have been arrested: Abdulrahim Nazri, also in Kermanshah, Gabriel Azizi in Sarpol Zahab, and the writer and poet Aram Fathi in Marivan... (WKI, HRANA) Sometimes, due to the regime’s blackout, arrests are known belatedly. For example, HRANA was only able to announce on the 9th the arrest of seven civil rights activists on December 26th: Mahrokh Rousta, Kaveh Mozaffari, Faraz Roshan, Jelveh Javaheri, Forough Saminia, Ahmad Zahedi Langeroudi and Houman Tahriri, arrested during the commemoration ceremony held forty days after the assassination of Navid Behboudi, one of the victims of the demonstrations. On the 13th, Poshtivan Afsar, arrested during the demonstrations, was sentenced in Marivan to nine years imprisonment for “belonging to an opposition group”.
On the 16th and 30th, HRANA issued chilling reports on the casualties from the November demonstrations. Aged between 19 and 30 years old, injured by bullets, sometimes buckshot, in their feet, chest and thorax, they dare not go to hospitals, which are under surveillance, and have life-threatening infections. In Alborz, a 19-year-old injured young man died of infection. Sometimes volunteer doctors come to treat them at home despite the danger. According to one source in Qods, “on the first night of the demonstration, 60 to 70 injured people were transferred to the hospital in police vans and were treated under police control. Some of them were interrogated and released while they were being treated”. Hospitals sometimes refused to treat the wounded or demanded very large sums of money from them, as in Ahvaz, where an injured man, unable to pay US$2.000, was held in hospital. Security sometimes entered operating theatres, taking the injured as soon as the operation was over, sometimes taking away the bodies without the families’ consent. Mohammad Maleki, an injured man who died on the 26th after being interviewed in his hospital room in Tehran, had time to denounce the journalist’s statements that he had been injured by other demonstrators, explaining that he had been afraid to contradict him. Sometimes the bullets that killed their relatives are billed to the families, who are forced to bury them at night. Another wounded man from Tehran, Amir Ojani, died in hospital without seeing his family because he was placed in isolation by Security in his room for the last ten days of his life...
At the end of the month, according to KMMK, several Kurdish teachers who took part in the November demonstrations received prison sentences for “treason” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” ranging from three to thirteen years – a term imposed on Mohammed Ramazan, chairman of the Bojnurd Professional Teachers’ Council (WKI).
At the same time, the unfortunately usual flood of condemnations in Iran has not stopped. On 1st January, we learned of the sentencing on 25 December of five common-law prisoners in Tehran to 74 lashes each in public. Other whipping sentences amounted to 99 and even 149 lashes. On the same day, it was learned that a prisoner accused of murder had been hanged on the 25th. HRANA recalls that from 10 October 2018 to 8 October 2019, 134 people were sentenced to death and 242 executions were carried out, including 16 publicly. However, these already horrifying figures only concern executions made public: according to independent sources and human rights associations, 72% of executions of prisoners remain secret.
On 11 January, the regime’s official admission of its responsibility for the destruction of the Ukrainian plane caused an explosion of anger throughout the country. Over the next four days, demonstrations affected 21 cities across the country and 21 universities. Cities: Esfahan, Mashhad, Tabriz, Sari, Kerman, Shiraz, Amol, Babol, Gorgan, Rasht, Sanandaj, Tehran, Karaj, Semnan, Arak, Yazd, Kermanshah, Qods, Zanjan, Ahvaz, Qazvin. Universities: Arak University, Damghan University, Tehran University, Karaj Campus, Shahid Beheshti University, Esfahan University of Technology, Allameh Tabataba’i University, Khajeh Nasir Toosi University of Technology, University of Alzahra, Iranian University of Science and Technology, Babol Noshirvani University of Technology, Kurdistan University, Bu-Ali Sina University, Razi University, Tabriz University of Islamic Art, Sharif University of Technology, Tehran University of Art and Medical Sciences, and Tabriz University. Students were at the forefront of the mobilization as many of the victims of the crash were students and academics travelling to Canada via Ukraine. In Tehran, demonstrations started after a vigil held for the victims at Amir Kabir University, which escalated into violence following tear gas fire by riot police and the presence of numerous provocative agents…
The demonstrations triggered by this revelation were characterized by slogans aimed particularly at the Pasdaran and the Supreme Leader. In Tehran, the following was frequently heard: “A government of guards ... We reject, we reject”, and also “Death to liars!” and “Death to the dictator!” along with calls for the resignation of the Supreme Leader and other leaders. Security forces were deployed in large numbers around the universities. A professor at Tehran University observed that security measures were strict even around Imam Sadeq University, where students are yet carefully selected to become officials of the foreign or intelligence ministries.
In Sanandaj and Kermanshah, many students took to the streets on the news of the Tehran protests, chanting slogans against Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei similar to those of the November protests. Security forces responded by occupying Kurdish cities and repressing the demonstrators, arresting dozens of Kurds. According to the Kurdistan Human Rights Association (KMMK), the Etelaat (Intelligence Service) arrested activist Sirous Abbasi, his wife and brother Azad in Dehgolan. In Sanandaj, security forces arrested three students who participated in the protests, Moslem Solimani, Zaniar Ahmedpour, and Arshad Atabak. In Kermanshah, a student from Razi University was arrested, and security forces threatened those who dared to demonstrate. In Marivan, a young man was arrested and activist Eran Rapikar was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for “membership of a Kurdish opposition party”.
Security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition, resulting in an unknown number of casualties. According to Amnesty International, officers were monitoring arrivals at hospitals, resulting in several hospitals in Tehran refusing to admit the injured for fear of arrest, and at least one woman was sexually assaulted. Two others, injured on the 12th, were still unaccounted for after a week. On the 14th, the judiciary confirmed the arrest of thirty people, including the British ambassador to Iran. HRANA has published on its website a list of twenty people arrested (https://www.en-hrana.org/an-upadte-on-iran-january-protests), including Hossein Karoubi (son of Mehdi Karoubi, candidate for the 2005 presidential elections). Some were arrested for attending ceremonies to honour the victims.
According to the Kurdistan Human Rights Association KMMK, ten people have been arrested in Ilam, Sanandaj, Dehgolan, Marivan, Khoy and Kermanshah: 1. Amir Ali Majd was beaten and arrested by Security in his bookshop on the 18th in Ilam. 2. Arman Mohammadi was arrested by pasdaran in Sanandaj on the 17th. 3. Cyrus Abbasi and his wife Farideh Veisi, arrested on 14 January by the Etelaat in Dehgolan, were transferred to Sanandaj. Cyrus’ brother Azad, who came to the Etelaat office to follow the case, was also arrested. 4. Keyvan Kouti, arrested on the road at Sarpol Zahab, was interned in Kermanshah on the 14th. 5. Amanj Nikpay was arrested by Etelaat on the 14th, and his father, Khaled Nikpay, who came to the office to follow up on the case, was arrested, interrogated and released on bail. In addition, Mohammad Sheykh Kanlu was arrested in Khoy by the Pasdaran, Mohammad Sheykh Kanlu was detained by Etelaat in Urmia and Saman Abdolalizadeh was arrested in Kermanshah. Three videos covering the four days of demonstrations were posted on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=GfcJhhEGL1AU, https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=9OTFhgIp-78, https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=pbn8S532mF8).
Soleimani’s targeted murder in Iraq was a new motive for repression, as journalists who did not preface his name with the word “martyr” were bothered. According to Hengaw, Kurdish journalist Wahid Fatahi of Pawa (Paveh, Kermanshah province) was arrested for this reason in mid-month by the Pasdaran and held incommunicado. Also in Pawa, journalist and activist Muzaffar Walad-Beigi, who runs the Dengi Nouriyaw channel on Telegram, was reportedly arrested on the same charge for sharing a news article from a pro-government website, Khabaronline (Kurdistan 24). At the same time, Sardar Azami, a Kurdish man who had been missing since the November demonstrations, probably abducted by Security Police, was found by his family in a Tehran morgue after a gruelling search lasting several months.
Social media videos show crowds gathered outside Amir Kabir University of Technology in Tehran and other locations in the capital on the evening of the 11th to mourn the victims and express their fury confronted by the police and tear gas. A clip shared on Twitter by New York Times reporter Farnaz Fassihi shows the crowd facing the police and chanting “Our hands are empty, put down your batons”. The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) called on the government to stop the repression of the protests and also called on all UN bodies and the international community to put pressure on the Iranian government to guarantee the right to peaceful protest. On the 14th, CHRI appealed to the European Union, accusing it of giving the “green light” to the regime for its violence against civilians through its lack of reaction.
At the borders, the killings of Kurdish porters, the kolbars, also continued. In 2019, 71 kolbars had been killed and at least 138 wounded, the majority shot by the regime’s repressive forces, 10% by mines or avalanches. During the first week of the month, several were wounded near Mako, Chaldiran, Sardasht, Khoy and Piranshahr, two of them seriously by border guards near Khoy and another in Chaldiran; another was killed near Sardasht. Besides, in the middle of the month, several suicides caused by desperation due to the economic situation were reported in Kamyaran, Sardasht and Bokan (WKI). In the last week of January, security forces ambushed a kolbar vehicle in Selas-Babacani (Kermanshah), seriously injuring one of them. Two others were injured on the 24th near Sardasht and Salmas, and another on the 26th near Piranshahr. Finally, on the 28th, two other Piranshahr bearers were hospitalized in Kurdistan of Iraq after being injured near Haji Omaran. On the 30th, another was shot and wounded near Oshnavieh (Shino). On the 31st, a Saqqez porter died of hypothermia when his group of porters lost its way in a snowstorm near Baneh.
On 3rd of January, Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRAI) released its annual report on human rights violations for 2019. The 42-page document brings together 4259 reports gathered by courageous informants, often from HRANA, from a variety of sources (https://www.en-hrana.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Hrana-Annual-Report-2019.pdf).
January was truly chaotic in a country hit by a political crisis unprecedented since the fall of the Ba’thist regime. On the one hand, popular protests against corruption and the lack of public services and employement continued. Following the resignation of Prime Minister Abdul-Madi on 29 November, and faced with the impossibility of finding an acceptable successor, the caretaker government found little response other than continuing repression. On the other hand, the targeted assassination of Iranian General Soleimani at Baghdad airport on the 3rd by an American drone provoked an unprecedented escalation in the Iranian-American confrontation on Iraqi soil. Besides, the Jihadist organisation ISIS, taking advantage of the general disorder, further amplified its attacks, especially in the territories disputed between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region.
In this extremely tense context, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been very reluctant to commit itself. Indeed, the Region shares hundreds of kilometres of border with Iran, while maintaining good relations with Washington, which are indispensable in the fight against ISIS. Finally, the possibility of the departure of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, with whom a modus vivendi had been found, also worries Erbil, because relations with his replacement could be more delicate... The KRG’s representation in the United Kingdom summed up the KRG’s position perfectly at the end of January in its monthly letter: “The [Iraqi] parliament [...] has adopted a resolution aimed at expelling foreign troops from Iraq [...]. If this were to happen, it would put the Kurdistan Region in a very delicate situation because [it] could lead to a security vacuum and the re-emergence of ISIS. We have therefore urged all parties to defuse conflicts and tensions, because we do not want Iraq to become the battleground for the resolution of the conflicts of the great powers”.
The confrontation between Washington and Tehran on Iraqi soil had already intensified before Soleimani’s death. On January 1st, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq renewed their December 31 attack on the American embassy. But Al-Monitor notes that there were fewer participants than the day before, with only members of Kataib Hezbollah, Kataib Sayyed al-Shohada, the Badr organization, Saraya al-Khorasani and Asaib Ahl al-Haq participating, while many other Hashd al-Shaabi militias abstained. Since the start of the protests on 1st October, public opinion has also quite turned against the pro-Iranian militias, accused of murdering large numbers of protesters. Their attitude in front of the embassy has confirmed for many Iraqis their image as defenders of the Iranian regime: almost no Iraqi flags, photos of Ali Khamenei, slogans such as “Qasem Soleimani is our leader” or “USA out, free Iran!” (as opposed to the protesters’ “Iran out, free Iraq!”)... Finally, many wondered how these militiamen had been able to enter the Green Zone so easily when the security forces killed hundreds of demonstrators wanting to do the same!
On the 3rd, on the orders of the US President, a drone strike near Baghdad airport killed Iranian General Qassim Soleimani and the most important leader of the Iraqi militia, the Iraqi-Iranian Abu Mahdi al-Mouhandis. Immediately, many foreign workers in the oil sector, from Americans to Chinese, began to leave the country, and the Iraqi dinar lost 3% against the dollar. On the 8th, all foreign airlines except Qatar Airways suspended their flights to Baghdad, and the European Aviation Safety Agency imposed restrictions on overflying the country, which were not lifted until the 29th. On the 4th, militias warned the Iraqi military to stay away from American bases. On the same day, several rockets targeted Baghdad’s Green Zone, Balad Air Base, 80 km to the north, and several Mosul bases hosting anti-ISIS coalition forces. The next day, three more rockets struck near the Green Zone.
Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi condemned the American strike and called for a special session of parliament to vote on a resolution calling for the immediate expulsion of American troops. The leader of the PDK group, Vian Sabri, said that the Kurdish MPs would not participate, preferring to remain neutral “in the interests of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region”, adding that “the Sunni representatives and certain representatives of other blocs” would not participate either: “We do not want Iraq to be the scene of an inter-state conflict”. The PKU expressed a similar position: “There are many violations of Iraqi sovereignty and steps must be taken to stop them. But not only against one party”, one of its leaders told AFP on condition of anonymity. It was therefore in the absence of Kurdish legislators and the majority of Sunnis that parliament passed a resolution calling on the government to expel foreign military personnel from the country. Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, calling it insufficient, called for tougher measures and threatened to “activate” dormant sections of his militias.
The Iranian response came on the night of the 7th to the 8th, with twenty-two ballistic missiles launched on two Iraqi bases, Ain al-Assad (Anbar) and the other near Erbil, which also host anti-ISIS coalition forces. The missiles caused no casualties. The next day, more rockets hit the Green Zone, again without causing any casualties. The three main Kurdish leaders, the President of the Region, its Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Parliament reiterated their call for de-escalation in a joint statement: “With regard to recent events, and in particular those of this morning, the Kurdistan Region reaffirms that a military solution will in no way solve the problems. It supports the de-escalation of the situation and seeking dialogue and diplomatic solutions to the problems. It [...] urges all parties to refrain from dragging the Kurdistan Region into rivalry”. For Kurdistan, directly confronted by ISIS, the support of the US-led military coalition remains vital, and its leaders have urged its member states not to allow the group’s revival.
On the 9th, the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Iranian ambassador and notified him of its condemnation of the attack on Iraqi bases. At the same time, Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi asked Washington to prepare the withdrawal of the American military. Not only did Washington reject the request, but the next day the State Department threatened to limit Iraq’s access to a large account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York where $35 billion of its oil revenues are deposited. These threats led to a further fall in the dinar of 3%, which necessitated intervention by the Iraqi Central bank.
After a visit by the American Assistant Secretary for the Middle East, David Schenker, the President of the Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani, stressed at a press conference that it was not the “right time” for American forces to leave the country. On the 11th, the Iraqi Prime Minister went to Erbil, then to Sulaimaniyeh, to reassure the Kurdish leaders that he was not seeking “hostilities” with anyone, including Washington, and to defend better Kurdish-Iraqi military cooperation against ISIS (AFP). For their part, the KRG leaders stressed their interest in an increased cooperation with the federal security forces... in coordination with the US-led coalition (ISHM).
On the 12th, eight rockets struck Balad base again, injuring four Iraqis, and on the 14th, eight rockets struck Camp Taji, another Iraqi base north of Baghdad, with no casualties. On the 13th, Moqtada Al-Sadr called from Iran for a mass demonstration on the 24th against the US presence in Iraq. Hadi al-Amiri, al-Mouhandis’ likely successor as leader of the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, supported the call. On the 24th, the demonstrators demanded the closure of all US bases and the offices of US security companies in Iraq and the closure of Iraqi airspace to US fighter and intelligence aircrafts. On the 22nd, the Iraqi parliament approved a bill terminating the judicial immunity that had been granted to the US military in 2014, when they came to support the Iraqi army against ISIS. However, President Salih called for continued cooperation with the United States in discussions with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump, which led to his being threatened by militia leaders that he would be “banned from Baghdad”. While the US military was considering protecting its settlements in Iraq by deploying anti-missile systems, on the 20th, three rockets and five mortar shells targeted the US embassy in Baghdad, injuring at least one person. The unclaimed attacks were followed by another on the 27th.
Somewhat overshadowed by Iranian-American tensions, anti-government protests nonetheless continued throughout the month. Their increasingly anti-Iranian stance earned them the hostility of the militias, to whom many attacks on demonstrators have been attributed. Not only did the authorities do nothing to prevent them, let alone bring the perpetrators to justice, but in some cases they appear to have been complicit. These attacks continued in January. On 4th January, an activist was shot dead in Baghdad by unknown perpetrators, and the following day militiamen opened fire and injured three demonstrators in Nassiriya, where an improvised explosive device killed activist Ouday al-Jabiri on the 6th January and another attack on the 8th injured at least eight demonstrators. On the 10th, protesters launched new demonstrations in Baghdad and the south of the country to force politicians to speed up the appointment of a new government. In Dhi-Qar, they issued a week-long ultimatum. According to the judicial authorities, at that time, 91 demonstrators were being held in detention awaiting criminal trials. On the same day, TV Dijlah reporter Ahmed Abdul-Samad and cameraman Safaa Ghali were shot dead in Basra. On the 12th, the city’s journalists launched a social media protest campaign against the killings of journalists entitled “I am next”. On the 13th, activist Hassan Hadi Mhalhal was shot dead in Dhi-Qar. On the 14th, the news channel al-Hurra announced the closure of its Baghdad bureau following threats from militias, denouncing the government’s inaction.
Despite pressure from the streets, the appointment of a new Prime Minister continued to stall in parliament, subject to endless negotiations between the two main alliances... and to Iranian influence. On the 14th, rumours circulated of Sayroon and al-Fatah’s support for a new nomination of Al-Mahdi. The Ataa bloc, belonging to the al-Fatah coalition, asked the religious authorities in Najaf to express their support for this possibility, which had already been rejected by the street... On the 15th, the President, the interim Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament met to seek a solution, while parliamentary sources gave reason to hope for a forthcoming agreement on several possible candidates...
On the 17th, demonstrators blocked streets in several provinces, intensifying their pressure for a new independent Prime Minister. Again, the security forces responded with excessive use of force, using tear gas and live ammunition and killing at least ten demonstrators, including photojournalist and volunteer ambulance driver Yousouf Sattar. On the 20th, an altercation took place live between a Dijlah TV interviewer and a government spokesman over the number of demonstrators killed by the security forces. Following this incident, on the 28th, the police forcibly closed the TV station’s Baghdad office. Also on the 20th, Amnesty International again called for respect for Iraqis’ right to demonstrate, as two candidates appeared to be emerging from inter-party negotiations: former minister Mohammad Tawfiq Allawi and former intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kazemi.
On the 21st, the government announced the extension of the unemployment benefit programme to 900.000 people, instead of 150.000 previously. Beneficiaries will receive 175,000 dinars (about €130) per month for three months. This measure in no way convinced the demonstrators to stop their movement, and on the 23rd, the authorities had to suspend oil production in Nassiriya following the blocking of access roads to the oil field. On the same day, armed men killed a civilian near the protest site in central Basra. On the 25th, Moqtada al-Sadr announced in a shock statement that he was withdrawing his support for the protesters. His supporters immediately left the protests. Immediately after this announcement, security forces in Baghdad again launched a violent operation using live ammunition, pellet guns and tear gas to clear the streets of demonstrators. In Nassiriya, unidentified gunmen opened fire on the demonstrators and set fire to their tents to disperse them. The crackdown was also very violent in Basra. In two days, a total of 12 people were killed and 230 injured. On the 27th, the government violence was condemned by the ambassadors of 16 countries, including France, the United Kingdom and the United States. On the 29th, the Iraqi President gave the parliamentary blocs until 1st February to appoint a new Prime Minister, warning that if they could not reach an agreement, he would use his constitutional powers to choose a candidate he deemed qualified and acceptable to parliament and the people.
At the same time, dozens of unclaimed attacks by armed men or using bombs have further increased the sense of chaos throughout the country. Protesters have been targeted, as well as militia leaders, border guards and police guarding oil fields. In Dhi-Qar province, several improvised bombs exploded on the 19th and 20th without causing any casualties. On the 24th, three French and one Iraqi working for the NGO “SOS Chrétiens d’Orient” (“Assistance for Eastern Christians”) were abducted in Baghdad.
US-Iranian tensions led to the departure of several military contingents from Coalition member countries and the suspension of its activities, officially from the 5th to the 15th (but on the 16th, a spokesman for the Prime Minister denied their resumption). The jihadist organisation ISIS obviously took advantage of the situation. On 1st January, Kurdish security official Ranj Talabani told the Times: “We think [ISIS] has gone beyond regrouping [and] is now back on the scene of operations”, warning: “Next year will be worse”. On the 5th, the jihadists killed three Iraqi soldiers and kidnapped a fourth in Daquq (Kirkuk), where two more night attacks the following week left four soldiers dead and three wounded. The insecurity is such that many Kurdish villagers in the district prefer to flee. In Anana, the last remaining Kurdish village in the far south of Daquq, villagers in Rudaw said they were relying only on themselves, while the Iraqi military minimized the problem... On the 13th, an improvised bomb killed two policemen south of Mosul and an attack on the Jordanian border left one border guard dead and three wounded. On the 16th, a village in the area between Diyala and Salahaddin was attacked with mortars, with no casualties. On the 17th, fighting in Tarmiyah, near Baqubah, pitted the Iraqi army against the jihadists for four hours. On the 18th, the military post at Tall al-Theib (Kirkuk) was attacked and one soldier was killed. On the 20th and 21st, two improvised explosive devices injured four civilians in Mosul province, and on the 23rd, a resident of al-Hadar was kidnapped and killed. Other bombs killed a policeman in Diyala on the 27th and injured two civilians on the 28th in Mosul, where a third bomb killed a man and injured three children on the 29th. On the same day, a soldier was killed by a sniper in Diyala, two others were killed in an ambush on the Kirkuk-Baghdad road, and two others in an attack on their checkpoint in Daquq. On the 30th, near Qara Tepe (east of Khanaqin), seven civilians, mostly students, were kidnapped.
In Kirkuk, the publication at the beginning of the month of the Directorate of Education’s recruitment list caused a crisis: out of the 2,500 names published, there were only 500 Kurds. The Kurds obviously protested, while graduates from other communities were demonstrating their opposition to a strict ethnic balance, which they condemned as preventing necessary recruitments. On the 10th, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Bashir Hadad, disapproving of the list, announced that the Parliamentary Committee on Education would summon Kirkuk Director General of Education and the Federal Minister of Education (NRT). On the 23rd, dozens of Kurdish graduates demonstrated outside the Kirkuk Education Directorate to denounce ethnic discrimination. A complaint was lodged, and the Kurdish parties in the province sent a delegation to Baghdad on this and other issues depending from the province’s administration.
Concerning Kurdistan’s domestic policy, the draft law on the reform of civil servants’ salaries and pensions was adopted on the 16th by Erbil parliament after months of discussion.
Finally, on the health front, Rudaw announced on the 26th that Iraqi and Kurdish officials had begun to apply precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus epidemic in the region, including the evacuation of Iraqi students from Wuhan, China. Travellers arriving through Erbil International Airport will be screened.
If the Turkish government’s warlike policy is aimed at making the population forget the economic situation, then new operations are to be expected. Indeed, the economic statistics published in January by TurkStat are still as bad as ever: for December 2019 inflation is 1.74%, i.e. 11.84% over a year (and 15.18% if we compare the averages over 12 months); the unemployment figures for October, the last known, show a rate of 13.4%, slightly down from September’s, but up 1.8% from October 2018, and above all, for the 15-24 age group, the rate climbs to 25.3%, an annual increase of 3%. In addition, Ali Babacan, former AKP Minister of Economy, drew attention to the uncontrolled increase in interest paid by the State: from 57 billion Turkish pounds in 2017, 74 billion in 2018 and 103 billion in 2019, they should rise to 139 billion Turkish pounds in 2020, an increase of 144% in three years! On 17 January, the main Turkish metalworkers’ unions, Turk-Metal, Birleşik Metal-İş... organising 140,000 workers, especially in the automobile industry, announced that they would call a strike in early February, after employers’ organisations had proposed wage increases below inflation for the next three years. The employers retaliated by initiating a lock-out which immediately provoked partial strikes.
Turkey does not fare much better in terms of corruption. In the 2019 “Corruption Perceptions Index” published on 23 January by Transparency International, it ranks 91st out of 180 countries and territories with 39 points, down 11 points and 38 places from 2018. This places it in the “top three” regressions since 2013 for this index. For E. Oya Özarslan, President of the International Transparency Association, this reduces the attractiveness of the country for investors, and “urgently requires a return to a fully democratic system, where agencies and rules work and where there are control mechanisms” (Bianet). Among the cases of corruption that have recently emerged is that revealed by Murat Ağırel, an editorialist with the daily Yeniçağ, close to the party İYİ. On 1st January, just after the pro-AKP Star and Güneş dailies had closed for economic reasons, Ağırel revealed that the former Istanbul AKP municipality had spent 57 million pounds on advertising between 2017 and 2019, 40 million of which went to “pool media” (havuz medyası), i.e. pro-AKP media. Another recent scandal concerns the future “Kanal İstanbul”, yet another pharaonic project in the line of the new bridge over the Bosphorus and the new Istanbul airport, particularly dear to the Turkish President. The objective is to link the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara by an artificial waterway 45 km long... but perhaps also to make considerable real estate profits. On the 20th, the daily Cumhuriyet revealed that in 2012, Berat Albayrak, the president’s son-in-law, had bought land near the planned route. Originally classified as agricultural, its value increased enormously after it was reclassified as building land by the Ministry of the Environment and Urban Planning. On 21st of January, the HDP applied to the Istanbul Administrative Court for the cancellation of the project’s impact assessment report, approved by the Ministry on 17 January, as the affected population had not really been consulted. In 2017, the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia was blocked in Turkey following four articles... one of which described in a rather critical manner Albayrak’s policy as energy minister after 2015, and especially his links with the oil company Powertrans, which sold ISIS’s oil...
Another subject of controversy has been the question of sending Syrian fighters paid by Turkey to Libya. Following the signing on 27 November of an agreement covering military cooperation and maritime borders between the two countries (rejected by the European Union because it completely disregards Greece’s exclusive economic zone), the Turkish President submitted a motion to parliament on 30 December authorising the sending of Turkish troops to Libya to support the Government of National Unity against Marshal Haftar. The pro-AKP press applauded the return of the Ottoman Empire... Several Turkish officials mentioned the sending of Syrian fighters and the Arab League, denouncing on 1st January any unilateral action that might contribute to the military escalation, warned Turkey “not to send terrorists to Libya”. Supported by the AKP and its far-right ally MHP, the motion was approved by parliament on 2nd January by 325 votes to 184. The other parties, HDP, CHP, TIP and İYİ voted against it. On behalf of the HDP, Tülay Hatimoğulları described the motion as “the very embodiment of the expansionist policy” of the government and denounced Turkish interference: “It is a long time since an arms embargo was decreed by the Security Council [...]. Who broke this embargo for the first time? Turkey”. The day before, the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, Abdulrahman Al-Rashid, had made the same accusations in his article “Turkey, hypocrisy after hypocrisy”.
On the 6th, the President Erdoğan announced the sending of the first troops, indicating that some of the fighting units would not be Turkish soldiers. Asking the question of their identity, the CHP MP Utku Çakırözer warned the next day in an interview with Bianet that “Turkey could be held legally responsible for possible illegal acts or violations of the rights” of these “unidentified personnel”, members of SADAT (Turkish private military company, see the information note of the French Centre for Research on Intelligence: https://cf2r.org/actualite/turquie-mercenaires-president-erdogan/) the Free Syrian Army, or others. On the 8th, the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, denounced the Turkish deployment. The prospect of the arrival of jihadist mercenaries in Libya worries Europe. For the French President, this dispatch, which “links two theatres of operations”, North Africa and the Middle East, risks facilitating the emergence of “terrorist centres” in the Sahel and Libya (France 24). This concern has given rise to several attempts at diplomatic mediation, including a conference on Libya on the 19th in Berlin in which the Turkish President participated. It ended with a joint call for an end to all interference and in particular the suspension of all military movements. But on the 29th, French Rafale aircrafts from the Charles-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier caught in the act a ship chartered by Ankara delivering armoured vehicles in the port of Tripoli, escorted by one of the four Turkish frigates present in Libyan waters! An even more worrying prospect, according to French intelligence, some of the 1.500 to 2.000 combatants already transported from Syria took advantage of the voyage to desert towards Italy... (Le Monde)
Internally, the government continues to harass its most determined opposition, the “pro-Kurdish” HDP party, from which it has already dismissed 32 elected members. It is obviously trying to prevent its next congress, scheduled for 23 February in Ankara. At the start of the month, the authorities banned several meetings of municipal councils in districts whose co-mayors had already been dismissed, in Cizre and Idil (Şırnak) and in Sur (Diyarbakir). In Lice (Diyarbakir), dozens of Kurds were arrested, including two HDP members from the Diyarbakir Metropolitan Municipality. In Nusaybin (Mardin), ten people were arrested in several villages, including an Assyrian priest (see below), on charges of “belonging to a terrorist organization”. In Diyarbakir, the pro-AKP administrator dismissed all municipal staff, and two municipal councillors from Bağlar were replaced by administrators (WKI). On the 14th, the Mezopotamya agency announced that six municipal councillors in Sur (Diyarbakir) had been dismissed on the basis of pending lawsuits for “membership in a terrorist organization” (Bianet). The AKP also announced on the 11th the launch of a campaign to “poach” nearly one hundred opposition mayors, with a target of five rallies a week. One of the means of pressure used seems to be the promise to pay their municipality’s debts.
On the 15th, the Istanbul HDP office was targeted at about 3 p.m. by a pistol attack that caused no casualties. The perpetrator of the seven shots, an apparently isolated individual, fled to the Security Directorate of Beyoğlu, located in the same street, where he was detained. An investigation has been opened. The HDP, which decided to file a complaint, blamed the government’s anti-HDP “provocative” speeches. The author was charged on 21 December with “using an unregistered firearm” and “disturbing public order”. In Izmir, 12 HDP members were arrested. In Şanlıurfa, seven people were detained in several districts while the provincial governor banned all gatherings for one month. In Mardin, a court decided to keep Nusaybin’s deposed co-Mayor Sara Kaya in detention. On the 24th, the HDP was notified by the police of an investigation launched against its spokesperson Günay Kubilay for “insulting the Turkish nation and state”. The attacks against the HDP went so far as to target the spectators of the play from Devran (“Destiny”), the collection of short stories by Selahattin Demirtaş, which was performed in Istanbul on the 11th in front of, among others, several prominent members of the CHP. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said in a speech the next day: “You cannot clean the blood on your hands with theatre plays”. The artist Lale Mansur answered him scathingly on Bianet that, instead of attacking artists, he would better do his job and solve the country’s many problems: “Investigate the files of the murdered women, the files of the victims of torture”.
Despite the pressure, the HDP announced that it had completed preparations for its February congress.
Better not to belong to a religious minority in AKP and MHP Turkey... On the 17th, the CHP and İYİ submitted a proposal to the Istanbul Metropolitan City Council to recognize as places of worship the djemevis (cemevi, places of Alevis ceremonies). It was rejected by the AKP-MHP majority in the Council, which argued that it was not a matter for the municipality but for the parliament. However, on the 13th, İzmir had thus recognised seven djemevis in the city, despite opposition from the AKP and MHP. On the 19th, Istanbul’s Djemevi Pir Sultan was attacked at night by individuals who broke a window and tagged death threats inside. An investigation was opened and the governor of Istanbul condemned a “heinous” attack.
In Nusaybin, three Syriac Christians, including a priest, Sefer (Aho) Bileçen and the head of the village of Üçköy, were arrested on the 9th and transferred to the anti-terrorist section of the Mardin gendarmerie. Although no official reason for the arrests was given, a Christian source informed Bianet that they were due to an anonymous testimony that they had given food to a PKK member. A total of 12 persons were detained during searches in the villages of Eskihisar, Üçköy and Üçyol. On the 13th, Bileçen was held in detention on charges of “aiding and abetting a terrorist organization”, before being released pending trial, the court having ruled that there was no risk of his absconding. It was only a few days after these arrests that it was learned that an elderly Christian couple had been kidnapped on the 11th in Mehre or Kovankaya (Şırnak), as neighbours had not reported it for fear of reprisals. The Federation of Syriac Associations (SÜDEF) reported that Christians in Kurdistan of Turkey have been subjected to killings, abductions and arrests for several months.
Abroad, Turkey will have to face new sanctions. The European Union is preparing to sanction the country for its natural gas exploration and drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean that violate the sovereign rights of the Republic of Cyprus. On 22nd, the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell said the EU was preparing a list of Turkish personalities to be sanctioned (Euronews). On the same day, the US government indicated its intention to impose fines of increasing amounts for “contempt of court” on the Turkish state-owned Halkbank if it persists in refusing to appear in the case of circumvention of US sanctions against Iran. The prosecutors want to double the fine each week: it would rise from $1 million for each day of non-appearance to $1.8 billion at the end of the eighth week! An impossible choice for the Turkish authorities: appearing would give the case publicity that would further damage its reputation, but refusing would lead to an economically disastrous break with the US financial system.
Another problem with Europe, the Belgian Court of Cassation definitively acquitted on the 28th some thirty alleged PKK members accused of recruiting young Kurds in Europe. Launched in 2006, the proceedings had already led to two similar decisions in 2016 and 2017, against which Turkey and the Brussels Prosecutor’s Office had appealed, but which were confirmed last year by the Brussels Court of Appeal. According to the final verdict, the PKK is to be considered as a “non-state armed force” involved in a “non-international” armed conflict to which the Belgian anti-terrorist law does not therefore apply. Although Belgian Foreign Minister Philippe Goffin, clearly concerned about new tensions with Turkey, insisted that this would not prevent PKK members from being charged “for crimes and other offences under the Penal Code of which they are guilty” (AFP), it was nonetheless a slap in the face for Ankara, which summoned the Belgian ambassador to protest. Conversely, Zübeyir Aydar, president of the Brussels-based parliament of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK), welcomed the “historical verdict”. Lawyer Jan Fermon said he hoped the decision would allow for a “political solution to the Kurdish question at European level” (ANF).
In a completely different area, an earthquake struck Sivrice (Elaziğ) on the 24th just before 9 pm. A magnitude of 6,7, with fourteen aftershocks of magnitude greater than 4, it was felt throughout the east of the country and caused at least 41 deaths and more than 1.500 injuries (estimates of the 27th). While the following night was icy, from -8 to -12°C, more than 1.000 homes were destroyed. The HDP accused the government of blocking aid from Kurdish organisations (WKI), and voices started asking what the government had done to prevent earthquakes for the past twenty years. The president Erdoğan responded furiously by asking: “Can you stop earthquakes?” and dozens of investigations have been opened for “provocative messages” on social media. But on the 28th, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu recalled that between 2004 and 2019, the state had collected thirty-four billion dollars in “earthquake tax” and asked what the funds had been used for. Two parliamentary motions on this issue by the CHP and HDP were rejected by the AKP-MHP alliance.
Turkish military operations now extend to the Syrian and Iraqi north as well as Turkish territory... In Turkey, according to a report published on the 9th by the Turkish Human Rights Foundation (TİHV), since August 2015, 381 curfews have been declared in 51 districts and 11 provinces, the largest number in Diyarbakir (http ://bianet.org/english/human-rights/218336-381-curfews-declared-in-51-districts-11-provinces-in-5-years). On the 16th, the state agency Anatolia announced an operation on the Calyan Plateau (Van) where, despite the cold (-20°C), 2.800 special forces commandos divided into battalions of 200 were flown in by helicopter. On the Iraqi side, the Ministry of Defence announced on the 3rd the death of two soldiers participating in Operation “Claws” in Haftanin, where an air operation was launched. On the 14th, a sergeant and a village guard from Şırnak lost their lives, also in Haftanin. The following day, an air strike targeted the town of Sinjar, where five fighters from YBŞ, Sinjar Resistance Units (Yezidis) were killed. On the 26th, several villages near Aqre (Dohouk) were hit.
Finally, Turkey has also opened a “digital front”: according to a long report published by Reuters on the 27th (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cyber-attack-hijack-exclusive/exclusive-hackers-acting-in-turkeys-interests-believed-to-be-behind-recent-cyberattacks-sources-idUSKBN1ZQ10X), since the end of 2018, numerous cyber-attacks by hackers have targeted the communications of some thirty organizations: ministries, embassies, security services, companies, and civil society organizations in Turkey itself – even the Iraqi Government Advisor for National Security!
In spite of the terrible hardships facing the Rojava, especially since the Turkish invasion last October, it has not given up resistance. This was reported in a column published on 17 January by the envoy of the American magazine Foreign Affairs, who visited the country in December. He expected to find a region divided and terrorized, its inhabitants stuck in a state of terror “waiting to see what the great powers would force on their future”. But, he wrote, “What I found instead was at once heartening and devastating. There were, of course, harsh scenes, “children, forced from their homes by the Turkish offensive, now sat out of school in freezing, hastily constructed camps, without coats and with their small bare feet poking out of plastic sandals covered in mud spawned by the incessant rain”. But he was also struck by the resilience: “The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces [...] has done a heroic job of holding the northeastern region together, providing some security to the region’s traumatized people under conditions that would try most nation-states, and sustaining the governance model that it had earlier established to a remarkable degree” (https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-15/syrias-kurdish-forces-hold-back-tides).
Yet the difficulties continue to pile up. While the Turkish invasion initially constrained most foreign NGOs to leave, the UN Security Council, reviewing the humanitarian aid programme to Syria on 10 January, took a decision that puts 2.7 million people in the north-west and 1.3 million in the north-east of Syria at humanitarian risk: after a double Russian and Chinese veto, and against the recommendations of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations Secretary-General, it adopted a resolution reducing the duration of the programme from 12 to 6 months and closing two of the four aid entry points to the territory. Those remaining are at the Turkish border. The closure of the entry points from Jordan and Iraq leaves the inhabitants of the Rojava at the mercy of the Damascus regime and Turkey. Abdulqadir Mouwahad, Director of Humanitarian Affairs of the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES), warned on 14 February of the risk of medical shortages, adding that the decision “will give the regime a greater capacity to control the distribution [of aid]”. As for Turkey, its hostility towards the Rojava administration is well known... In concrete terms, the Kurdish Red Crescent, the Al-Hol camp and the Hassakeh hospital are likely to be severely affected. According to a WHO official, the availability of health services could be drastically reduced in the medium term (AFP). The aid is all the more indispensable since during the Turkish invasion many medical and agricultural facilities were destroyed in Girê Spî (Tell Abyad) and Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ain). The attack also prevented the cotton harvest, which was about to begin. According to Salman Bardo, head of the AANES Cereal Authority, the Turkish army and its Syrian auxiliaries seized 5.000 tons of fertilizer, about 130 factories and seven cotton ginners, as well as numerous grain silos.
At the same time, the incessant attacks and incursions by the Turks and their jihadist mercenaries continue. Seeking to seize new territories, they bombed the Girê Spî region with heavy artillery and continued their attacks on the town of Ain Issa. In Serê Kaniyê, they arrested several inhabitants who had supported the pre-invasion administration. According to several reports by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), pro-Turkish jihadists are making extensive use of heavy weapons against civilian areas. In the week of the 20th, they launched attacks on four villages near the Christian town of Tall Tamr, finally repelled on the 24th by Syriac militias affiliated to the SDF.
January 20 is also the sad anniversary of Turkey’s launch of its invasion of Afrin in 2018. Two years later, ethnic cleansing, the primary goal of the invasion, is a reality. According to the Afrin Human Rights Organization, 300.000 Kurds have been displaced by Turkey and 543 killed, 54 of them under torture or abduction by Turkey proxy groups. Many Kurds had left before the arrival of the invaders, but those who remained were subjected to such exactions, arrests, confiscations, kidnappings, blackmail, that many more were eventually forced to leave. A lawyer speaking on Rûdaw on January 26 counts more than 7.227 people kidnapped or imprisoned since the invasion, and at least 2.112 still missing. Some families had to marry their daughters to pro-Turkish fighters. The olive tree, the wealth of the region, has been systematically looted: between 20.000 and 150.000 trees have been felled and sold, depending on the sources, and 70.000 tonnes of olive oil have been stolen and sold. Religious sites, particularly Yezidis’, have been desecrated, many schools destroyed (RojInfo). In this region rich in resources, the economic situation has turned to misery, while most of the NGOs, embarrassing witnesses, have had to leave. The Afrin administration, now in exile, denounced on the 20th the deafening international silence: “We [...] condemn the continued silence of states and organizations regarding the Turkish occupation and the ongoing daily violations against the region and the people of Afrin, and we call on them to do their part to end the occupation, remove its consequences, and allow the safe return of the people”.
Further east, the October invasion also caused many displacements. On the 24th, the Crisis Coordination Centre of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) reported that the number of Kurdish refugees arriving from Syria since the invasion had reached 20.011 (Kurdistan 24). In preparation for the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the conquered area, Turkey had begun to “secure” the area by building walls to isolate it from the rest of the country. The AANES denounced these constructions in a communiqué also condemning the recent declarations of Angela Merkel: from Istanbul where she was visiting, the German Chancellor had declared considering the support of the European Union for the construction of housing. This scandalous statement was also condemned in Germany by the international head of die Linke, Sevim Dagdelen, who recalled that Erdoğan was not the solution to the refugee problem, but its “main cause”.
On the 27th, Rojava’s representative in France, Khaled Issa, presented at a press conference an analysis by the Swiss laboratory Wessling confirming the use of phosphorus by the Turkish army in October. The abnormal presence of white phosphorus on the skin sample of a Kurdish fighter wounded in the attack, combined with chemical burns, leads to the conclusion that white phosphorus munitions were used. Authorised to create a smoke screen, to illuminate the theatre of operations, or as incendiary weapons against combatants, they are prohibited against civilians: their use against them last October hence constitutes a war crime.
Confronted with the Turkish army and its jihadist mercenaries, the SDF must also remain vigilant against other jihadists (who are sometimes the same...): those of ISIS. At the beginning of the month, they foiled an attack on Deir Ezzor (WKI). In this fight against ISIS, cooperation with the American forces continues. Under the guarantee given by tribal chiefs, the SDF on the 5th freed several dozen Syrian prisoners affiliated to ISIS, taken from a list of 300, of whom only those with no blood on their hands will be released after investigation (AFP). Conversely, three Russian wives of jihadists who escaped with their children from the Al-Hol camp were recaptured in Hassakeh. The camp still hosts 71.000 displaced persons, including about 40.000 family members of fighters (WKI). For months, the AANES has been asking in vain for international assistance, and for foreigners, repatriation to their countries of origin.
For French nationals, things might change. On the 11th, Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, receding for the first time from the choice of a judgment in Iraq by a mixed tribunal supported by Europe, raised the possibility of repatriation. Clearly, this was the result of concern about an escape after the chaos caused by the Turkish invasion and the impossibility of transfer to an Iraq now in the midst of a political crisis: “We cannot take the risk of dispersion in the wilderness”, she stressed. Concerning the 224 orphans in Al-Hol, on the 25th, AANES transferred 21 of them to the better equipped camp of Roj. At the request of Paris, two of them will be handed over to a government representative for repatriation (AFP). On 30th January, faced with the persistent refusal of Western governments to receive their nationals, the AANES resolved to set up a court within three months to try them on the spot (Reuters).
After the Turkish invasion, the SDF had no choice but to make a military agreement with Damascus, which deployed its troops in the north of the country, thus limiting the Turkish advance. But the political discussions that followed, which were launched with the mediation of a Russian military delegation, stumbled over the intransigence of the regime, particularly with regard to AANES’ demand for autonomy. Damascus, emboldened by its recent progress and aware of the weakening of Rojava, made contact with the Arab tribal chiefs of the North; on the 6th, the head of Syrian Security, General Ali Mamluk, went to Qamishli, mainly to dissuade them from supporting SDF. On the 13th, he met his Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan in Moscow. An unnamed Turkish source told Reuters that a possible Turkish-Syrian coordination against the Kurds east of the Euphrates had been discussed, but this was denied by the official Syrian agency SANA, which said the discussion had focused on Turkish withdrawal from Syria, which Mamluk had officially requested at the end of the meeting. Discussions between AANES and Damascus should continue, again with Russian mediation.
The complexity of the situation in the Syrian North, where many actors are present: SDF, Syrian, Russian, American and Turkish soldiers... is illustrated by several skirmishes that took place at the end of the month between Russians and Americans near the Syrian oil fields in an area controlled by the SDF: no less than four in the week of the 20th in the province of Hassakeh, the last on the 26th when ten American armoured vehicles blocked the passage of a Russian convoy trying to enter the M4 motorway to reach the oil fields. A Russian helicopter was then similarly blocked by two American aircrafts (Ahval). A new confrontation took place on the 31st near Derik (Al-Malikiyah). The main place of tension has been the M4 motorway, which marks the boundary between the control zones of the two protagonists. In one case, the SDF intervened to defuse tensions that risked escalating from verbal altercations to the use of weapons (VOA).
Concerning intra-Kurdish relations, hesitant discussions continued, encouraged by the United States and Europe. France, in particular, submitted a roadmap to the AANES, which accepted it, aimed at restoring confidence. The AANES is dominated by the PYD (Party of Democratic Unity), its opposition includes a dozen parties, gathered in the Kurdish National Council (Encûmena Niştimanî ya Kurdî li Sûriyê, ENKS). After the Turkish invasion in October, the AANES launched an initiative towards the ENKS in an attempt to reunite the Kurds of Syria politically. The task is not easy, the ENKS being linked to the Syrian opposition, itself supported by Ankara, and most of its leaders have left the Rojava for the Kurdistan of Iraq, Turkey or Western countries. As a first step towards normalisation of relations, AANES announced that it would remove all legal obstacles to the reopening of ENKS offices and its political activities and drop all charges against its leaders. The ENKS, not recognising AANES, had refused to ask it for authorisations to operate, leading in 2016 to arrests and the closure of its offices. But for the ENKS, the most important issue is not the offices but its political prisoners. The “French roadmap” provided for the establishment of a list of names of political prisoners of the ENKS and the setting up by AANES of a commission of inquiry into their fate. A list of ten names had been transmitted on the 15th of December by the ENKS Presidency. On 11 January, Abdullah Kadou, a member of the political bureau of the Syrian National Coalition, stated on behalf of ENKS in an interview with the pro-opposition website Enab Baladi that the commission, after a thorough investigation, had concluded that the trace of eight of the ten prisoners had been lost, at a time of chaos, when disappearances numbered in the hundreds. The SDF commander Mazloum Abdi provided figures in a tweet, the sources of which he did not specify: in addition to these eight people, the number of missing persons in the areas controlled by the SDF would amount to 3.286: 544 abducted by ISIS, 2.368 by the Syrian Free Army and 374 others by the regime Security. On the 28th, Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the FDS, reiterated the importance of these negotiations, stating on Rûdaw that unity between the Kurdish parties was an “existential question”, while specifying that the SDF, as a military organisation, would not itself enter into political discussions. His words echo those of Mikhail Bogdanov: the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Representative of the Russian President in the Middle East similarly urged the Kurdish parties in Syria to unite for discussions with Damascus.
At the end of the month, ENKS was discussing the possible reopening of its offices in Rojava.
A number of recent reports on the human rights situation in Turkey depict a particularly frightening picture…
Opened on 28 January in Geneva, the Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights at the UN Human Rights Council discussed the situation in Turkey over two days, in the presence of Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Faruk Kaymakçı. The last two reviews of the country date from 2010 and 2015. A preparatory report, submitted by Turkey on 14 October, was published by the UN (https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/document/turkey/session_35_-_january_2020/a_hrc_wg.6_35_tur_1_e.pdf). Opening the session, Kaymakçı affirmed the country’s “zero tolerance for torture”, respect for freedom of assembly and organization, which he said are protected by the Constitution, with restrictions on these freedoms being in line with the standards of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Justifying the dismissal of the HDP mayors by the criminal investigations under way against them, the Turkish delegation attempted to give credence to the idea that all is for the best. The day before, however, the human rights NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) had published conclusions that were… quite different. In a statement prepared for the Geneva session, Hugh Williamson, its director for Europe and Central Asia, said: “Over the past four years, the Turkish authorities have detained and prosecuted opponents, journalists, activists and human rights defenders on vague charges of terrorism and others for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression and other non-violent activities. The large number of journalists, politicians and perceived government critics imprisoned and prosecuted contradicts the Turkish government’s public statements on the human rights situation in the country”. HRW called on the states participating in the Council session to urge the President’s administration Erdoğan to: end arbitrary and prolonged detentions, stop its interference in the judiciary, suppress obstacles to freedom of peaceful assembly, immediately implement the ECHR’s release decisions for Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş, and bring the Turkish Penal Code into line with international standards, including by reviewing the anti-terror law. During the session, more than fifty countries expressed criticism and recommendations regarding the situation of journalists and human rights defenders in Turkey. Criticism focused in particular on laws criminalising alleged insults to state institutions, the president or the Turkish nation, which have already been condemned in an ECHR judgment on the historian Taner Akçam. Sixteen states have criticised the systematic prohibitions of LGBTI events for several years in Ankara, Istanbul and other major cities.
The Deputy Minister Kaymakçı could only respond by denying the prohibitions and justifying those affecting Galatasaray: “Galatasaray Square being a tourist site, demonstrations by the Mothers of Saturday and the LGBTI community cannot be allowed there”... But despite his statements, two pieces of information published by Bianet testify to the extent to which anti-LGBTI discrimination has become current: after the pro-AKP newspaper Yeni Akit published an article on the Izmir Pride march containing offensive terms such as “dishonorable fags”, the youth association LGBTİ+ had filed a complaint for “open degradation of a part of the population due to differences in class, religion, sect, gender, region”. Considering the article as “criticism”, the prosecutor decided on the 15th not to prosecute (Bianet). On the same day another court rejected the complaint against the governor of Mersin for banning an LGBTI march as “the terrorist organisation ISIS and some radical circles could have reacted” to an event thus implicitly considered provocative.
At the same time, the ECHR published its own 2019 report (https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Annual_report_2019_ENG.pdf). It emphasizes that since ECHR establishment in 1959, Turkey has been among all states the most convicted of freedom of expression violations, with 356 verdicts, 35 of them in 2019. More broadly, ECHR has since 1959 handed down 3.645 judgments concerning Turkey, which was convicted 3.225 times. Of its 59.800 pending cases, 9.236 concern Turkey, a figure exceeded only by Russia.
The previous week, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) published a preliminary report entitled Threats to Media Freedom and Journalists’ Security in Europe (http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/X2H-Xref-ViewPDF.asp?FileID=28281&lang=en or http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/X2H-Xref-ViewPDF.asp?FileID=28281&lang=en ß for French, rename the file “pdf.aspx” obtained in “Threats.pdf”), to be discussed on the 21st in the General Assembly in Strasbourg. Prepared by Sir George Foulkes, British MP and PACE General Rapporteur on Freedom of the Media and the Safety of Journalists, the text states that of all Council members Turkey is the country which imprisons the most journalists, arbitrarily detained for months or even years in violation of the ECHR rules on freedom of expression.
The 2019 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report states that Turkey is also one of the countries in the world that jails the most journalists and subjects them to “a totally arbitrary judicial system”. Already, in November 2019, a report by the International Press Institute (IPI) had indicated that there were 120 journalists in Turkey “detained under the most serious charges of terrorism for months, sometimes years, awaiting trial, often without official charges”, [...] “following a prolonged and politically motivated repression of the media”.
The new European Union rapporteur on Turkey, Nacho Sanchez Amor, also made his first visit to the country at the end of January, where he met many political leaders, including the Speaker of Parliament, the Ministers of Interior, Foreign Affairs and Justice, representatives of the CHP and İYİ. In addition to Ankara, he visited İstanbul and Gaziantep, where he met the mayors Ekrem İmamoğlu (CHP) and Fatma Şahin (AKP). He also saw the dismissed Kurdish mayor of Mardin, Ahmet Türk (HDP), and executives of civil society organisations, journalists, academics and businessmen. He said he understood the trauma caused by the July 2016 coup attempt, but always asked his interlocutors: “When will you return to normality? When are you going to overcome this tense situation, this polarized situation? As you now have finally won the battle against the putschists?”. He insisted: “Some situations, such as that of Mr. Demirtaş [...] or Kavala must be resolved”.
Inside the country, the lawyer and deputy CHP Sezgin Tanrıkulu published on 17 January his own report, entitled The Shipwreck of Human Rights under the AKP regime (https://bianet.org/system/uploads/1/files/attachments/000/002/871/original/2002-2019_AKP’nin_%C4%B0nsan_Haklari_Enkazi.pdf). Covering the 17 years of AKP rule (2002-2019), the document deals in separate chapters with violations such as extrajudicial executions, arbitrary shootings, killings by unknown perpetrators, mines, attacks by illegal organizations, killings by village guards, migrant deaths, deaths in prison, hate crimes, femicides, deaths at work, violations of children’s right to life. Regarding violations of women’s right to life, the text states: “Violence against women and femicides have reached the level of gender genocide in Turkey”, and are increasing because women are not considered as “equal citizens” and not treated as equal to men.
The Freedom of Expression Initiative (Düşünce Suçu(!?)na Karşı Girişim) has also published its annual report for 2019, which summarises the violations suffered by rights defenders, social media users, opposition parties, academics and journalists in Turkey (https://www.dusun-think.net/yillik-yayinlar/dusunceye-ozgurluk-2019/). Among the statistics it provides are those concerning the 840 victims of torture who appealed to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV) during the first eleven months of 2019.
Another type of initiative is the open letter for the release of Osman Kavala published on 30 January in the Financial Times by a group of European politicians and intellectuals (https://www.ft.com/content/23d30e52-4298-11ea-a43a-c4b328d9061c) including several former ministers, following a first letter published on 7 November 2017. The letter concludes: “In its treatment of Mr Kavala, Turkey is in clear breach of its commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights and has, in the process, alienated almost all the friends it once had in Europe”.
Since it is impossible to list all the arrests and convictions affecting journalists in January, we will only mention the continuation of the Özgür Gündem newspaper case, in which, on the 13th, the prosecutor requested prison sentences against Eren Keskin, İnan Kızılkaya and Kemal Sancılı for “membership of a terrorist organisation” and against Zana Kaya and Aslı Erdoğan for “propaganda for a terrorist organisation”. The trial was adjourned to 14 February (Bianet, DW).
In the last week of January, a new tactic by the government to silence journalists appeared: depriving them of press cards. In Turkey, press cards are issued by the state, not professional associations, and their issuing committee, previously depending from the Communication Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office, was attached to the Presidency after the abolition of this function. The government has prepared its action well: in 2018, the representatives of professional organisations were excluded from the commission; then the following year, the press cards, which had previously been yellow, were changed to turquoise. Journalists were informed that their old yellow cards would no longer be valid after their expiry date, and that they had to request a new one on the commission’s website. Some of them, who had been waiting for months for their new cards to be issued, were surprised to discover at the end of January that the word “Revoked” appeared online, including for journalists from the daily Evrensel, with its editor Fatih Polat, and Gökhan Durmuş, president of the Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS)! In Diyarbakir, many journalists were in the same case, including the local head of the TGS and former Cumhuriyet correspondent Mahmut Oral. Telephone calls to the commission were not answered. Faruk Balıkçı, president of the Southeast Journalists’ Association, announced his intention to file a complaint and if necessary to go to the ECHR. On the 26th, the TGS organised a demonstration in front of the Directorate of Communication in which HDP and CHP MPs participated. The following day, the head of the Directorate of Communication, Fahrettin Altun, downplayed the case in a press release, accusing some media of exaggerating and speaking of “applications being evaluated”, in particular to check whether the candidate “really had a professional activity”, his possible “links with the terrorist organisation” etc (Bianet). Vigilance will continue to be the order of the day in the future.
The use of the Turkish judicial system as a tool for political repression, which is mentioned in all the reports, is evident in all the denials of justice it demonstrated lately. The former co-president of the HDP Selahattin Demirtaş, speaking by video from his prison in Edirne when his trial resumed on the 7th, described the situation perfectly when he declared that there was no longer a judicial system in Turkey: “The system established here by trials like this one is more or less that of the one-man regime in Hitler’s Germany. There used to be a judicial system, which worked well or badly, but now it no longer exists”. Demirtaş protested that the defence had not even had access to the documents submitted for his trial (ANF). In the trial of the Progressive Lawyers’ Association (ÇHD), it emerged in January that in October an Istanbul appeal court had rejected the defence objection the day before it received the judge’s opinion, thus handing down its verdict even before the thousands of pages of documents could be examined…
Another characteristic phenomenon of this “dissolution” of the judicial system is the “permanent witness”. Bianet has published several reports on one of them, known only by his initials “İ.Ö.”. Calling himself an “informer since he was ten years old”, incarcerated for “armed looting” while benefitting at the same time from a witness protection program, I.Ö. has testified in more than 100 political cases, including the trial of members of the Progressive Lawyers’ Association (ÇHD). He even filed a complaint (unsuccessful) against a lawyer who called him a “police informer”. Among others cases, İ.Ö. had condemned over his allegations alone (which moreover were inconsistent) Nazım Şafak Korkmaz, a member of the CHP. Having proposed in 2008 by letter to the police to reveal information about a planned assassination, he had “denounced” Korkmaz, who was almost ten years later, in April 2017, charged with “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order”! Despite an Intelligence report clearing him of any links with an illegal organization, Korkmaz was then sentenced to 23 years and 9 months in prison on the sole basis of the I.Ö. charges. He declared: “There is nothing against me, except the slander of someone who is not sane”.
The government regularly uses anonymous witnesses to obtain convictions. In the “Gezi trial”, one of Osman Kavala’s lawyers even stated that one of the prosecution witnesses in the case did not exist under that name: “The information about the identity of the witness [the court] is listening to is false. There is no one by the name of Murat Papuç”. The Communist Party of Turkey (TKP), of which Papuç was a member, also questioned his mental health... On the 28th, when the court denied the witness’s request for a challenge, lawyers left the hearing to protest; the court again decided to keep Osman Kavala in detention despite the ECHR verdict, and then adjourned the case until 18 February.
To end this column with a glimmer of hope, let’s mention two positive pieces of news. On the 16th, after over two years of proceedings, access to Wikipedia was unblocked in Turkey, following a decision of the Constitutional Court which ruled at the end of December that the banning of the online encyclopaedia on the grounds of “threat to national security” was unconstitutional, as a violation of freedom of expression. One of the offending articles linked Turkey to the support of terrorist groups, including al-Qa’ida and ISIS. On the 24th, Tuna Altınel, a mathematician and teacher at the University of Lyon 1, was finally acquitted of “propaganda for a terrorist organization”, a charge brought against him after his participation as a translator in a legal meeting of the “Association of Kurdish Friendship in Lyon”. It remains to be seen whether the authorities will return his passport to him so that he can finally come back to France.