With the New Year, press organs, international agencies and Turkish civil society organisations have submitted their 2020 assessments for Turkey. Although different, all these reports agree on one point: 2020 has been a black year in all respects. Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, the country is ranked 97th out of 100 countries in the world for the transparency of its management (Duvar). Ankara’s official contamination counts were completely discredited when it was revealed that they did not take into account asymptomatic cases... Doubt had arisen just before, when the CHP (Kemalist opposition) municipality of Istanbul started publishing figures for the city that were higher than those of the Ministry of Health for the whole country! “The personal management of the pandemic [by the President] has placed the country barely above North Korea”, CHP deputy Çetin Osman Budak could not help but ironically said...
Nor is there any transparency for the economy: at the end of December, the statistical institute TürkStat announced an average annual inflation rate of 14.6% for 2020, with services reaching 28.12% and the food and non-alcoholic drinks group 21.12%. But the figures of the ENAG inflation research group, published later, once again cast doubt on this: according to the academics who created it, the average inflation rate for 2020 is actually 36.72%, with a monthly inflation rate of 4.08% (Bianet). Similarly for unemployment, economists predict real figures twice as high as the official figures. Turks have lost 41% of their purchasing power in recent years (Le Monde).
As for human rights, there are so many reports on their situation in Turkey for 2020 that it is impossible to quote them all. We will only mention the one of the Dicle Firat Journalists’ Association (DFG), made public at a press conference held at the association’s headquarters in Diyarbakir on 4 January (https://bianet.org/english/human-rights/237467-21-prisoners-live-in-a-ward-for-7): 79 journalists arrested, 24 imprisoned, and 19 assaulted. The Co-President of DFG, Dicle Müftüoğlu, called for the case of Kurdish journalists to be considered separately: “In Turkey, the Kurdish press is facing serious obstacles which are intensifying”. She cited as an example the situation of the four journalists of the Mezopotamia agency arrested on 10 October for “denigrating the State” after they reported on the case of the two villagers of Van thrown from a helicopter by the military (Rojinfo). Turkey remained the world’s leading jailer of journalists in 2020, with a third of the world total. Sexual assaults and murders of women (and sometimes Kurdish women by the military) also deserve a separate report...
The situation in Turkish prisons has long been a measure of the violence of political repression in that country, and 2020 has been no exception. On 13 January, the Ankara branch of the Human Rights Association İHD published its report on rights violations in 18 prisons in Central Anatolia during the last three months of the year: at least 24 prisoners were tortured and/or ill-treated, and 9 others lost their lives, 4 of them to coronavirus and 2 to suicide... (Bianet)
In addition, the 2020 balance sheet of repression is particularly heavy for the left-wing and “pro-Kurdish” opposition party HDP, with 16,000 of its members arrested or imprisoned, and out of 65 candidates elected in 2019 to municipalities in Kurdistan of Turkey, only 5 are still in office at the end of December. Of these 5 “survivors”, Adalet Fidan, Silopi’s co-mayor, told the Guardian she expected to be arrested every morning...
In this context, the MAK company published on 28 January the results of a survey carried out between 14 and 26 January among 2,850 people in 51 Turkish provinces, and they must alarm the AKP and its ultra-nationalist ally MHP, who are currently sharing power: if general elections were held now, AKP and MHP would get only 44.1% of the votes, which would not allow to elect a president... The same poll shows that neither the MHP nor the HDP would obtain the 10% of votes needed to be present in Parliament (Bianet). Thus, the year 2021 appears, in the words of the newspaper Le Monde, to be “the year of all dangers for Erdoğan”: the Turkish president finds himself “at an impasse, confronted internally with his political decline”, while the external military adventures he has launched, precisely to halt this internal decline, have “isolated him in the international arena”.
Abroad, indeed, the winds are increasingly unfavourable. Even the outgoing Secretary of State of the Trump administration, Mike Pompeo, on 3rd December during the NATO ministerial meeting, denounced to everyone’s surprise Turkey’s “fait accompli” policy, enjoining Mr. Erdogan to “return to the behaviour of an ally”, while the American Congress imposed sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. And on 20 January, Antony Blinken, who succeeds Pompeo in the Biden administration, made statements before the Foreign Relations Committee of the American Senate that can only cause the Turkish regime great concern: calling Turkey a “so-called strategic partner” that is “unacceptably” on the Russian line, he added: “Turkey is an ally that in many ways is not acting as an ally should [...]. I think we need to look at the impact of existing sanctions and decide whether we need to do more”... (Bianet) Another appointment that does not bode well for Ankara’s relations with Washington is that of Brett McGurk as the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa. Formerly Presidential special envoy to the international anti-ISIS coalition, McGurk was in this capacity responsible for relations with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the Kurds in the YPG. After President Donald Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw US troops from Syria and abandon their Kurdish allies, he tendered his resignation. And when the United States eliminated the ISIS leader in Idlib province, he pointed out in the Washington Post that Baghdadi was hiding... near a major Turkish military base, adding that Ankara owed the United States “some explanations”... (CNN)
On the EU side, relations are just as tense, despite the willingness expressed on 9 January by the President and various Turkish officials to open “a new page in relations”. On 22 December, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had reiterated its demand for the immediate release of Selahattin Demirtaş. On 21 January, the European Parliament took up this demand in a resolution adopted by 590 votes to 16 with 75 abstentions. MEPs expressed their “concern” at “the continuing decline in the independence of the judiciary and its disregard for the judgments of the ECHR”, adding that respecting those judgments would be a start to demonstrating the sincerity of the 9 January statements (European Parliament). But, on the same day l’Humanitéremarked that Turkey still has the means to put pressure on UE through the four million Syrian refugees it is holding on its soil, and there is no question of NATO letting the Turkish ally get closer to Russia... The daily concludes as follows: “Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister, Jean Asselborn, may well say that “no one has any intention of letting Turkey off the hook” [in French: “passer l’éponge”], but that’s what seems to be happening”...
But the Turkish government continues its constant policy of extending its control to more and more sectors of society. The latest attack to date was against the Bar Associations, with the creation of competing pro-AKP bars. On 1st January, it was the academic world that was targeted, with the appointment by presidential decree of Melih Bulu, an AKP member, as rector of the prestigious University of Boğaziçi in Istanbul. Founded in 1863, Boğaziçi is the first American university established outside the United States. The outright appointment of a political executive without any particular academic qualities to a hitherto at least partly elective post immediately provoked numerous protests, starting with those of the students, who refused a “kayyum rektor” - a “rector administrator”, in reference to the administrators undemocratically appointed to replace elected mayors in the Kurdish provinces... Within hours of Bulu’s appointment, several examples of his writings, where entire paragraphs plagiarize “word for word” the work of other academics, appeared on social media.
These events bring us back to the denunciations by several experts and academics of the deterioration of the quality of Turkish higher education that occurred during the mandate of Erdoğan, with the rise among students and academics of plagiarism and other unethical practices. Since 2019, many Turkish institutions have disappeared from international rankings... The serious erosion of academic freedom since 2016 is also denounced: more than 6,000 academics have been dismissed, not counting those illegally deprived of foreign travel – a right yet guaranteed by the constitution. The situation has led the European Union to cut several hundred million euros in aid and support programmes for Turkish higher education (Duvar), a reduction in resources that has set off a worrying vicious circle...
Besides, ordinary repression continued in the whole country. In Diyarbakir, the administrator appointed to replace the mayor, Münir Karaloğlu, dismissed 84 municipal employees. In Bursa, the HDP office was burnt down (WKI). While a court in Ankara refused to consider the ECHR ruling submitted by the lawyers of Demirtaş (pretext: it had not been issued in Turkish!), the arrests of Kurds and HDP members continued, and the Ankara prosecutor’s office issued requisitions against 108 Kurdish political figures for their participation in the Kobanê demonstrations of October 2014. On the 8th, the court accepted this document, drawn up six years after the events in question. For charges including “undermining the unity and territorial integrity of the state”, “37 counts of murder”, “31 counts of attempted murder”, 38 aggravated life sentences are required for each accused, including Selahattin Demirtaş.
On the 6th, the Ministry of Defence notified the MP of Kocaeli Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu (HDP) of its refusal to answer the parliamentary question he had submitted on 4 November about the UN report on war crimes committed in Syria by the “Syrian National Army” in the service of Turkey. Gergerlioğlu had among other questions asked Minister Hulusi Akar whether a report was being prepared on crimes against women. The reason given for the lack of response was “the presence of personal opinions in the questions” (Bianet). On the 7th, the mayor of Batman Mehmet Demir finally refused to present his defence in Kurdish before the Court that was judging him after three interpreters successively stated that they could not translate his words that they could not understand “because he spoke in academic Kurdish” (Bianet). On the 8th, the journalist of the Mesopotamia agency Mehmet Aslan, imprisoned on the 5th during a police raid on his home, was jailed for “terrorism”. Then on the 11th and 12th , the police made several arrests in Mardin and Diyarbakir, and prevented the Party of Democratic Regions (DBP) and the HDP from holding a press conference in Van on “Kurdish national unity”.
At the same time, Kurdish political prisoners continued their hunger strike by turns to protest against the detention conditions violating their rights and the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan at İmralı. On the 14th, several human rights organisations held a joint press conference on this issue. Turkey Medical Association (TTB), the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV), the Human Rights Association (İHD), the Lawyers’ Association for Freedom (ÖHD) and the Progressive Lawyers’ Association (ÇHD) marked the 49th day of hunger strikes in 107 prisons at İHD in Ankara. Concerning the prisoners of İmralı, the organisations denounced the long-term isolation in contradiction with the UN “Mandela Rules”, the recommendations of the [European] Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and the Turkish Law No. 5275 on criminal executions (Bianet).
In Diyarbakir, former president of the Bar Mehmet Emin Aktar was sentenced to 75 months in prison for “propaganda for a terrorist organisation”. In Istanbul, the first hearing of the case of journalist Cengiz Candar was held on the 20th, accused in absentia of “apology for crime and a criminal” for a 2017 tweet about a YPG fighter killed in Raqqa in the fight against ISIS. Member of the MLKP, Ayşe Deniz Karacagil had been active during the demonstrations in Gezi Park in 2013. After learning of her death, Candar described her in his tweet as “the angel with the most beautiful smile in Gezi, who warmed our hearts”. The Court issued an arrest warrant for Candar, who was exiled to Sweden (Rûdaw).
Devlet Bahçeli, the chairman of the far-right MHP party, in power in alliance with the AKP, has again sadly distinguished himself during the month by issuing threat after threat against the HDP, whose closure he keeps calling for, against several editorialists described as “false journalists”, as well as against former Prime Minister AKP and founder of the “Future Party” Ahmet Davutoğlu. The MHP leader launched his threats as the vice-president of the Future Party, Selçuk Özdağ, and the representative of the newspaper Yeniçağ in Ankara, Orhan Uğuroğlu, had just been attacked the same day in front of their respective home in Ankara... In his verbal attack against Davutoğlu, Bahçeli called him in Kurdish “Serok Ahmet”, a way of accusing him of links with the PKK! On the 22nd, six Turkish human rights organisations condemned Bahceli’s statements in a joint communiqué. On the 28th, he denied any involvement of the MHP in the recent attacks on journalists (Bianet).
The week of the 18th saw further arrests among members of the HDP, whose Istanbul office was surrounded by police, who arrested eight people who had held a press conference to protest against the isolation of Öcalan at İmralı. In Diyarbakir, there were at least 20 arrests, including former HDP MP Hatice Kocaman and two leaders of the party’s youth organisation. Then, in the last week of the month, six people were arrested in Van in police raids at their homes, and two other HDP leaders were arrested in Istanbul for putting up posters denouncing the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan. On the 29th, a public meeting in Batman was broken up by police who detained 30 people, seven of whom were held in custody for publications on social networks dating back to 2015.
Turkish operations outside the country have somewhat overshadowed the existence of military activities inside the country. However, on the 9th, a gendarmerie officer was killed and two gendarmes injured in a clash with the PKK near Lice (Diyarbakir). On the 12th, the office of the governor of Bitlis decreed a curfew of unlimited duration on 10 villages in the central district of the province because of the presence of members of the “separatist terrorist organisation” (Bianet).
On 5 January, a first case of the British variant of COVID-19 was detected in Iran, a news that was enough to cause consternation when, according to official figures just published, the number of daily deaths due to the virus, with 98, had just dropped below 100 for the first time in more than six months (Le Figaro).
While the regime has tried everything to minimise the epidemic, even according to official figures, Iran remains the Middle East country most affected by the epidemic: as of 31 December, there were 6,389 new cases and 128 deaths, for a total of 55,223 deaths since the beginning of the epidemic. However, the Minister of Health himself, Said Namaki, has had to admit that this figure is grossly underestimated. On the same date, the opposition in exile published figures almost four times higher: the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), drawing up its own figures by consolidating various provincial public data, had reached more than 195,000 deaths in 478 cities throughout the country, including 7,868 in Lorestan, 7,263 in Western Azerbaijan and 4,084 in Kermanchah (NCRI). On the 12th, the same source announced that the 200,000 deaths due to the COVID were exceeded, questioning the “criminal” policy of the regime. And with some reason, since beyond the concealment, a few days earlier, the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei had announced on the 8th the ban on imports of vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca-Oxford. He went so far as to declare on television that “sometimes these vaccines are used to contaminate people”. On the 11th, the head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, went even further along the same line: “The Iranian people must not be the laboratory for American and British vaccines”, he told.
These delirious statements angered health workers, who had just written to Raisi that buying vaccines abroad should be a priority because mass production of the Iranian vaccine, still in the testing phase, would still take months. A large number of Iranians also expressed their dissatisfaction on social networks. Indeed, the speeches of those in charge had lost all credibility: they are now announcing a ban after having denounced for months the American embargo, which, according to them, prevented the purchase of vaccines abroad!
On the 22nd, PMOI counted more than 205,000 deaths, a number that rose to more than 206,800 on the 26th. By the 31st, the number had risen to more than 208,700, compared to the official figure of only 57,959... But in the meantime, on the 25th, the Iranian health agency had approved the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine. The Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, declared the next day from Moscow that Iran hoped to start buying but also, following the Russian strategy, manufacturing the product locally “in the near future”. On the 30th, the official agency Irna announced that the first doses of Sputnik would arrive in the country by 4 February, with a second and third batch to be delivered by 18 and 28 respectively (AFP). Nevertheless, the negligence and irresponsibility of Iranian politicians will go down in history.
With the arrival of 2021, the 2020 assessments began to be published, and among them that of the assassinations of the kolbars, the cross-border Kurdish porters, by the repressive forces of the regime. According to the Kolbarnews initiative, a minimum of 67 kolbars were killed in 2020 on the Iran-Turkish border and 163 others injured. There are certainly a large number of other victims, but as their fate has neither been recorded by the police nor reported in the media, they cannot be counted more precisely. Among the dead, 53 were shot by the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) and six by the Turkish border guards. The others died in accidents or from cold. As for the injured kolbars, 130 were victims of bombardments by Iranian or Turkish security forces. Five kolbars were tortured after their capture by Iranian border guards (RojInfo).
The New Year did not interrupt the murders of porters. Four kolbars were injured only in the first week of January, one by a fall in Hawraman, two by border guard fire in Nowsud, and a third in Salas-e Babajani. Also in Nowsud, two others were injured on the 12th and 14th, and another was killed by border guards near Baneh (WKI). On the 25th, the bodies of five kolbars that had been missing in Bradost for a week were finally found under the snow near the village of Kuran, a place otherwise infamous for the large number of porters murdered there by both Iranian and Turkish border guards. They had been caught in an avalanche on the Turkish side while reportedly carrying cigarettes (Rûdaw). It was the villagers who found the bodies, despite the border guards’ attempts to prevent them from searching (WKI).
Despite the danger, more and more young Kurds have no choice but to become kolbars because of the dramatic economic situation in Iranian Kurdistan. This is largely due to the discriminatory economic policy of the regime, which has deliberately denied investment to the area for decades, making it one of the poorest regions in the country. The latest economic crisis and the epidemic have yet more aggravated the difficulties of families. And then permanent political repression is added to this economic slump. Tens of thousands of political prisoners are in Iranian prisons for daring to defend democracy or women’s or workers’ rights. By 2019, according to the Kurdish Human Rights Network (KHRN), at least 2,000 people had been arrested for joining Kurdish armed groups or simply for activism. Similarly, at least 400 people were arrested in 2020. For its part, the Hengaw Human Rights Organisation calculated that in 2020 the regime had imprisoned 437 Kurdish activists, including minors (WKI).
Not only did the anti-Kurdish repression not stop in 2021, but it was particularly intense this month, reaching more than 100 arrests at the end of January. Earlier this month, two Kurds from Piranshahr were sentenced to five years in prison for “cooperation with a Kurdish opposition party”, and a former member of the KDPI, Sobhan Ahmadi, was given a year in Saqqez. A trade unionist was also arrested in Kermanshah on the 2nd. According to the Kurdistan Human Rights Association (KMMK), five Kurds were also arrested in Baneh. It was also learned on 5 December that the secretary of the Iranian Writers’ Union (IWA), Arash Ganji, had been sentenced on 30 December in Tehran to 11 years in prison for “spreading anti-government propaganda”: while in prison, he had translated from English into Persian a collective book on the Kurdish revolution in Syria entitled A small key can open a large door: the Rojava revolution. According to his lawyer, Ganji will appeal (VOA).
On the 13th, the CSDHI announced a wave of arrests in various cities in Western Azerbaijan. At least 15 civilian activists, students and environmental activists were detained between the 9th and 11th in Marivan, Karaj, Mahabad and Rabat over the weekend, some arrested on their return from Iraqi Kurdistan. According to the KMMK, seven Kurdish students from Kharazmi University in Tehran were also arrested in a raid on their dormitories, which were ransacked. At the same time, a Kurdish activist from Saqqez received 18 months in prison for participating in anti-government demonstrations, and three other activists from Marivan began their 5-year prison sentences for “membership of a Kurdish opposition party” (WKI). By the 15th, the number of people arrested had risen to 26, including arrests in Sarvabad, Bokan and Sanandadj, and it was learned that the arrests had been carried out by Etelaat (Security) agents who operated without showing a warrant and sometimes brutalised those arrested and ransacked their homes. Charges against those arrested have not been announced (Iran Human Rights Monitor / IHRM). On the 18th, the KHRN announced that three of the Kurdish women arrested the previous week, Asrin Mohammadi, Darya Talabani and Azima Naseri, had been transferred to the al-Mahdi detention centre of the Pasdaran in Urumieh (Rudaw). On the 19th, the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) announced that the number of arrests in the previous two weeks now stood at 35 people. The Cooperation Centre set up among Kurdish parties reported mass arrests of Kurds motivated by fear of anti-regime protests. In Sanandaj, a couple who participated in the November 2019 demonstrations were sentenced to two years in prison for “propaganda against the state” and “disturbing national security”. At least 53 arrests were made on the 21st, most of them incommunicado, and on social media, Iranian Kurds urged human rights organisations such as Amnesty International to investigate the mass arrests. The number had risen to at least 70 arrests by 26 January, with reports that a number of members of the Yarsan (or Ahl-e Haqq, “Faithful to Truth”, a pre-Islamic Kurdish religion) faith in Kermanshah were among those arrested on the 23rd.
It was only on the 23rd that it was learned that on the 11th, the young Kurdish poetess from Baneh, Taraneh Mohammadi, who is very popular among young people in Kurdistan, had been kidnapped by security agents, after being threatened anonymously by telephone on several occasions. Taken out of town by car with a bag over her head, she was threatened by one of the agents who threatened to cut out her tongue if she continued to write poems. These threats began after she declared during a live exchange on Instagram that she considered herself to belong to Kurdistan rather than Iran (Kurdistan au Féminin).
By the end of the month, the arrest campaign had resulted in more than 100 arrests by Etelaat and the security forces, covering the cities of Oshnavieh, Bokan, Marivan and Mahabad, where a cultural activist was arrested. Among those detained was the renowned Kurdish writer Mustafa Alikhandaza, arrested in Bokan.
At the beginning of January, the situation was still tense around the town of Ayn Issa, mostly controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but coveted by the jihadist factions in the service of Turkey. The incessant clashes had caused thousands of inhabitants to flee from the surrounding villages. According to the leaders of the Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria (AANES), dominated by the Kurds of the PYD, the Russians, unwavering supporters of Damascus, are taking advantage of the Turkish threat to try to force them to cede the city and its region to the regime – so far without success. “When we refused the last Russian request to withdraw from Ayn Issa, the situation worsened with Turkey and its Syrian auxiliaries attacking us daily”, an SDF official told Voice of America (VOA) on 5 May. Should the city, located on the strategic M4 motorway linking East and West Rojava, fell into the hands of pro-Turkish mercenaries, the whole North of AANES, and in particular the cities of Manbij and Kobanê, would also be in danger.
However, after weeks of clashes, the situation rather evolved during the second week of January into a period of relative calm, after the SDF repelled several Turkish attacks that killed five civilians and seven fighters (WKI). The pressure shifted again towards the Allouk pumping station near Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ayn), controlled since October 2019 by pro-Turkish groups. On the 18th, the latter once again cut off drinking water to nearly half a million inhabitants of North-Eastern Syria, particularly in the city of Hasakah. Both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and the Syrian pro-government agency Sana reported that pro-Turkish militias have been preventing employees from accessing the station since the 16th (Kurdistan-24). At the same time, the Turkish army and its auxiliaries began bombing the Manbij region, while concentrating forces in front of Ayn Issa, hence the fear of a new attack on the town... (WKI)
On the 22nd, the M4 motorway was again bombed near Ayn Issa. Further west, south of Kobanê, a Kurdish civilian was wounded at home by a Turkish drone (WKI). The next day, Ankara mercenaries also attacked the enclave of Tall Rifaat, where their artillery fire killed a woman and two children and wounded six other civilians. This small area north of Aleppo, still controlled by the SDF, serves as a refuge for around 170,000 residents of Afrin displaced by the Turkish invasion of March 2018, but is isolated between Damascus-controlled territory to the south and Turkish-occupied territory to the north. Tall Rifaat fighters retaliated by mortar bombing the positions of pro-Turkish mercenaries (Kurdistan-24).
At the end of the month, new shots were fired at Ayn Issa, in what Kurdish officials increasingly suspect to be a coordinated campaign between Damascus and Ankara to drive out the AANES... (WKI)
The same pro-Turkish groups continue their incessant exactions in Afrin. On the 27th, according to the OSDH, 16 Kurds living in the village of Kakhara were abducted from their homes and tortured by members of the al-Amshat group, belonging to the Free Syrian Army, on the pretext that they had burnt the vehicle of a security official. In fact, according to the Afrin Human Rights Organisation, the fire was the result of conflicts among pro-Turkish factions. Most of the victims were later released, but two of them are in a coma (Rûdaw). According to the same organisation, since the beginning of January, nearly 100 people have been arrested, including women and children. The same week, another organisation, “Syrians for Truth and Justice" (STJ) published a frightening 2020 report on the abuses of these groups in Afrin, documenting arrests, detentions and forced disappearances (https://stj-sy.org/en/877-arrested-and-forcibly-disappeared-across-afrin-region-in-2020/): at least 877 civilians have been arrested by these militias or Turkish intelligence, which, according to the authors, “is also complicit in some of these arrests”. At the time of publication of the report, only 420 of those arrested had been released, the fate of the remaining 457 people remaining unknown; of 70 women and eight children arrested, only 18 women and four children have been released (Kurdistan-24).
Is this an answer to the question about the fate of these women? In early January, Turkey was accused of having transferred Kurdish women abducted from Afrin to Libya to serve as sex slaves for the pro-Turkish fighters it sent there. It was HDP MP Tulay Hatimogullari who, after collecting testimonies, sounded the alarm and called on the Turkish Parliament to investigate, demanding that Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu shed full light on the fate of these women. In Washington, the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, Sinem Mohamed, denounced on 6 January actions that “are no different from those of [ISIS]” and called on the United States and the European Union to participate in an international commission of enquiry to ensure that “war criminals are punished” (RFI).
In addition, two car bombs hit the Turkish-occupied areas of Rojava on 2 January; one near a market in Ras al-Ayn (Serê Kaniyê) killed five people, including two children, according to the OSDH, and the other in Jindires (Afrin) killed a civilian and injured nine others, including two children. The Turkish Ministry of Defence accused the YPG (AFP).
The ISIS jihadists, despite the loss of their territory in March 2019, are still active, particularly in the region of Deir Ezzor; they are even taking advantage of the context of violence and disorder to increase their activities. According to sources close to the Syrian opposition, on 30 December they launched a major attack against Syrian military buses on the Deir Ezzor-Damascus highway, killing 37 soldiers including eight officers and injuring many, some seriously. Sources close to the regime also described attacks on civilian buses that left 28 people dead and 13 injured (Al-Monitor). On 23 January, two women belonging to a local AANES council in Deir Ezzor, Hind Latif Al Khadir and Sa’da Faysal Al Hermas, were abducted from their homes and found beheaded a few hours later. According to the OSDH, at least 234 people have been killed by ISIS sleeper cells in North-Eastern Syria since June 2018 (Middle-East Eye). The SDF for their part announced the arrest of five ISIS members.
Furthermore, the AANES is still struggling to manage and secure without sufficient international aid the Al-Hol camp, where 65,000 people of 54 nationalities, including tens of thousands of women affiliated to ISIS, and their children, are crammed. According to local data, at least 33 people were killed in the camp in 2020. On the 8th, a member of the Asayish (Kurdish security) died when a suspected ISIS fighter blew himself up in the camp. The incident occurred as the Asayish were responding to the killing of two Iraqi refugees, also in the camp. Sheikhmous Ahmed, head of the AANES Office for Displaced Persons and Refugees, told Kurdistan-24 that the international community should do more to secure the camp. He added that, to improve the security and humanitarian situation in the camp, Iraqi refugees and Syrian displaced persons should return to their homes: “Only foreign families [from ISIS] should stay, and the European Union should support us to ensure security”. AANES has been sounding the alarm for months about the situation in al-Hol, and Ahmed reiterated these warnings: “ISIS has created an Islamic state in al-Hol”, he said, explaining that ISIS has established its own courts and “its own forces inside the camp, [which] kill people [...] The international community, Iraq and the coalition must give more support to control the situation in the camp” (Kurdistan-24).
In an attempt to ease the pressure on Al-Hol, AANES continues to allow Syrian families to leave the place, a policy initiated last October, initially under the guarantee of tribal chiefs, but now on simple registration of their names. Only those who have not committed a crime are concerned. During the week of 11 January, 31 families, counting 99 people, were able to leave (WKI). But in a fortnight, more murders were committed in the camp, so that on the 21st, with twelve dead, the UN issued a statement expressing alarm: “These worrying events indicate an increasingly untenable security environment in Al-Hol. [...] The “recent increase in violence” in the camp “undermines the ability of the UN and humanitarian partners to continue safely providing essential humanitarian assistance” (AFP).
Finally, this month has seen a resurgence of tension between the AANES and the Damascus regime, particularly in Qamishli / Qamishlo, where the regime’s forces control some districts and administrative buildings in the south of the city, as well as the international airport. After clashes between pro-Damascus militiamen and Kurdish Asayish, the two sides reached an agreement on the 13th to release their respective prisoners (WKI). But according to local media reports, new fighting broke out on the 23rdafter a pro-government militia opened fire on an Asayish checkpoint. The Asayish returned fire and deployed reinforcements in the area, a local source told VOA. The clashes stopped, but the situation remained tense. On the 31st, a pro-regime demonstration in Hasakah degenerated when the Asayish opened fire on the participants and “left one dead and three injured among the demonstrators”, according to the OSDH, which said that the dead person was a policeman of the regime. But according to Kurdish sources, it was the (pro-regime) “National Defence” militia that initiated the clashes by attacking the Asayish in the Marsho district of Hasakah, leaving two dead and several injured, including civilians.
According to Ivan Hasib, a journalist based in Qamishli, tensions began with the arrests of officials from both sides: “A few weeks ago [he told VOA], the Asayish arrested a senior Syrian government intelligence official and his son on their way to Qamishli from the town of Hasakah. Government troops responded by arresting several members of the Kurdish security forces. The Russians then reportedly played the role of mediators to calm the situation, but the renewed clashes show that tensions have remained (VOA). Then, other factors, rather economic, seem to have come into play: each of the two camps accuses the other of levying unacceptable taxes on the transfer of goods from one territory to the other. This is what the government forces are doing, according to the SOHR, in some areas of Aleppo province (AFP). Conversely, according to the pro-regime agency Sana, the Kurds prevent the supply of the regime’s bakeries in Hasakah. Moreover, the commander of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi said that the siege imposed on the regime’s security forces in Hasakah and Qamishli was a response to the siege imposed for several weeks by the regime on the Shahba region and Kurdish neighbourhoods of Aleppo such as Sheikh Maqsood (ANHA).
This upsurge in violence comes in a very tense Syrian context, with an Israeli air raid on the 13th against Iranian settlements in the East of the country. There were 18 strikes in all, resulting in 57 victims, including 14 Syrian soldiers. According to an anonymous American intelligence source, the strikes targeted in particular transit sites for components destined for the Iranian nuclear programme (Le Monde).
Finally, Mazloum Abdi said at the end of the month that discussions would resume between AANES and the opposition Kurdish National Congress (ENKS). It is to be hoped that they will be more successful than the Syrian Constitutional Commission, which met again on the 26th and 27th under the aegis of the United Nations, and still seem to be treading water …
Relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Federal Government in Baghdad are still marked by the question of the budget for the year 2021, and therefore the share allocated to the Region. On 22 December, the KRG Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani announced an agreement between both governments which, according to him, opened the way to a vote by the Baghdad parliament: “This draft budget law preserves the common interest of all the Iraqi people, including that of the Kurdistan Region”, he said. “The share of the Region in the budget has been clearly specified", he added, regretting however: “[It is] lower than what we expected and deserve” (Rûdaw).
The agreement sets, as for 2020, the KRG’s share of the total budget at 12.67%, and provides that in exchange it must pay Baghdad the revenue from the sale of 250,000 barrels of oil per day and 50% of the revenue from the border crossings (WKI). The fact that both governments are struggling with the financial crisis caused by the collapse of oil prices and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic complicated the negotiations. In order to be able to pay its civil servants their salaries for the last quarter of 2020, Baghdad has had to borrow from its central bank, but Erbil, a simple province, cannot do the same. Since Baghdad did not forward 12.67% of its loan to Kurdistan, Erbil has been unable to pay its own civil servants.
In Kurdistan, the KRG met on the 7th to prepare its own budget. At the end of the meeting, KRG spokesman Jutyar Adil said that the budget law aimed to establish transparency towards the people. The budget is still being prepared and on the same day, KRG Deputy Planning Minister Zagros Fatah said on Rudaw TV that it would depend on how the agreement with Baghdad would be implemented. This in turn depends on the content of the budget law adopted by the Baghdad parliament, while several Iranian-backed Shi’a parties have expressed their opposition to the Baghdad-GRK agreement.
Parliament held its first reading of the federal budget on 9 January. Before the second reading scheduled for the 11th, Kurdish MP Viyan Sabri said that the Kurdish blocs would meet in the meantime to try to form a united front to secure Erbil’s share (Bas News). At the same time, the Finance Committee announced its intention to request amendments to the budget law (Shafaq News). The KRG obviously followed the discussions closely, all the more so as their outcome was conditional on Baghdad sending the funds needed to pay its own salaries... At the same time, some Kurdish MPs questioned the percentage of 12.67%, that is according to them lower than the proportion of the population of the Region in relation to the country as a whole, estimated at 5.45 million (data from the Iraqi Ministry of Planning) out of 40.8 (UN data). A fair share would then be closer to 13 to 14% (Rûdaw). Finally, the second reading only ended on the 16th, before the examination of the 150 or so amendments submitted by the MPs began... (WKI) While the vote on the budget law was finally announced only for the first week of February, the KRG delegations continued their regular visits to Baghdad: one arrived in the Iraqi capital on the 24th, another was due for the 31st…
Moreover, a new parameter came into play when the Parliament’s Finance Committee announced on the 30th a general reduction of the budget in order to limit the deficit: with the KRG percentage remaining constant, this will imply a reduction of its budget in the same proportions...
While the protests that marked Kurdistan in December subsided this month, new violence has again hit the rest of Iraq, particularly in Nasiriyah, where demonstrations have gone off the rails. Caused by numerous arrests and above all the murder of an activist in his home, they left one dead (a policeman) and dozens injured when the security forces opened fire on the protesters (Kurdistan-24).
The COVID-19 pandemic experienced a relative slowdown during this month. On 12 January, there were five deaths for the whole country, but none in Kurdistan or Baghdad, while the number of daily contaminations dropped drastically, with 810 new cases on the 12th, compared to 4,000 at the height of the epidemic. In total, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Health, since the appearance of COVID-19 in Iraq in February 2020, 603,739 people have been contaminated, of whom 12,906 died and 558,777 healed. These figures are probably much underestimated, as the many patients who prefer to try and treat themselves at home are not recorded. The Iraqi authorities have announced forthcoming purchases of Pfizer vaccines, without giving a date for a vaccination campaign. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the lull in the situation will last (AFP).
As for the ISIS jihadists, still present, they continue to exploit the security vacuum in the disputed territories, but have also resumed attacks in urban centres, which is very worrying. An official of the Peshmergas Ministry told Rûdaw at the end of the month that jihadists had launched fifteen attacks in the disputed territories during the three previous weeks, and reinforced their presence with recruits from Syria. Moreover, the attacks on the Diyala power stations have reduced by more than 60% the amount of electricity received by the governorates of Diyala, Kirkuk and Ninewa. On the 2nd, the jihadists launched an attack against the Iraqi military in Jawala (Diyala) that left one dead and seven wounded. Near Seid Sadiq (Suleimaniyeh), two members of the Asayish (Kurdish Security) were injured while removing a booby-trapped ISIS flag, and in Hawija (Kirkuk), an improvised explosive device killed three Iraqi soldiers, including an officer (WKI). In Baghdad, a clothing market was hit on the 21st by a double suicide bomb claimed by ISIS, killing 32 people and wounding 110 civilians. A second jihadist exploded in the middle of the crowd gathered to help the victims of the first explosion. It was the deadliest attack in three years in the Iraqi capital (Le Monde). On the 23rd, eleven members of the Hashd al-Shaabi militia were killed and ten others wounded in a night ambush north of Baghdad – unclaimed, but largely attributed to ISIS (AFP). Finally, the anti-ISIS coalition eliminated seven jihadists in an air raid on the Qara Chokh Mountains (Kirkuk), which has remained a sanctuary for jihadists since the fall of their “emirate” (WKI).
Another danger threatening civilians in Kurdistan is the Turkish strikes and operations, which remain incessant. At least three sites were bombed on the 22nd, injuring two brothers aged 10 and 15 in the province of Dohuk. Rûdaw, who reported the information, also cited local sources indicating that the attacks also killed hundreds of sheep. Two villages near the Iranian border were hit on the same day. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, on his way back from Baghdad where he had met the Iraqi Prime Minister, before stopping in Erbil to meet the President of the Kurdistan Region on the 18th, for his part announced the “neutralisation” of four PKK members in Gara (Dohuk) and three others in Hakurk, near the Iran-Iraqi border. At the same time, the Turkish President reiterated his threats to invade the Yezidi town of Shingal (Sinjar) under the pretext of joint anti-PKK operations with Iraqi and/or KRG forces. But despite regular declarations of “neutralisation”, Turkish military operations in Kurdistan have above all resulted in dozens of civilian victims and thousands of displaced persons .
In Kirkuk, members of the pro-Iranian Hashd al-Shaabi militia chose a Kurdish neighbourhood to hold an anti-American rally commemorating the Iranian commander of the Al-Quds force Qassem Soleimani and the Iraqi leader of the Hashd Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were eliminated at the same time by an American drone strike in January 2020 in Baghdad. The event also aimed to protest against the American sanctions imposed on the 8th against the new leader of Hashd Faleh al Fayyad. As one might think, the Kurdish inhabitants of the neighbourhood were not happy with this choice... It should be noted that, according to French intelligence information unveiled at the end of the month, because of persistent rocket fire against their military bases in Iraq, the United States is considering more and more seriously moving a large part of its forces to Kurdistan.
Finally, let us end this column on a project that brings hope for the environment of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, a long-standing victim of the conflicts that have followed one another for decades: a young Kurdish woman from Rawandiz, Delband Rawanduzi, a 26-year-old hiker, has launched a project to plant a million oak trees in the Kurdistan Region. By autumn 2020, already 2,000 saplings from acorns brought in by volunteers and planted in her two greenhouses built with the help of a private university in Erbil had been transplanted on the slopes of the Kurdish mountains. 80,000 more are expected to join them next autumn. Kurds from Iraq, from the diaspora and even foreign expatriates are participating through donations.
Asked by AFP about the project, the former head of the Kurdistan Environmental Awareness Authority, Ahmed Mohammed, said the Kurdistan Region should also review its climate policy, notably by developing public transport to reduce the use of the two million cars – for five million inhabitants – in the Region. Above all, the population needs to be educated: “People here love to go outdoors, every weekend they go on picnics and they all have a house in the mountains, yet most of them do not realise the importance of nature and the climate disasters to come”, he regretted (AFP).