Throughout December, Turkey, notably through its Syrian auxiliaries, continued to exert strong military pressure on the territories controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria (AANES) dominated by the Kurdish party PYD. While concentrating troops on the border, Ankara in particular continued its incessant attacks on the strategic town of Ain-Issa, and tried to seize the M4 motorway which links the Jezira to Kobanê from east to west and constitutes the southern limit of its so-called “security zone”. Controlling this road would almost allow Turkey to cut the Rojava in two...
The Rojava authorities have expressed concern about the possible rapid launch of a new Turkish military operation. Indeed, Ankara may fear that the new American President, Joe Biden, will adopt much tougher positions towards it than his predecessor. The transition period between the two administrations is therefore particularly at risk. The month of December finally ended without a new Turkish attack, but the concern remains valid until 20 January 2021, when the new American president will be sworn in and will actually come to power.
During this period, the Russians tried to take advantage of the situation and force AANES to cede total or partial control of Ain-Issa to the Damascus regime. They are thus updating the strategy they had implemented in 2018 for Afrin before the Turkish attack on the region. At the time, the Kurds had refused to cede Afrin to the regime, and the Russians had then left the field open to the Turks... According to Al-Monitor, after the refusal of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to cede Ain-Issa, the Russians, already installed in the former U.S. base in the city, then proposed a “Qamishli-like” solution, a city where Damascus controls the airport and some neighborhoods. After particularly violent Turkish artillery bombardments, the SDF only agreed in mid-December to the installation near the city on the M4 motorway of three “trilateral” observation posts, i.e. held jointly by SDF fighters, Russian and Syrian soldiers. The Russian military, which patrols the region jointly with the Turkish army, is arousing the mistrust of the local population. In November, the local population had demonstrated against the lack of Russian reaction to the Turkish violations of the ceasefire, which by 15 December had displaced, according to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory (OSDH), some 4.500 inhabitants of Ain Issa, i.e. 40% of its population, and 2.500 inhabitants of the surrounding villages....
Since the end of November, these violations have continued to escalate, with artillery bombardments almost daily. On the 6th, Voice of America (VOA) radio reported that the firing had targeted not only the town itself, but also the surrounding villages and a camp for displaced people (including former members of ISIS), injuring nine civilians, including two children. In addition to the bombardments, the Turks have repeatedly prevented civilians from using the M4, even though they are supposed to be able to travel on the M4 under the protection of… Turkish-Russian patrols.
In addition, pro-Turkish mercenaries have continued to regularly interrupt the drinking water supply to the entire region East of the Euphrates, including the town of Hasakah, by cutting off water from the Allouk station. Located near Ras al-Ain (Serê Kaniyê), the latter had fallen into their hands during the “Peace Spring” operation in October 2019. However, an agreement had been reached with the Russian mediation: in exchange for drinking water, the AANES would provide electricity to the areas occupied by the Turks. But since then, Syrian mercenaries have been ceaselessly cutting off the water while demanding more and more electricity. According to a report published on 30 November by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), the water supply in this region where 460.000 people live has been disrupted more than a dozen times this year. AANES denounced these cuts, which it called “biological extermination” (WKI). On the 13th, Sozdar Ahmed, co-president of the AANES Water Directorate, told Kurdistan-24 that the city of Hasakah had been without water for 25 days! Ankara clearly aims to increase the dissatisfaction of the inhabitants with the AANES.
On the 14th in Darbasiyah, unidentified gunmen opened fire on the office of ENKS – the Kurdish National Council of Syria, which brings together some 15 opposition parties to the AANES. The general commander of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, immediately denounced this attack (WKI), but it still puts at risk the ongoing negotiations between AANES and the opposition, which since their launch under the aegis of the Americans and the French, have aroused Turkish anger.
On the 16th, in an interview with the Kurdish agency Firat News (ANF), Emine Osê, vice-president of AANES, gave her analysis of Turkey’s regional game: in Syria, exploiting the vacuum created by the American elections and the blockage of the Astana and Geneva processes due to Russian bargaining over Idlib, it is redoubling its attacks on Ain-Issa and the M4 motorway, while seeking to stir up intra-Kurdish and Kurdish-Arab divisions. In the Kurdistan of Iraq, where it is still increasing its encroachments, it is also stirring up intra-Kurdish tensions.
On the night of the 18th, new clashes opposed Syrian mercenaries of Turkey to the SDF, still near Ain-Issa. An SDF commander said an attack to seize farmland near the city had been repelled (Reuters).
Clashes also continued in the Afrin region. On the 3rd, a Turkish soldier lost his life there (AFP).
During this month, new information also emerged about the hallucinating exactions of pro-Turkish mercenaries. According to a report broadcast on 23rd by the British channel Sky News in Arabic, Jaysh al-Nukhbah fighters have transferred to Libya Kurdish women from Afrin kidnapped in 2018 and enslaved, as did the ISIS jihadists with the Yezidi women of Sinjar in 2014. The report quotes testimonies broadcast by the Afrin Post news network that “the rape, captivity and oppression of Kurdish women in Afrin”, including “the murder of dozens of women, especially minors”, [...] “are perpetrated with the knowledge and approval of Turkey”. This information comes in particular from the testimony of a young woman whom her family managed to free from captivity. Ibrahim Sheikho, director of the “Afrin Organisation for Human Rights”, has also recorded hundreds of cases of kidnapping, gang rape and murder (Kurdistan au Féminin).
Moreover, the ISIS jihadists, although they have lost their territories in Syria, are far from having disappeared and continue their terrorist attacks. The Kurdish Institute of Washington (WKI) reported on the 8th that in the rural areas of Deir Ezzor and Hasakah provinces, at least five SDF fighters had lost their lives in the towns of Dhiban and Tayanna in attacks using IEDs and light weapons. On the 10th, the SDF announced the capture of three jihadists in Deir Ezzor thanks to a raid carried out with US support. At the same time, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that workers at the Tayanna oil refinery in Deir Ezzor had been demanded payment of zakat by members of ISIS.
Still on the subject of ISIS, on the 20th, Germany and Finland announced that the day before they had repatriated on humanitarian grounds by specially chartered charter plane five women, some of whom had been prosecuted for belonging to ISIS, and eighteen children, all of whom had previously been interned in AANES camps. The Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that it was legally impossible to repatriate the children without their mothers. Germany repatriated three women and twelve children, including some of their own, and Finland repatriated two women and six children. Most of the women, in very poor health according to an AANES official, needed medical treatment. For the first time, the repatriation was not via Turkey, but via Iraq. Suspected of having, with her husband, now deceased, used a young Yezidi woman as a slave in Raqqa, one of the three German women was arrested as soon as she arrived in Frankfurt.
More than 6.000 children and about 3.000 mothers of foreign nationality remain in the camps in Syria, including 600 children and 300 women of European nationalities. Half of the children are under age 5 (AFP).
The record of repression in Turkey for the year 2020 – and more broadly, since 2015 – is appalling. The “pro-Kurdish” HDP party has been the main victim. According to a report it recently published, nearly 20.000 of its members have been taken into custody, including 10.000 subsequently imprisoned (Ahval), as well as 200 elected representatives and 7 MPs; 51 HDP co-mayors elected in March 2019 have been dismissed and replaced by administrators, 6 mayors who won the elections were deprived of their mandate on the pretext of a previous revocation by emergency decree, and 36 co-mayors have been imprisoned, 17 of whom are still behind bars. At the end of December, out of 65 originally elected HDP mayors, there were only 5 left in office... For the Guardian’s correspondent in Turkey, Bethan McKernan, Erdoğan seems to have chosen to empty the HDP of its substance rather than ban it outright in order to avoid the creation of a united opposition front... (Ahval)
More broadly, the Turkish judiciary has lost its independence and has become totally at the service of the government. A symptom of this situation is the number of prosecutions for “insulting the president”, often following simple criticism on social networks: in the last six years, 9,556 convictions, of which 2,676 were for prison sentences ranging from one to four years, have been handed down. Among those charged are 903 minors aged 12 to 17 and 264 children aged 12 to 14 (Duvar).
Confronted with a record number of cases of Covid-19, the authorities have turned the epidemic into an opportunity to prohibit all political activities they do not like... while trying to hide the seriousness of the health situation. At the beginning of December, the Ministry of Health announced 31.923 new cases and 193 deaths in 24 hours, while the city of Istanbul alone counted 199... (Bianet) The president of the Turkish Doctors’ Union (TTB), Sebnem Korur Fincanci, also drew up an alarming assessment of the hospital situation and estimated that the real number of cases was rather close to the double, 60.000. The recent decision by the authorities to take into account asymptomatic patients, hitherto excluded from the statistics, has not led to more credible figures…
In several cases, members of the HDP have been victims of police violence during raids on their homes. For instance, Meryem Aşkara, who testified that she was beaten for 20 minutes and threatened with pistols by Special Forces at her home at Şırnak on 2 December, before her parents, alerted by her screams, were also beaten (Mezopotamya). The police officers who were responsible then filed a complaint for assault against Aşkara and her roommate, Cizre’s former co-mayor Berivan Kutlu. Other cases of this kind had already been reported, some of them against children, sometimes involving the use of police dogs (SCF). In other cases, it is the military who carried out exactions against civilians, such as Özcan Erbaş, an 18-year-old young man killed on 20 November in Hakkari by shots fired from the police station while he was having a picnic with friends. After his death in hospital, the governor’s office said he was killed after being summoned while smuggling (Duvar). Unfortunately, impunity is the rule in most of these cases: nine years after the Roboski massacre (Şırnak), in which 34 civilians, including 19 minors, were killed by Turkish F-16 bombs on the Turkish-Iraqi border, it is the victims’ relatives who are being tried for denouncing the massacre or participating in commemorations... The victims were targeted as they were bringing basic necessities, fuel, tea, sugar and cigarettes from Iraq by donkey (RojInfo). In 2017, the authorities had a monument in Diyarbakir removed in memory of the victims. A court martial ruled that the Turkish army had not been negligent and none of the perpetrators of the massacre were bothered (Rûdaw).
The MHP has been calling for a ban on HDP. On the 11th, Bahçeli said that “Turkish politics no longer has the capacity to tolerate” it. The next day, MHP deputy Semih Yalçın in turn called for the “eradication” of the HDP, accusing it of having the PKK as its “subcontractor”, adding that both HDP and PKK are “enemies of the people, nature and humanity”... (Ahval)
Other, older cases of racist crime are also marked by impunity. Thus the massacre of the Alevis Kurds of Maraş, perpetrated between 19 and 26 December 1978 by Islamo-fascists claiming to be Grey Wolves, with the complicity of the forces of law and order. 42 years later, its hundreds of victims still do not know the rest that justice should bring them... The latest case to date is the attack on seasonal Kurdish workers in Sakarya last September, for which the court decided on 25 December not to prosecute the attackers... (Bianet)
In another case, 27 men belonging to the police, military and village guards (korucu) are accused of having gang-raped a 15-year-old Kurdish girl. The case came to light when the Jin News agency reported that a 15-year-old Kurdish girl had gone to the hospital in Gercus (Batman) complaining of stomach pains, before doctors discovered she was pregnant. For this revelation, the news agency was threatened and its website closed down, and only two of the suspects were arrested. The spokesperson for the HDP Women’s Commission, Ayse Acar Basaran, castigated the AKP for allowing rapists to go unpunished. On the 7th, police violently attacked and beat women who had gathered outside the HDP premises in Van to protest (Morning Star). On the 9th, before the trial (which only involved 11 of the 27 defendants), lawyer Eren Keskin, co-chair of the Human Rights Association (İHD), said: “Impunity is at the root of the increase in sexual violence”. Referring to the sexual violence committed by soldiers and others since 1997, she said that so far, even if all the evidence is available, with the exception of two village guards, no member of the security forces has been punished. Ms Keskin recalled the case of Ipek Er, who committed suicide after being raped by a non-commissioned officer, who was later released. “There is a reason why we say that the murders are political”, she added. “Alaatin Çakıcı, who murdered a woman in front of a child, can now freely and openly threaten anyone”. For the record, Çakıcı is this fascist mafia leader and friend of the president of the far-right MHP party, Devlet Bahçeli, who was released from prison thanks to the judicial reform put in place by the AKP-MHP government.
Indictments and convictions of HDP elected officials, but also of civil society leaders and journalists who dared to denounce the human rights situation, continued until the end of the month. The government is using in particular violence which erupted in the protests against the siege of Kobanê by ISIS in 2014 to indict the HDP leaders of the time. Thus on the 8th, the former member of the HDP Executive Council Meryem Adibelli was arrested, then charged on the 11th with “membership of a terrorist organisation”. On the 14th, Rojda Nazlier, co-mayor of Kocaköy (Diyarbakır), dismissed and arrested on 20 October 2019 and replaced by an administrator, was sentenced to nine years in prison for the same charge on partly anonymous testimonies. In parallel, three people were arrested on the same charge in Adana, three others in Mersin, five in Muş and six in Cizre, and the parliament has started to consider lifting the legislative immunity of 17 other HDP deputies.
Prison conditions, already inhuman, have worsened further due to the Covid-19 epidemic. Protesting against violations of their rights and the total isolation imposed on Abdullah Öcalan on the prison island of İmralı, a first group of prisoners, mainly members of the PKK and PJAK, went on hunger strike on 27 November. It is an unlimited hunger strike, with alternating periods of 5 days. A second group took over on 2 December. On the 16th, after 20 days of fasting, when a fourth group of strikers took over, prisoner Mehmet Kurt declared: “If our alternating hunger strike does not produce results, we will move to a non-alternating hunger strike” (RojInfo).
On the 21st, former HDP MP Leyla Güven was convicted of “membership of a terrorist group” for her former position as co-president of the DTK (Congress of Democratic Society) and sentenced to 22 years and three months in prison by a Diyarbakir court. Güven, when she was detained, had also initiated, in November 2018, a hunger strike movement in prisons (AFP).
On the 23rd, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) announced that, while it had just the day before published a judgment again condemning Turkey very severely for the detention of the former co-president of the HDP Selahattin Demirtaş, it had been the victim of a “large-scale cyberattack” which lasted several hours and made its website temporarily inaccessible. Noting in its judgment several violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Court had once again demanded the “immediate” release of the prisoner. The Turkish President violently condemned the judgment the same day, describing it as an “entirely political decision” (L’Express). On the 30th, Demirtaş, together with 108 other people, was the aim of a new indictment was issued by the Ankara Prosecutor’s Office, again in connection with the 2014 “Kobanê case”. According to the Anatolian state agency, the charges include undermining the unity and territorial integrity of the state as well as 37 homicides: the victims of violence during the protests (Reuters).
The government’s vindictiveness also pursues all those who question its repression, especially journalists. On the 7th, Ayşegül Doğan, former programme coordinator of the opposition and pro-Kurdish channel IMC-TV, closed in 2016, was sentenced to six years and three months in prison for “belonging to the DTK”, an organisation whose activities she had covered as a journalist (AFP, SCF). On the 17th, it was the journalist of the Mezopotamya Zeynep Durgut agency who was arrested during an identity check in Cizre, while she was accompanied by three other journalists. Durgut had been covering the case of two villagers from Van who were thrown from a Turkish army helicopter and one of them died of his injuries. On the 23rd, the former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Cumhuriyet Can Dündar was sentenced in his absence to more than 27 years in prison, 18 years and nine months for “obtaining confidential information for espionage”, and a further eight years and nine months for helping supporters of exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen. In fact, the Turkish president reproaches him above all for having revealed to the public how a so-called humanitarian aid convoy to Syria was in reality a delivery of arms from the MIT (Turkish secret service) to Syrian Islamist fighters. Turkey has asked Germany for Dündar’s extradition and last October froze his assets in Turkey. According to the annual global report of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), published this month, 37 journalists were arrested in Turkey in 2020 (The Guardian).
Another judicial scandal in Turkey is the continued detention since October 2017 of businessman and civil society activist Osman Kavala. Acquitted in February 2020 in the trial of the Gezi Park demonstrations, he had been kept in prison on ridiculous charges of attempted coup and espionage. In an interim resolution adopted on 3rd December, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe demanded his immediate release. On the 17th, the day before the first hearing of his case was due to take place, the Turkish Constitutional Court transmitted his case file to its General Assembly, thus delaying the decision until after the hearing on the 18th. During the hearing, the Court decided to keep the businessman in prison, prompting a highly critical joint statement by the European Parliament’s rapporteur for Turkey and the chairman of the European Union-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Delegation to the European Parliament, Nacho Sanchez Amor and Sergey Lagodinsky respectively. Both denounced “the lack of will of the Turkish authorities to implement substantial reforms in the field of the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and fundamental rights”.
The Turkish State is also continuing its policy of cultural destruction of the Kurdish heritage. It is known that the medieval town of Hasankeyf was submerged in 2019 despite protests. In Diyarbakir, several buildings in the historic centre, in the medieval walled district of Sur, have been demolished in recent weeks. Shops have also reportedly been demolished without the owners’ consent...
Finally, in terms of external relations, Turkey’s position continued to deteriorate this month. At NATO, the American Secretary of State now on the point of departure, Mike Pompeo, provoked surprise on the 2nd by denouncing in his “testament-speech” the “policy of fait accompli” of Turkey in several regional crises and by asking the regime of the Turkish president to “return to an allied behaviour” (Le Monde). Relations are also gradually becoming more and more tense with the European Union where, since 20 November when in the Mediterranean German soldiers searched a Turkish ship suspected of violating the Libyan embargo, Germany itself seems to be hardening its position... (Le Figaro) On 10 November, the Brussels summit decided to punish the actions described as “illegal and aggressive” by Turkey in the Mediterranean against Greece and Cyprus. According to the French Secretary of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune, for the moment these are “individual sanctions”, but “additional measures may be decided if Turkey continues its actions”. On the 16th, Washington in turn sanctioned Ankara for the acquisition of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system, banning all arms exports for the SSB, the Turkish military procurement agency. Erdoğan denounced an attack on Turkey’s “sovereignty”, but for both the EU and the US, these are still targeted sanctions, in a way a minima. And unlike Washington, Brussels has not imposed an embargo on arms sales to Turkey, as had been requested by Athens.
The budgetary dispute with Baghdad has again aggravated the chronic financial crisis in which the Kurdistan Region has been plunged since Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki stopped paying its fraction of the federal budget in 2014. Delays in payments and cuts in the salaries of many civil servants led to demonstrations from the beginning of December, particularly in the province of Suleimaniyeh. These eventually degenerated into violence.
Many employees of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), including teachers, have taken to the streets after months without pay. Demonstrations were more intense in small towns, where security was less strict than in the provincial capital, Suleimaniyeh. It was in one such town, Chamchamal, that a demonstration went off the rails on the 4th when, according to a medical source, a young man was shot dead by security forces protecting the offices of several political parties (AFP). On the evening of the 7th there were at least four victims among the demonstrators, including two deaths in Kifri and Derbandikhan. In Seidsadiq, the premises of several political parties were set on fire. Iraqi President Barham Salih, himself a Kurd, called on politicians to avoid violence against the demonstrators and to let the media do their job. The opposition-aligned NRT had been harassed, raided and several of its offices closed, before the KRG suspended its broadcasts for one week, accusing it of “irresponsibility”. However, the channel managed to resume broadcasting later from an undisclosed location abroad. On the same day, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani said that while demonstrating was a legitimate right, attempts at destruction were to be distinguished from the expression of legitimate claims and that the perpetrators should be brought to justice.
On the 8th, AFP counted six demonstrators killed. The UN office in Iraq denounced the violence, calling for “the rapid opening of an investigation to identify the perpetrators of violence and make them accountable”. On the 9th, new demonstrations brought together hundreds of people in several Kurdistan cities, including Dokan, Ranya, Derbandikhan, Piramagrûn and Chamchamal. According to local and medical sources and the Iraqi Human Rights Commission, the violence of the previous two days left six people dead and dozens injured when security forces in several towns fired live ammunition. On the 11th, protesters who had gathered in front of the governorate headquarters in Suleimaniyeh province were quickly dispersed by tear gas from the anti-riot police (AFP). In the provinces of Dohuk and Erbil, controlled by the KDP, the situation appeared calmer, probably partly because for several months the security forces, seeking to avoid demonstrations, have arrested many activists (RFI). On the 15th, the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) drew up a report on the preceding days that included the deaths of nine demonstrators and of a peshmergas colonel in Dokan, and the burning of government buildings and political offices in the towns of Sulaymaniyeh, Ranya, Dokan, Kalar, Halabja and Kifri. At least 60 demonstrators were also arrested.
Throughout the month, the KRG continued its discussions with the Baghdad government regarding its share of the federal budget and delays in the funds allocated for the payment of civil servants’ salaries. Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talibani told a press conference in Baghdad that talks were continuing, stressing that the KRG was ready to exchange its revenues and oil production for its share of the federal budget.
At the Iraqi level, the financial situation is not much better. Historically low oil prices have placed the country in an alarming economic and financial situation. On the 19th, in an attempt to improve the situation, the government decided on a devaluation of the dinar, which almost immediately provoked protests, as the population feared an increase in the price of imported goods. On 21st December, the approval by the Council of Ministers of a provisional budget for 2021 of 103 billion dollars, with a deficit of 43 billion, was not much better received; the Iraqis were worried in particular about cuts in the salaries of civil servants (these were quickly denied by Prime Minister Kadhimi). Within minutes of the budget’s approval, the hashtag "Reject_Kadhimi’s_BudgetBill" went up on Twitter... The budget will now have to be submitted to parliament for final approval.
Speaking about the continuing budget dispute between Erbil and Baghdad, Mr Kadhimi expressed the hope that an agreement would soon be reached with the Kurds, who, he recalled, “are also inhabitants of Iraq” (Rûdaw). However, according to a federal government economic adviser, the still unresolved differences with the KRG over Kurdish oil exports and the Region’s debts make the prospect of a rapid agreement unlikely... (Gulf Times).
However, on the evening of the 22nd, KRG Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani said that Erbil and Baghdad had reached an agreement on the 2021 Iraqi federal budget. On the 23rd, however, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani “[called] on the United Nations to attend the discussions between the Kurdistan Region and the federal government as a third party, so that the rights and duties of each party are clear”. Barzani also accused the Iraqi government of using budgetary issues as “a trump card against the people of the Kurdistan Region” (Rûdaw).
At the same time, Kurdistan continued to fight the coronavirus epidemic. As of 30 November, there had been 96.201 cases since the outbreak of the virus; as of 31 December, the figure had risen to over 103.000. As frightening as these figures are, it should be noted that in recent months Kurdistan has seen a relative decrease in the number of new daily cases, which at one time amounted to 1.600. As of 30 November, there were 410 new cases and 14 deaths, for a total of 3.146 deaths; as of 7 December, there were 372 new cases, as of 14 December, 201, with nine deaths: four in Dohuk province, four in Suleimaniyeh, and one in Erbil. As winter approached, health officials repeatedly warned residents to strictly observe health measures to prevent the combination of influenza and coronavirus from overburdening the health system (Kurdistan-24). On the 16th, the KRG Ministry of Health announced 238 new cases and eleven deaths: seven in Suleimaniyeh, three in Dohuk and one in Raparin (Kurdiu). On the 24th, the KRG, following the federal government, banned all travel between the Region and nine different countries due to the appearance of new variants of VIDOC-19: United Kingdom, South Africa, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, Iran, and Japan. Iraqi citizens returning from these countries will have to isolate themselves for 14 days upon their return. In addition, the borders with Iran have been closed to tourist (but not business) travel. With the end-of-year celebrations approaching, the Ministry of the Interior has also banned all gatherings or celebrations in restaurants, bars, nightclubs or cafeterias in the Region. Although fireworks were indeed fired to commemorate New Year’s Eve, the festivities were, as in most countries of the world, a tone below that of previous years.
In the disputed territories between the KRG and the federal government in Kirkuk earlier this month, Iraqi security forces began to hand back control of entry points into the city to the local police. This movement could extend to the whole province, as Kurdish and Arab representatives of the province have begun discussions on the creation of a multi-ethnic provincial security force. This is the only somewhat positive step forward in a set of areas where security remains extremely problematic. Indeed, taking advantage of the lack of effective coordination between Kurdish and federal forces, the jihadists of ISIS continue their terrorist activities there. Six of them were killed on the 6th by an American strike in the south of the province, where Iraqi forces also apprehended six others, including an intelligence officer (WKI). On the morning of the 9th, two oil wells in the Khabbaz field were burnt down, without the operation being claimed. On the other hand, the next day ISIS claimed responsibility for the assassination of at least 19 members of the Kirkuk security forces over the previous three weeks. It was precisely the persistence of this threat that led representatives of the Kirkuk Majlis al-Arabi (Arab Council) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to meet in Baghdad at the beginning of the month with the governor of Kirkuk, Rakan al-Jaburi. The meeting, led by Iraqi President Barham Saleh himself, discussed how to strengthen security in Kirkuk through a “united force” (Reuters). Finally, on the 26th, two jihadists from ISIS were killed in a federal police operation in the south-west of the province (Rûdaw).
At the same time, Kurds in the rural areas of Kirkuk continue to face eviction attempts by former Arab settlers from the time of Saddam Hussein. A representative of the village of Palkana, in the Sargaran sub-district west of Kirkuk, said that Iranian-backed militias had given the inhabitants 48 hours to evacuate the village and make way for Arab tribes (WKI). After residents rejected the ultimatum, intimidation continued with the deployment of police and security forces in the village. The villagers appealed to the KRG Prime Minister and the PUK. Yielding under the pressure, which had been constant for some time, several Kurdish families had already left the village. On the 13th, representatives of Palkana gave the Kurdish deputies a detailed report of the violations committed by the Arab settlers. The deputy speaker of the Iraqi parliament ordered the creation of a joint committee, a delegation of which will come to examine the situation (Rûdaw). Iraqi security forces briefly detained four Kurdish journalists who were trying to cover ongoing developments in villages under threat (WKI).
Finally, further north this time, the Kurdistan Region is experiencing other tensions due to the Turkish military presence. Since the launch of the anti-PKK operations “Claw-Eagle” (air) then “Claw-Tiger” (land) last June, the Ankara army has gradually deployed on the territory of the Region, setting up dozens of bases, launching air strikes and drones. According to the NGO Christian Peacemaker Team, the Turkish operations in Kurdistan have resulted since 2015 in more than 100 civilian wounded and 97 deaths, and forced the abandonment of 126 villages. A recent report by the KRG counts more than 500 villages abandoned since the early 1990s due to clashes between the PKK and Turkey... Turkey behaves as if it owned the place, clearly taking no precautions to spare civilians, and going as far as targeting Iraqi border guards deployed in the North to try to ease tensions. Two of them were again killed recently by a Turkish strike. “Turkey takes no responsibility for its abuses and blunders”, a representative of the NGO Human Rights Watch told Orient XXI. Such an attitude can only increase the hostility of the local population towards it. But the Turkish game also aims to exacerbate pre-existing intra-Kurdish tensions. At the same time, during the Iraqi Prime Minister’s visit to Ankara on the 17th, the Turkish President urged him to act against the PKK, a “common enemy”. Mr. Kadhimi then declared “[condemning] any action [...] launched from Iraqi territory to attack Turkey”, adding: “We have also prevented these groups [threatening regional security] from entering Iraq across the border with Syria” (AFP).
And indeed, tensions at the Syrian border have been rising this month, not only with the Iraqi government, but also with the KRG: just the day before Mr Kadhimi’s statement, on the 16th, the Deputy Minister of Pechmergas, Serbest Lazgîn, announced that his pechmergas had been attacked by a force of 50 to 60 fighters from Rojava, apparently members of the YPG. The attack came after a group of about ten YPG members attempting to enter Kurdistan were ordered to turn back (Rûdaw). On the 17th, the YPG denied in a statement that it had attacked the peshmergas. Stressing their “respect for the sovereignty of the Kurdistan Region”, they stated that what had happened was nothing but the result of a lack of coordination between the forces involved, adding that there was no good reason for such an attack (Shafaq). Whatever the real nature of the incident, the nervousness on the part of the Pechmergas is understandable, as it occurred only two days after one of their number was killed in a clash with the PKK at one of their checkpoints near Amêdî (Dohuk), during which three PKK members were also seriously injured, and one subsequently died of his injuries. This exchange of fire, which was triggered when PKK fighters tried to force their way through, followed several others.
On the 23rd, the KRG officially requested the US to deploy forces along the Syria-Iraq border to prevent further clashes between pechmergas and YPG. The KRG spokesman, Jutiar Adil, said at a press conference that this request was intended to “express the good will of the Kurdistan Region and show that it is not campaigning for war”, and that it was “for the US forces to become a moderator between the two forces so that no fighting takes place” (Rûdaw).
The assessment of the year 2020 is certainly bleak in Kurdistan. In addition to the pandemic that has hit the world, Iraq has suffered further economic hardship due to the collapse of oil prices caused by the virus, and Kurdistan has had to deal with the impact of the budget dispute with Baghdad. Perhaps, to end on a note of hope for the future, we can mention the appointment by the Provincial Council of Dohuk on 2 December of Kurdistan’s first female district mayor, Miran Abdulrahman, who will represent Bamarne.
December began in Iran under the shadow of the death of the physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. He was buried on 30 November in an official ceremony worthy of the Islamic Republic’s highest dignitaries, as had been General Ghassem Soleimani, killed last January in Baghdad by an American drone strike. Like Soleimani, Fakhrizadeh, considered one of the architects of the Iranian nuclear programme, was the victim of a targeted assassination operation, but this time it was organised on Iranian territory, since his armoured vehicle was attacked on 27 November on the outskirts of Tehran. Defence Minister Amir Hatami said during the ceremony that the assassination “would not go unanswered”, before announcing the doubling of the budget of the military research organisation Sepand, of which Fakhrizadeh was one of the vice-presidents (Le Monde).
The fact that such an operation could succeed in Iran itself, and against such an important personality who was under permanent protection, caused great tension among the leaders, each one trying to clear himself of such a failure. As the New York Times wrote: “Since the killing of the scientist on Friday, contradictory reports in the official news media about the escape or even existence of a hit team […] have revealed tensions between competing Iranian intelligence agencies as each sought to dodge blame for an egregious security lapse”.
This allowed the conservatives, who have always been very opposed to the nuclear agreement negotiated in Vienna by the Rohani government, to impose their views. The parliament voted on 1st December by a strong majority a law that gives the government two months to increase the enrichment of 120 kg of uranium to 20% per year, while the agreement limits it to 3.67% ... The president immediately criticised a law “harmful to the diplomatic activities of the country” (Le Monde).
At the same time, the country has continued to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, with the government continuing to conceal the figures. On the 5th, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), based as for all its estimates on a compilation of several provincial sources, counted more than 177.300 deaths due to the coronavirus in 465 cities in Iran – almost 5 times the official figure. The PMOI figures for some provinces are as follows: Lorestan 7.235, Western Azerbaijan 6.620, Kurdistan 3.106, and Ilam 1.860. On the 13th, the PMOI gave more than 184.000 deaths, of which 7.465 in Lorestan, 6.928 in Western Azerbaijan, 3.896 in Kermanchah and 3.191 in Kurdistan. By 30 December, the number of deaths had risen to over 194.400 in 478 cities (compared with an official figure of 54.440 on the 25th), even though the Iranian president, after misleading optimistic statements, finally admitted that it was impossible to predict how long it would take to produce the Iranian vaccine. On that date, there were 3.336 deaths in Kurdistan, and 2.005 in Ilam (NCRI)... The population, outraged by the confusion of the government’s vaccination policy, flooded the social networks in protest, launching the hashtag "#Buy the vaccine" on Twitter (Le Monde).
This month, the regime’s repressive forces have again murdered new kolbars, those Kurdish cross-border porters who, although generally unarmed, are systematically shot by the pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) or the border guards. According to the Kurdistan Human Rights Association KMMK, the total number of kolbars thus killed in 2020 was more than 70 at the beginning of December. The human rights organisation Hengaw, for its part, has published a full report on its website (https://hengaw.net/en/news/240-kurdish-kolbars-and-local-tradesmen-killed-and-wounded-during-2020-in-iranian-kurdistan-list-of-names) on attacks on kolbars for the year just ended, and the figures are literally chilling. According to Hengaw’s calculations, at least 240 Kurdish kolbars and local traders were killed or injured in 2020, an increase of at least 3 cases compared to 2019. This increase may seem insignificant, but in fact it is notable, as borders remained closed for two months due to the Covid-19 epidemic. On these figures, direct fire by the Iranian and Turkish armed forces accounts for 199 cases, or 49 killed and 150 wounded. The rest are due to mines and deaths from cold, but there are also falls into ravines or car accidents (13 car accidents resulting in 4 killed and 9 injured), some of which are the result of pursuits by the law enforcement forces. During 2020, at least 16 kolbars were killed or wounded by direct fire from the Turkish armed forces (6 killed and 10 wounded), up from 2019. Local Kurdish traders were also hit: 12 were killed or injured on the roads, 9 of them by direct fire from the repressive forces. 10 died, 3 of them in accidents during pursuit by the same law enforcement forces. Finally, Hengaw counted at least 4 minor kolbars injured and one killed.
During the first week of December, more kolbars were injured or killed. According to KMMK, one was killed near Sardasht on the 3rd and another was injured when he fell off a cliff while fleeing from border guards near Baneh. On the 6th, the border guards killed another kolbar, again near Sardasht. The following week, two more kolbars were wounded by gunfire near Paveh and Nowsud, and a third by a mine in Hawraman. Finally, on the 17th, border guards opened fire on a group near Baneh and seriously injured two of its members (WKI).
The economic crisis and poverty are reducing more and more young Kurds in Iran to take up the job of kolbar, despite its danger. They are also pushing more and more Kurds to the loss of all hope and to suicide. According to figures released by Hengaw this month, 22 Iranian Kurds, 12 men and 10 women, including 8 minors, committed suicide in November alone. Among the minors were five girls and three boys. Most suicides were the result of family problems or poverty. The victims sometimes used poison or fire, but the majority hanged themselves. According to the Iranian economist Ibrahim Razaghi, there are now thirty million unemployed and sixty million people living below the poverty line in the country.
The end of the year unfortunately saw no break in the anti-Kurdish repression, which continued with its litany of arrests, convictions and executions. On 22 December, the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) published an estimate of at least 257 Kurdish activists arrested during the year 2020... Earlier this month, activist Latif Abdi began a two-year prison sentence in Paveh for “membership of a Kurdish party”. Abdi went on hunger strike in protest against his imprisonment. In Marivan, another Kurd named Khairat Paiza was sentenced to 6 months in prison for “cooperation with a Kurdish opposition party”, and in Sanandaj an elderly man was imprisoned by the Etelaat without the charges brought against him communicated to his family (WKI). In Urmia, political prisoners also went on hunger strike in protest at the refusal by judges to grant them parole or temporary release due to the epidemic. On the 9th, seven Kurds were arrested in Baneh, and two brothers in Urmia, Shukar and Kamil Jabarwand, for “cooperation with a Kurdish party against the Islamic Republic”.
On the 14th, the English anthropologist and documentary filmmaker of Kurdish origin Kameel Ahmady was sentenced in Tehran to nine years in prison for “collaboration with a hostile government”. Ahmady conducts research in the field of gender, working in particular on child marriage and female genital mutilation, but he is also interested in the rights of ethnic minorities and other sensitive subjects (his work, articles, books and audiovisuals are available on his website, https://kameelahmady.com/). First arrested in August 2019, he was imprisoned for three months before being released on bail. According to a translation by Associated Press of the Tasnim agency report, Ahmady was accused of “cooperating with European embassies for the promotion of homosexuality, visiting Israel as a BBC journalist, cooperating and communicating with foreign and hostile media, infiltrating the law and sending false reports on the country to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran” (Kurdistan au Féminin).
At the same time, arrests and convictions continued: four Kurds arrested in Oshnavieh, one in Divandareh, another sentenced to ten months in prison in Kamyaran and one to two years in Saqqez, the two last ones both for having “cooperated with a Kurdish opposition party and made propaganda in its favour”... Finally, according to the KMMK, a man was arrested at the University of Kermanshah for “disrespect to Qassem Soleimani”: he is the fifth in one year (WKI).
The third week of December was particularly bloody, with twelve executions in prisons in many cities, including several women and a convict who was a minor at the time of the events for which he had been tried. Among those executed that week was Mohammad Moradi, who was hanged on the 17th in Saqqez central prison. But as the website La Minute points out, this is probably only a part of the death sentences, as many prisoners were executed in secret... Then on the morning of the 27th, according to a report received by Hengaw, the death sentence of a Kurdish woman from Qorwa, identified as “Zeinab Khodamuradi”, aged 42, was carried out in the central prison of Sanandaj. Psychologically unstable after her pregnancy, she had been arrested in 2015 for the murder of her 12-day-old child and her 7-year-old daughter-in-law.
Finally, in the area of State terrorism, the Islamic Republic is constantly innovating. Iran was known to be capable of sending its assassins abroad to execute its opponents at point-blank range or to plant bombs in their meetings. The Pasdaran did not hesitate to launch missile strikes on opponents’ bases outside the borders. Holders of dual nationality can also be arrested during a visit and then used as a bargaining chip against imprisoned Iranian assassins. Recently, members of the Iranian diaspora in Canada testified that they had been intimidated for having looked too deep into the crash of the Ukrainian plane over Tehran…
Not content with all these practices, Iran has now undertaken to lure and kidnap some of its dissidents abroad in order to bring them back to the country and put them on trial or even sentence them to death. For example, Iranian journalist Rouhollah Zam, who had been living in exile in France since 2012, was lured to Iraq in 2019 by a proposal for financial aid from alleged Iranian opponents for his television channel project. Kidnapped in Baghdad by the Pasdaran, he was brought back to Iran where he was tried in the Iranian manner, i.e. without any right of defence, found guilty among other things of “espionage” for the benefit of France, insulting the “sanctity of Islam”, and hanged on 12 December. The regime had not forgiven him for his citizen journalism during the demonstrations in the winter of 2017-2018, and especially not for his revelations about the corruption of several Iranian leaders (Le Monde). A similar case concerns Habib Chaab, another Iranian dissident from Khuzistan exiled in Sweden. Lured to Istanbul by a woman working for the Iranian secret service, he was kidnapped there on 9 October and reappeared on Iranian television in a video in which he “confessed” to working for the Saudi intelligence services and to having been involved in the Ahwaz attack in September 2018. Will Habib Chaab suffer the same fate as Rouhollah Zam? Whatever the case, as Le Monde notes in reporting on these cases, the development of these practices, entrusted to the Pasdaran, suggests a growing militarisation of the regime which can only worry about the future.