Turkey is definitely experiencing a difficult start to the year. The economic crisis is having dramatic social consequences, and on the health front, despite all the AKP government’s efforts to conceal it, the COVID-19 epidemic is continuing to spread in an increasingly visible manner. Isolated internationally, contested internally, the Turkish President is trying to regain his popularity through external military operations while intensifying attempts to control civil society and repression in all directions. The country’s Kurdish provinces are being left behind both for the pandemic and the economy; according to the Ministry of Health’s own figures, they are up to three points behind the national average for vaccination... (Ahval)
To save his power, Mr Erdoğan wanted to flatter the far right with a military success while silencing his opponents. But his latest attempts have gone awry. His attempt in early January to control Boğazici University (Bosphorus University) sparked an academic resistance movement unprecedented since 2016, and the Boğazici dispute quickly became a nationwide battle for academic freedom. As for the Turkish president’s fetish military operation in Iraqi Kurdistan, part of his “neo-Ottoman” regional policy, it ended in mid-February with a catastrophic fiasco: the death of thirteen Turkish PKK prisoners more than likely killed by gas from their own comrades-in-arms in the cave where they were being held...
In Istanbul, the authoritarian appointment of Melih Bulu as rector of Boğazici University is decidedly not going down well. The only academic “quality” of this AKP member, best known for his support for the invasion of Afrin in 2018 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpanTG_bD1Y), is that he is suspected of plagiarism in his work, including his thesis... On 3 February, Boğazici’s teaching staff denounced his appointment in a revealing statement: “We do not accept this blatant violation of the autonomy, scientific freedom and democratic values of our university”. This is because Boğazici, one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious public universities, has a history of resistance to dictatorship dating back to the 1990s, when it succeeded in preventing the authoritarian appointment of a rector and imposed the result of an internal election. Then it caused a scandal for “high treason” by co-organising a conference on the situation of Armenians in the pre-1915 Ottoman Empire (Libération)
The repression of the students who refused the “rector-kayyum” (named administrator, in reference to the Kurdish municipalities) was however ferocious: cordoning off of the whole neighbourhood, beatings and use of tear gas and defensive bullets by the police. The AKP and its far-right ally the MHP cried “Gezi” and “terrorist challenge”. On 1st February, the campus was transformed into an armed camp, with snipers deployed on the roofs of the buildings. Several HDP MPs, including Hüda Kaya, were barred from entering. 159 students were arrested, 98 of whom were released the next day. Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu tweeted: “Should we tolerate LGBT degenerates insulting the Holy Kaaba and trying to occupy the rectorate? Certainly not!”. His message was deleted by the social network as insulting.
The inhabitants of the university district, who honked their horns and banged their pots and pans, but also lawyers or artists – opponents in general – supported the students. On the 2nd, teachers gathered under Bulu’s windows shouting “Resign!”. None of them wanted to apply for the post of vice-rector. More of a challenge for the authorities, the demonstrations spread to Ankara, where 69 people were arrested. On the 3rd, after new clashes, still marked by police brutality, the MHP leader Devlet Bahceli called the demonstrators “poisonous, vandal and barbaric snakes” (Duvar). These statements, plus Erdoğan’s homophobic and anti-LGBT rhetoric, as well as the police violence, only strengthened the determination of the protesters.
The United States expressed “concern” about the student arrests and condemned the authorities’ “anti-LGBT rhetoric”, as did several European Commission leaders and the UN Human Rights Office. On the 4th, the Turkish Foreign Minister curtly dismissed these criticisms of “internal Turkish affairs” as “encouraging illegal actions”. On the 5th, Mr Erdoğan, resuming the provocative attitude that earns him the support of the far right, ordered the creation of faculties of law and communications in Boğazici, a way of bypassing the teachers of existing departments; he appointed at the same time eleven university rectors across the country. In response, the Boğazici students made their demands known in an open letter to the President, beginning with the phrase: “You are not a sultan, and we are not your subjects”. They demand the immediate release of all those arrested, the resignation of all appointed university administrators, starting with Bulu, and the holding of democratic university elections.
After Mr Erdoğan publicly insulted economist Ayşe Buğra, a teacher at Boğazici but also the wife of activist Osman Kavala, a political prisoner since 2017, nearly 140 Turkish economists signed a joint message defending her, saying they were “proud and honoured” to have her as a colleague. The Turkish president had accused her of being “among the provocateurs at Boğazici University”. On the 10th, there were eleven student arrests, including four for which charges were not indicated. On the 11th, a student was both placed under house arrest with an electronic bracelet and ordered to report to the police station once a week, two orders impossible to comply with simultaneously. Students gathered in support of the accused parties in front of the court, which had been transformed into a veritable entrenched camp; they were beaten and imprisoned by the police. The demonstrations brought together teachers, trade unionists and members of civil society organisations. At least 565 people were imprisoned (Duvar). Despite this violent repression, the movement spread to Ankara, Izmir and Adana, and 147 intellectuals, including Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, published a letter in support of the students. On the 11th, there had been more than 600 arrests since the beginning of the movement on 4 January (Le Monde).
At the same time, the government has also attacked another prestigious academic institution in Istanbul: the French-speaking University of Galatasaray. Following the recent refusal of two Turkish Islamic federations in France to sign the “Charter of Principles for the Islam of France” and the tensions that ensued, French teachers at the university must now obtain a diploma in Turkish, a measure that mirrors what is required of Turkish imams in France... A few months ago, an editorialist in the Islamist daily Yeni Akit had already expressed his outrage: “There are thirteen high schools and a French-speaking university in Turkey, where the French language is taught and French culture is imposed on our youth. Macron’s agents come to recruit children from our Anatolian land to become admirers of France. This educational imperialism must be stopped” (Courrier International). This charge is to be compared with the one launched on 5th February against Boğazici by columnist Ömer Lekesiz in the pro-AKP newspaper Yeni Safak: “Boğazici is the last stronghold of the pro-Western intellectual oligarchy. Neither the university nor the state will be at peace until this bastion is destroyed” (Le Monde). It is academic freedom that the Turkish government is clearly targeting, and it will not, indeed, be at peace until it has been destroyed. It should be noted that Galatasaray had started to support Boğacizi...
At the same time, the government continued its anti-Kurdish repression. After the arrest of 30 participants of a meeting in Batman on 29 January, in the first week of February two HDP youth leaders were sentenced to prison terms for “leading a terrorist organisation” after two weeks of pre-trial detention. While a court in Diyarbakir sentenced a former DBP leader to six years and three months in prison for “belonging to a terrorist organisation”, in Ankara, another court rejected again the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) request for Selahattin Demirtaş’s release (WKI). Then in just two days, from the 10th to the 12th, at least 143 people, mostly young HDP supporters and lawyers, were taken into custody in Istanbul, Adana, Bursa, Kocaeli, Gaziantep and other provinces. At least 60 arrest warrants were issued in Gaziantep (Rojinfo).
At the same time, a vast military operation was launched in the Mount Garê region, in the north of Iraqi Kurdistan, with 41 bombers, several dozen helicopters, drones, thousands of soldiers and hundreds of airborne commandos. The stated aim was “to cleanse this region of the last remnants of the PKK”. But Mr Erdoğan was hoping above all for a double political coup: the triumphant announcement of the release of 13 prisoners of war held by the PKK since 2015-2016 and the capture of several leaders of this party, dead or alive. In reality, the operation ended in a total fiasco. Despite four days of intensive bombing by some forty military aircraft, which mostly destroyed several villages in the area, the guerrillas retained their fighting stamina, and the Turkish commandos, isolated from each other in a difficult, rugged terrain, became targets. Instead of the expected “good news”, Defence Minister Hulusi Akar had to announce on the night of the 12th the death of three soldiers and above all of “13 civilian Turkish citizens executed by the PKK”. After this result, operations in the region were halted. In the anti-Kurdish hysteria that followed, it was learned that the so-called dead civilians were actually military, police and intelligence personnel...
Claiming that it had always released its prisoners in the past, the PKK denied any execution. According to the guerrillas, the Turkish commandos used massive amounts of gas to neutralise the defenders of a cave they thought was the headquarters of the local PKK command. But when they later entered the cave, they discovered the bodies of 13 Turkish prisoners and six PKK guards who had been asphyxiated. To cover up this disaster, they shot the dead in the head... While the Turkish army announced 48 PKK deaths, the Kurdish party admitted the loss of 15 fighters and claimed the elimination of some 30 Turkish soldiers.
Who is telling the truth? It should be noted that Turkey was careful not to authorise an autopsy of the 13 victims, preferring to bury them in a hurry... For its part, we know that, since the beginning of its guerrilla war in 1987, the PKK has released unharmed and without any compensation nearly 350 Turkish soldiers and policemen that it had captured, thanks to the mediation of NGOs and local political representatives. It seems that the political responsibility for the massacre must be borne by the Turkish government – and the military responsibility by the brutal methods of the Turkish General Staff, which since the beginning of its operations in Iraqi Kurdistan, has constantly demonstrated its contempt for the protection of civilian lives.
But this ugly outcome has once again allowed Mr Erdoğan to divert attention from the issues of the day – and the student protests – by stirring up anti-Kurdish hatred. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu set the tone with a hysterical tweet: “May this nation and our martyrs spit in our faces if we don’t capture Karayilan [one of the PKK commanders] alive and tear him to pieces!” This was a perfect pretext for a renewed crackdown on the HDP, 718 of whose members were arrested in one night in some 40 provinces. Their crime: having questioned on social networks the official version of the massacre, having asked for an autopsy of the victims or the opening of a parliamentary enquiry...
On the 14th, the HDP indeed had expressed its condolences to the families of the victims in a statement (https://hdp.org.tr/en/hdp-central-executive-board-s-statement-on-the-deadly-conflict-in-gare/15065/) in which it recalled that it had contacted them as early as 2015 and tried to organise negotiations to obtain their release, as had been done in many previous cases. Unfortunately, the government had refused to cooperate in this endeavour “to save the lives and ensure the freedom of its own officials, who were lost in a military operation with no clear purpose or objective”. The statement concluded: “The government is not in a position to hold our party accountable, on the contrary, it is the government that should be held accountable to the families of the captives and the public”. Finally, the HDP called for access to the scene of the tragedy to allow for an independent international investigation, while calling on the PKK to release the prisoners it was still holding, as “their lives should not be left to chance in this conflict”.
The US State Department in turn expressed doubts about Ankara’s official version, saying that “if reports of Turkish civilian deaths at the hands of the PKK [...] are confirmed, we condemn these actions in the strongest possible terms”, prompting the summoning of the US ambassador to Ankara on the 15th (AFP). The enraged Turkish president blamed the HDP and the US for the deaths... (New-York Times)
Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, the leader of the CHP (Kemalist opposition), also blamed the Turkish President for having chosen force rather than negotiation, declaring: “The person responsible for the death of our 13 martyrs is Recep Tayyip Erdogan”. The latter chose on the 18th to prosecute him. And on the 21st, the Ankara prosecutor’s office opened an investigation against the HDP deputy of Ağrı, Dirayet Dilan Taşdemir, for “belonging to a terrorist organisation”: she had allegedly visited the cave area (AFP). At the same time, Turkish prosecutors announced their intention to request, as part of the investigation into the Kobanê protests in October 2014, the lifting of the parliamentary immunity of nine other HDP MPs, including its co-chair Pervin Buldan (WKI). In addition to her, the request includes MPs Garo Paylan, Huda Kaya, Sezai Temelli, Pero Dundar, Fatma Kurtulan, Serpil Kemalbay, and parliamentary group deputy chairmen Meral Danis Bestas and Hakkı Saruhan Oluç. On the 22nd, the HDP reported on a worsening of the repression against it, giving several examples such as the beating on the 12th of former Hakkari co-mayor Dilek Hatipoğlu: forcibly stripped on arrival at Van prison, she was beaten to the point of being unable to defend herself in court on the 19th... (HDP)
In fact, on the 24th, the Speaker of Parliament, Mustafa Sentop, announced that the assembly had received the previous day 33 requests for the lifting of parliamentary immunity, without specifying names (AFP), and the next day, the Ministry of Justice finally requested the lifting of the immunity of 25 opposition deputies, targeted by judicial investigations. Among them, 20 HDP MPs are accused of supporting “terrorism” (Le Monde). On the 28th, Hevidar Dinç, HDP co-chairwoman of Nusaybin (Mardin), a member of the HDP Youth and a member of a Kurdish cultural association were arrested in Kızıltepe and Nusaybin (RojInfo). Simultaneously, police arrested in Diyarbakir and Istanbul around 20 people, mostly HDP members (WKI).
At the same time, the persecution of journalists continued. The judges issued a surprising decision on the 15th to give suspended sentences in the Özgür Gundem newspaper case to three journalists and lawyer Eren Keskin, its co-editor and co-chair of the İHD Human Rights Association; but the charges still provoke concern, as they are “belonging to a terrorist organisation”... (SCF) Indictments have also been drawn up against journalists from the women’s news agency Jin News, Şehriban Abi and Nazan Sala, as well as Mezopotamya News Agency (MA) correspondent Zeynep Durgut, who face between 13 and 15 years in prison (RojInfo).
On the 16th, the former head of the General Staff’s intelligence service, General Ismail Hakki Pekin, half-heartedly acknowledged Turkey’s role in the 2013 killing of the three Kurdish activists in Paris, Sakine Cansız, Leyla Şaylemez and Fidan Doğan. Following the deaths of the 13 Turkish prisoners in Iraq, he called on Ankara on CNN Türk to target Kurdish militants in Europe, saying: “We have to do something about this in Europe. It has already been done once in Paris”(Kurdistan au Féminin). There is cause for concern when we know how active the MIT (Turkish secret service), reinforced by Erdoğan last summer, has been in Europe recently...
Condemnations of the Turkish government continue abroad. On the 10th, the US State Department called for the immediate release of Osman Kavala. In mid-February, three weeks after the transition in the United States, neither the new American President nor his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, had yet contacted their Turkish counterparts, the latter even describing Turkey as a “so-called strategic partner”... In Washington, members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, are calling for a tougher stance against Ankara (Le Point). In Europe, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has asked Turkey to present its defence for the pre-trial detention of former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, still imprisoned since November 2016 despite several ECHR decisions calling for his release. But the ECHR would probably be more credible in its demands if it also showed more speed in its judgments: on 11 February 2021, the ECHR delivered its verdict in the case of the conviction of 10 members of the Kurdish party HADEP, which was submitted to it... in 2007. After 14 years of proceedings, it sentenced Turkey to pay each of them... €1,500 in compensation (SCF).
Turkey continues to use its mercenaries to carry out its anti-Kurdish ethnic cleansing in the northern Syrian territories it occupies in flagrant violation of international law. Already at the end of January, the organisation “Syrians for Truth and Justice” (STJ) published several frightening reports on the actions of these sinister factions, some of whose fighters are former members of ISIS (https://stj-sy.org/en/syria-237-persons-arrested-in-peace-spring-and-olive-branch-territories-in-november-and-december-2020/ and https://stj-sy.org/en/877-arrested-and-forcibly-disappeared-across-afrin-region-in-2020/). These jihadists carry out their exactions with the full knowledge of the Turkish occupation forces, which support them by repressing any resistance from the inhabitants. For example, in Rajo, in the canton of Afrin, the train station has been turned into a prison and torture centre for Kurds who refuse to obey the occupation forces. On 7 February, reliable sources informed the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) that fighters from the “Samarqand Brigade” had raided several houses in the village of Kafr Safra (Jendires) and arrested five people for unknown reasons. On the 22nd, the SOHR reported that military police installed by the Turkish occupier had arrested two civilians from Afrin, accused of having “previously been in connection with the Autonomous Administration”. Finally, a report by the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), published on the 3rd, mentions the illegal transfer to Turkey of at least 63 Syrian citizens, Arabs and Kurds, “arrested” in Syria and wrongfully sentenced to extremely severe penalties, including for at least five of them life imprisonment without possibility of parole. The charges against these people, tried under the Turkish Penal Code even though they were arrested on Syrian territory, are “attacking the unity and territorial integrity, [...] belonging to a terrorist organisation and murder”. Ankara is thus punishing them for their alleged links with Kurdish groups that are opposed to it. Condemning these transfers and describing these accusations as “dubious” and “vague”, HRW recalled in its statement that, as an “occupying power”, Turkey is [according to the Geneva Convention] “bound to respect [...] the law relating to occupation, including the prohibition of arbitrary detention and transfer of persons to its territory”. Still according to HRW, beyond the 63 confirmed transfers, concordant sources lead to estimate that nearly 200 Syrians could have suffered the same fate and that the transfers would be still going on (AFP, Duvar).
As for the ethnic cleansing, considered under international law as a crime against humanity, it started immediately after the occupation and is still going on in all territories controlled by the Turkish army and its Syrian auxiliaries, of which Afrin is the oldest. In one of the latest examples, on the 10th, the Iraqi Kurdish channel Rûdaw reported that in the Afrin region the occupiers had emptied three villages of their Kurdish inhabitants, confiscated all their property, and destroyed many homes. In place of the expelled Kurds, they brought Arabs from Homs or Damascus Ghouta. In one of the three villages, Şêxurza Jorîn, which was almost completely destroyed, a Turkish military base was set up, and the village cemetery, desecrated, was dug up with an excavator. The olive groves and farming tools of their Kurdish owners have also been destroyed or looted: the aim is clearly to prevent any return. Kurdish civilians who oppose these confiscations are kidnapped, tortured and executed. In the Afrin canton, populated before the Turkish invasion by more than 85% of Kurds of secular and progressive tradition, the Islamist Arabs and Turkmen implanted by the Turkish occupiers have become the majority.
This process of ethnic cleansing is complemented by the economic and administrative integration of the occupied region with Turkey: the Turkish flag flies on buildings, schools teach in Arabic and Turkish, electricity and telephone networks have been connected to those of Turkey. Imams and preachers in the mosques are appointed and paid by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). The Turkish lira has become the currency of trade. Women have disappeared from the public space where Syrian militias in the pay of the Turkish army enforce the rules of Islamic Sharia. The main militia operating in the region is Ahrar al-Sharqiya, which is largely made up of former ISIS fighters recycled by the Turkish secret service.
Turkey is using a particularly cynical double standard: on the one hand, it opposes the Autonomous Administration of Rojava (AANES) in the name of defending Syria’s territorial integrity, but on the other hand, in the territories it occupies, it is working to create a fait accompli by repopulating them with its Arab and Turkish supporters so that, when the time comes, they could vote in a referendum in favour of annexation to Turkey, as happened in 1939 in the Syrian Sandjak of Alexandrette (Iskenderun).
The confiscation of property, looting, pillaging, torture and murder of civilians carried out over the past three years by Islamist militias auxiliary to the Turkish army are clear war crimes for which the occupying power, Turkey, is responsible. Yet, during each of the Turkish invasions and thereafter, the international community looked the other way: in Afrin, as the Kurds refused the return of the regime, the Russians gave Erdoğan the green light to launch his “Olive Branch” operation, while the Americans showed no interest in the fate of their allies in this territory where they themselves were hardly present. In October 2019, East of the Euphrates, US President Donald Trump, after a telephone conversation with Erdoğan, abandoned the Kurds to the Turkish army by announcing the withdrawal of US troops from the border. In particular, on 7 October, the US bases at Tall Abyad and Ras al-Ain were evacuated, leaving the field clear for the Turks to launch their “Source of Peace” operation two days later. Here again, Russia tried to use blackmail in order to obtain the return of the Damascus regime. In both cases, the West (and particularly the Europeans, who were divided among themselves on the attitude to adopt) althought they shouted loudly at Turkey’s flagrant violations of international law, did not take any concrete political measures. As for NATO, of which Turkey is a member, although supposed to be a family of democracies committed to Human rights, it continues to keep silent about the crimes of its Turkish ally... This general inaction in the face of Turkish crimes continues today.
In addition, from the territories it occupies, Turkey regularly fires on areas administered by the AANES, notably near Manbij and Ain Issa. At the beginning of February, these areas were targeted again, as well as the Christian town of Tall Tamr, on the M4 motorway, south of Serê Kaniyê / Ras al-Ain. On the 8th, the Manbij Military Council announced that it had repelled an attack by Syrian proxy fighters (WKI). Near Afrin, Kurdish civilians displaced by the Turkish occupation feel abandoned by the international community. Terrorised by the relentless bombing that targeted the area around Tall Rifaat between 7 and 12 February, they ask how it is possible for a NATO member to support extremists targeting displaced people and to target civilians with its air strikes. Very significantly, displaced Yezidis seem to be particularly targeted. On the 12th, Nadine Maenza, Commissioner of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), called in a tweet for “the US government to pressure Turkey to stop all operations against this vulnerable community in Syria and Iraq”.
At the end of the month, the inhabitants and NGOs of Rojava once again accused Turkey of using water as a weapon and means of pressure. On the one hand, Ankara is holding back part of the water of the Euphrates through its dams and, on the other hand, it regularly shuts off the tap of the Al-Allouk treatment plant, which provides drinking water to at least half a million people in the Syrian Northeast. The UN has repeatedly called on Turkey to stop withholding water (WKI).
Another problem is the ISIS jihadists who, taking advantage of the difficulties caused in Rojava by Turkish pressure, are raising their heads and must once again be firmly fought with the help of the international coalition. At the same time, the management of camps housing former members of the terrorist organisation or their families is becoming more and more of a headache for the AANES.
In early February, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continued their actions against ISIS sleeper cells in North-eastern Syria. They announced that they had apprehended three jihadists in Busarayh and in the village of Diban (Deir Ezzor) (WKI). On the 5th, they launched a major operation in the same region, on the border with Iraq, in desert areas that the jihadists use as a sanctuary. Several dozen arrests were made and a large number of weapons and ammunition were seized. This was both a response to the attacks that had increased considerably in frequency in the previous weeks and a reprisal for the kidnapping and beheading on 22 January of two Arab women, local political leaders of AANES (Women’s Kurdistan). In particular, two senior officers supervising the movement of jihadist fighters between Iraq and Syria were captured. A ISIS operative was also captured in the al-Hol camp (WKI).
In the second week of February, due to an increase in terrorist attacks in Deir Ezzor province, the SDF had to accelerate its anti-ISIS operations. They announced two arrests in the east of the province on the 10th and 11th. At the end of the month, numerous jihadist attacks hit Deir Ezzor again. An 80-year-old man was murdered in Sabha, an attack attributed to ISIS, and two other people killed in Shheel and Shaafah. The SDF conducted several raids in the area and arrested seven terrorists. Jihadists also clashed with regime soldiers near Badiya al-Sham, in engagements that reportedly left a dozen people dead on both sides (WKI).
Meanwhile, the situation in al-Hol camp continued to deteriorate. This camp, managed by AANES, hosts some 62,000 people, of whom, according to the UN, more than 80% are women and children, including some 10,000 foreign women and their children, families of jihadists from Europe or Asia. Since January, 14 people have already been murdered there (18 according to VOA), compared to 35 during all of 2020. According to the statements made to AFP by Sheikhmous Ahmed, head of the AANES displaced persons agency, there have been “three beheadings”, but also executions by bullet with weapons equipped with “silencers”. A report published on the 8th by the Qamishli-based Rojava Information Centre said that at least half of the killings involved beheadings. Whatever the true figures, they point to “the [ISIS] cells in the camp”, which are targeting “those who cooperate with the administration” in order to “sow chaos and fear”, Ahmed said. A report published by the UN in early February warned: “Cases of radicalisation, training, fundraising and incitement to external operations have been reported” [...] “Some minors are reportedly being indoctrinated and groomed to become future fighters”. As a result of the Turkish attacks, the number of guards assigned to the camp has been reduced from 1,500 in mid-2019 to 400 at the end of 2020... General McKenzie of the U.S. Central Command, takes this threat very seriously: “If the international community does not find a way to repatriate these children, reintegrate them into their home communities and support local reconciliation programmes, we will see the indoctrination of the next generation of ISIS when these children become radicalised”, he warned on the 8th during a speech at the Middle East Institute. More than half of al-Hol’s estimated 62,000 residents are children under the age of 12 (VOA). On the same day, some 20 independent UN experts urged in a joint appeal the 57 states whose nationals are detained in Syria to repatriate them without delay... (news.un.org)
On the 14th, an Iraqi source told AFP that AANES had transferred around 100 former ISIS fighters to Iraq for trial. This transfer was denied by AANES, but remains likely. Indeed, according to a UN report published in early February, the SDF is still holding some 1,600 Iraqis suspected of having fought for ISIS. Furthermore, as part of an ongoing effort to decongest al-Hol and thus make it more manageable, the AANES released a new group of more than 300 Syrian nationals on the 23rd. Unlike most recent releases, there was no sponsorship from Arab tribal leaders, but the authorities conducted an investigation to ensure that those released posed no security threat (VOA). Finally, on the 27th, a fire caused by a stove killed two children and a woman and injured about 30 people in al-Hol, according to Sheikhmous Ahmed, reached by phone by AFP.
Another conflict experienced by Rojava this month is the one ongoing with the Damascus regime. On 30 January, a pro-regime demonstration in Qamishli had resulted in one death (a regime policeman) and three wounded, while both sides laid siege to areas held by the other: the Asayish (Kurdish security) had taken up positions around the “Security Quarter” in Qamishli, the pro-Assad militias around several Kurdish-held towns in the Shahba region (Aleppo). In the middle of the month, despite Russian mediation, members of the “National Defence Forces”, a pro-regime militia, opened fire on an Asayish checkpoint in Qamishli. The SDF also doubts the sincerity of the Russians, whom they suspect of colluding with Turkey to oust them... (WKI)
In addition, the fifth round of UN-sponsored inter-Syrian talks, held in Geneva earlier this month, again failed to make any significant progress, with the regime’s delegation systematically opposing the opposition’s proposals. The AANES remains excluded from these meetings because of Turkish opposition to its presence. It was also excluded from the so-called Astana talks, the 15th session of which started on 16 February in Sochi. The United States, which denied having received a Russian invitation to participate, also carried out new air strikes in Syria on 26 February, targeting pro-Iranian militia positions near Boukamal, near the Iraqi border. Several buildings were destroyed and according to the SOHR at least 22 fighters from the pro-Iranian Iraqi militia Hashd al-Shaabi were killed. The US President said it was retaliation for the latest anti-American attacks in Iraq.
In this still tense context, the talks for Kurdish unity between the AANES parties and the opposition ENKS (Kurdish National Council) are of particular importance. In early February, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi announced that they would resume, “with the aim of succeeding”, he added. In the middle of the month, the SDF announced that the talks had resumed, in a statement that said that in view of the “tangible progress [made] during the previous sessions”, they were optimistic about the next phase (WKI). It remains to be seen whether this optimism will prove justified in the future, as by the end of the month no new communiqué had been issued.
Negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad have continued throughout the month concerning the 2021 budget, and more specifically the share to be given to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Although an agreement in principle with the Federal government was reached last December, delegations from the KRG have been travelling regularly to Baghdad to meet with different political parties. Indeed, some of the pro-Iranian Shi’a blocs have taken a particularly hostile stance towards Kurdistan, demanding that it be deprived of the rights granted to it by the 2005 Constitution. Criticising the KRG’s independent oil sales, they demand exclusive control of oil by the Federal government. In January, more than 100 Iraqi MPs had even demanded in a joint letter that the 2021 draft budget law should make the KRG’s budget conditional on the handing over of all its oil to SOMO, the state oil company.
After the failure of the first talks in early February and a second attempt the following week, a third one took place in the middle of the month, while the vote of the budget by the Parliament was expected in the following days. But it kept being postponed because of persistent disagreements between parties, causing concern among the Kurds that the share of the budget intended for the KRG would not be included (WKI). On the 22nd, Jamal Kochar, a member of the Iraqi Parliament’s Finance Committee, complained on Rûdaw that the Shi’a parties expressed opposition to the Kurdistan share “without officially proposing an alternative”. However, he noted a gradual evolution: “At the beginning, all the Shi’a parties were opposed to the Kurdistan Region receiving its share and demanded that the KRG hand over all its oil, but today only Nouri al-Maliki’s factions and a few other Shi’a parties insist on this point”. He saw three possible ways out of the current stalemate: 1- the KRG sending the requested 250,000 daily barrels to Baghdad, 2- the handing over of the value of these barrels to SOMO, and 3- the KRG keeping the oil necessary to pay for its oil production expenses and domestic consumption, with the rest being sent to Baghdad. He said he preferred the first option.
By the end of the month, the discussions had not reached a conclusion, and Iraqi MPs had still not managed to agree on a text to be put to the vote...
It is in this context of tense relations between the KRG and the federal government that the Iraqi Minister of Health announced on 1st February that 2.5 to 3 million doses of the anti-COVID vaccine would be received at the end of February. These doses from Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca-Oxford and Sinopharm will be administered as a priority to health care personnel, security forces, the elderly and the chronically ill. In Kurdistan, many have been wondering, like this Kurdish journalist writing on the Lebanese website Daraj: “Will Baghdad give Erbil its share of vaccines or not?”. On the same site, a spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Health, Saif Badr, tried to reassure: “Kurdistan will have its share [...] in proportion to its population, which will be distributed in the same way as the medicines and medical equipment it receives from the Federal ministry”. According to the latest figures from the Ministry, Iraq had then more than 620,000 infections and about 13,000 deaths out of 38 million inhabitants (Courrier International). On the 22nd, the KRG announced that it was again restricting travel to the rest of the country, after Erbil recorded for the first time 19 cases of the British variant of the virus, accompanying a rise in infections. While Iraq decided on a new partial curfew, Kurdistan counted at this date 107,933 contaminations and 3,508 deaths, compared to 103,011 recoveries since the beginning of the epidemic (Rûdaw).
From mid-February onwards, the budget negotiations and the health situation were overshadowed by the violence that occurred in Kurdistan. First of all, on the 14th, there was the announcement of the death of thirteen Turkish prisoners of the PKK in a cave in the Gare region, about fifty kilometres from Dohuk, during a military operation by the Ankara army. Then, the following evening, some fifteen rockets were fired at Erbil international airport, targeting an air base where American troops are stationed. The attack left one foreign civilian contractor dead and eleven injured, eight civilian contractors, one US soldier and three other civilians. Two of the rockets, which fell on residential areas on the outskirts of the city, wounded five civilians, one of whom died on the 22nd, bringing the death toll to two.
Already at the beginning of the month, French intelligence sources indicated that the United States, faced with regular attacks on its bases in the rest of Iraq, was considering moving some of its forces to Kurdistan. The attack in Erbil is a message to the new US administration that they will not be safe there either. After the attack, security forces were deployed around the airport, and traffic was halted all morning the next day. The shooting was widely condemned, by the KRG of course, the Iraqi President and Prime Minister, but also by the UN representative in Iraq and then, in a joint statement, by the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US. The attack was claimed by a group calling itself Awliyaa al-Dam (the “Guardians of Blood”). Iraqi security officials told AFP it must be a front name for known pro-Iranian factions that want coalition forces out of the country, but Iran has “strongly denied” any involvement. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which runs the Erbil region, blamed groups close to the Hashd al-Shaabi.
The security of the Kurdistan Region is threatened: two intelligence sources told AFP that the rockets (of Iranian manufacture) had been fired from a truck about 10 km from Erbil, i.e. from inside Kurdistan. Pro-Iranian propaganda media were the first to announce the attack. A joint Baghdad-Erbil investigation was launched. On the 25th, the US Air Force carried out retaliatory strikes on Iraqi militias stationed in Syria.
These events come against the background of a significant increase in tensions in northern Iraq, where the Turkish army is continuing its anti-PKK operations. In particular, the region of Sinjar and its capital, the town of the same name, are increasingly becoming a strategic focal point. This ancestral home of the Kurdish-speaking Yazidi minority was in August 2014 overrun by ISIS, which attempted to carry out a genocide against its inhabitants. The survivors are still largely displaced in camps. Now the area, which is also disputed between Baghdad and Erbil, is regularly bombed by the Turkish Air Force. A few days before the rocket attacks on Erbil, several Hashd al-Shaabi militias had announced on social networks that they were deploying there to oppose a possible Turkish invasion. Ankara is demanding that Baghdad expel the pro-PKK militias present there, some of which are composed of Yazidis. On 9 October, an agreement between Baghdad and Erbil gave the Iraqi government responsibility for the security of Sinjar, with the task of recruiting a new force representative of the local population. One of the aims of the agreement was to expel groups of fighters affiliated to the PKK. Implementation began in November with the deployment of about 6,000 federal police in the parts of Sinjar bordering Syria. However, a commander of the Ezidkhan Yazidi Pashmerga force told Rûdaw in January that several armed groups were still present in Sinjar...
On the 6th of the month, the remains of 104 Yazidis who were victims of ISIS’s genocide and found in several mass graves in Sinjar were brought back to the village of Kocho for burial according to the community’s rites. The victims had been first sent for identification to Baghdad where a memorial service was held earlier this month. It was attended by delegations from the KRG and the Federal government, as well as the UN envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, alongside the head of UNITAD. This agency, created in 2017 by the UN Security Council at the request of the Iraqi government and supported by the United States, has a mandate to gather evidence to prosecute those responsible for the 2014 genocide. On the 7th, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani met with Yazidi Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Mourad, who had already been received on the 3rd by Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani. In addition to how to assist UNITAD, the Baghdad-Erbil agreement on Sinjar and the current situation of the region were also discussed. After the ceremony in Kocho, Nadia Mourad sent a moving tweet: “After 6 years, I was able to bury the remains of two of my brothers. My community in Kocho has been able to bury over 100 of our loved ones. This is just the beginning of justice for the Yazidis. Thousands of families are still waiting for the identification and burial of their loved ones”...
At the end of the month, tensions between Turkey and Iran escalated after the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad accused Ankara of violating Iraqi sovereignty and called on Turkey to withdraw its troops from Iraq and keep itself off Sindjar. After a sharp response from Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, both countries summoned the other’s ambassador.
The disputed territories are also still the preferred place of activity for the jihadists of ISIS, who take advantage of the security vacuum created by the opposition between the pechmergas and the Iraqi security forces. According to the Ministry of Pechmergas, about fifteen attacks were carried out during the last three weeks of January. At the beginning of February, Iraqi security forces arrested several terrorists in Kirkuk, including the IT officer responsible for one of the organisation’s websites. According to the Kurdish channel NRT, a US-brokered agreement provides for the formation of a joint Iraqi-Kurdish military force in Kirkuk to replace the 61st Iraqi Division to ensure security in the province. However, while the implementation of this plan is delayed, the security situation continues to deteriorate. While at least two jihadists were arrested in Kirkuk in the second week of the month, a Kurdish farmer was killed by unidentified gunmen in Daquq on the 17th, and the anti-ISIS coalition had to launch several strikes south of Kirkuk. On the 24th, a mortar attack wounded a dozen Iraqi policemen in Daquq, prompting an operation by the army and the Hashd al-Shaabi on the 28th. In parallel, the Kurdish parties in Kirkuk, after several meetings since January, managed to form a joint list for the next regional elections. The list, led by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), does not include the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which has been absent from the province since its takeover by Baghdad on 16 October 2017 (WKI).
In Kurdistan, the heavy sentencing of five journalists and activists to six years in prison for their role in the anti-government protests of 2020 has caused a wave of indignation. The defendants’ lawyer, Aso Hashem, told AFP he intends to appeal. Karwan Anwar, head of a media union in Suleimaniyeh, condemned a “very harsh” verdict: “We are at a crossroads”, he told AFP. “This is the first time a court has sentenced someone to six years in prison for simply expressing his opinion”. Iraqi Kurdistan has long been considered a safe haven for journalists and activists who are abused or threatened in other parts of Iraq, but the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said after the verdict that this was no longer the case...
During this month, the coronavirus epidemic has, according to the Iranian opposition, caused more than 13,000 deaths: the National Council of Resistance (NCRI) counted 209,700 deaths on 1st February since the beginning of the epidemic, a figure that rose to 223,100 at the end of the month. Compiled by the People’s Mojahedin Organisation (PMOI) from regional public data, these figures are much higher than the official figures, since on 28 February, Iran announced that it had exceeded... 60,000 deaths. Although the official number of daily deaths has stabilised somewhat, falling back below 100 per day, the authorities were nevertheless worried about the expansion of the British variant, present in the country since January...
The first vaccinations against COVID began on the 9th at the Imam Khomeini Hospital in Tehran with injections to health care workers, who will receive the doses first. The vaccine is the Russian Sputnik-V, of which Iran has purchased two million doses, which were to arrive in three batches during the month. Health Minister Said Namaki said Iran will receive 4.2 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine in February through the Covax scheme, which is designed to provide vaccines to the poorest countries. These 6.2 million doses are to be compared with the country’s population of over 80 million. However, the CNRI denounced the same day the “scandalous” figures of the vaccination plan announced to the Tasnim agency by the president of the scientific committee of the Centre for the Control of Coronavirus (NCLC), Qanai: he declared that the vaccination of people under 55 years of age (85% of the population) would begin... next winter. Shorter-term forecasts are not much more encouraging. According to NCLC spokesperson Alireza Raissi, by 29 March, 1.3 million people will be vaccinated, or 1.5% of the population...
For the Kurdish provinces of the country, some figures compiled by the PMOI are as follows: as of the 6th, there were 8,588 deaths in Lorestan, 4,344 in Kermanshah, 3,652 in Kurdistan since the beginning of the epidemic. By the 19th, the number had risen to 4,459 in Kermanshah and 3,772 in Kurdistan.
By the 27th, the British variant of the virus was present in at least 16 provinces. The spokesperson for the NCLC said on national television: “The British virus is not limited to Khuzestan. At least 187 cases have been found in 16 provinces and we had 20 deaths”.
At the same time, killings of cross-border Kurdish porters, the kolbars, by the repressive forces continued. In the first week of the month, two of them were killed near Baneh and Sardasht. Six others were injured in Baneh and Marivan. In addition, according to local Kurdish human rights groups, eight kolbars were arrested near Chaldiran before being tortured and having their charges confiscated. On the 10th, three more were injured near Baneh and the next day, one kolbar died in a fall near Servabad. On the 20th, two kolbars drowned in a river while fleeing Iranian border guards near Sardasht. Another Kolbar, Ayoub Qadiri, froze to death in Baneh. Finally, one Kolbar was injured in a fall while fleeing from Iranian border guards near Marivan (WKI).
Moreover, the anti-Kurdish repression, already felt daily in ordinary times, witnessed a particularly brutal intensification this month. Already in January, the regime had arrested more than a hundred people in several towns in Iranian Kurdistan: Şino (Oshnavieh), Bokan, Marivan, and Mahabad, including the writer Mustafa Alikhandaza. By the end of February, the number of those arrested had reached nearly 150, many of whom were in the hands of the Etelaat (Intelligence).
On 3 February, 36 Human rights organisations launched a joint appeal to the international community for the release of Kurdish and other minority detainees in Iran (https://www.iranhumanrights.org/2021/02/36-rights-groups-appeal-for-release-of-kurdish-detainees-and-other-minorities-in-iran/). In the text, the signatories denounce the ongoing wave of arrests “targeting scores of people from Iran’s disadvantaged Kurdish minority in the provinces of Alborz, Kermanshah, Kurdistan, Tehran, and West Azerbaijan”. They note that no official reasons have been given for these arrests, which are feared to be targeted at people who have simply exercised their rights. These people, often held incommunicado, are in danger of being tortured or ill-treated to force them to sign fabricated confessions that can then be used against them in unfair trials...
The text provides a record of the arrests, which have taken place in 19 cities: “According to information gathered from informed sources, since 6 January 2021, at least 96 individuals (88 men and 8 women) from Iran’s Kurdish minority, including civil society activists, labour rights activists, environmentalists, writers, university students and formerly imprisoned political activists as well as individuals with no known history of activism, have been arrested by the intelligence unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards [pasdaran] or ministry of intelligence agents, at times in a violent manner”.
Most arrests are de facto illegal, as they are made without a warrant, and families who have asked the judicial authorities for information about their relatives have been told that their offices had not issued warrants for them and that they had no information about their fate. By early February, about half of the detainees, at least 40 people, had been forcibly disappeared. Subsequently, some of them were briefly able to telephone their families, but the authorities refused to reveal the reasons for their arrest and prohibited further communication. Prisoners are also denied access to a lawyer and families have been threatened and warned to remain silent.
According to the analysis of the signatories of the appeal, the campaign of repression seems to target mostly young people in their twenties active in informal circles dedicated to the defence of the rights of the Kurds of Iran, people who are only “guilty” of opinion offences. They recall that according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran (report of 18 July 2019), “Kurdish political prisoners charged with national security offences [...] constitute a disproportionately high number of those who received the death penalty and are executed”; they call on the international community to put pressure on the Iranian authorities to obtain, among other things, the unconditional release of those arbitrarily imprisoned, an end to the campaign of anti-Kurdish arrests, and until those detained are released, their protection from torture and other ill-treatment. More broadly, the text calls for Iran to launch an independent investigation into the violations committed in order to bring those responsible to justice.
However, the campaign continued with new arrests across Iranian Kurdistan, in the cities of Sanandaj, Oshnavieh, Kamyaran, Mahabad, Baneh, Sardasht and Paveh, while in Saqqez, a Kurd named Ahmad Mohammadi was sentenced for “espionage” and “propaganda for Kurdish opposition parties”. In Sanandaj, Kurdish activist Faranak Jamshidi received four years in prison for protesting against the Turkish invasion of Rojava in October 2019. From the middle of the month, some detainees were transferred to prisons, notably in Urmia, sometimes after several weeks of interrogation by the Etelaat, but arrests continued until the end of the month: according to the Hengaw organisation for human rights, four Kurds from Marivan were arrested in Marivan by Etelaat agents on the 28th (WKI).
The sentences also continued: in Piranshahr, six five-year prison sentences for “cooperation with the KDPI, in Sanandadj, the environmental activist Farank Jamshiri received four years in prison for “belonging to a Kurdish party opposed to the state”. The following week, Kurdish activist Hadi Roostami was sentenced to eight months in prison and 60 lashes for “undermining national security”. At the end of the month, Kurdish activist Shanaz Sadeqi, sentenced to 15 years in prison for “belonging to the Kurdistan Freedom Party”, had her sentence reduced to five years on appeal.
It is obviously impossible to name all those arrested or convicted during this period. But the case of Zahra Mohammadi is worth mentioning again: earlier this month, as the celebrations of International Mother Language Day came to an end, the Cooperation Centre for Iranian Kurdish Parties (CCIK) denounced the regime’s campaign against the Kurdish language: “In Iran, Persian is the only officially recognised language [...]. Any activity related to the language is considered a crime, and the Islamic Republic’s prisons are full of people whose only crime was to defend their mother tongue and their culture”. This is precisely what happened to Mohammadi. Director of the Nojin cultural association and Kurdish teacher for the children of Sanandaj, she was arrested in May 2019 and sentenced to ten years in prison for activities “contrary to the stability and security” of the state. On the 14th, her sentence was reduced on appeal to five years. She told her story to the Iraqi Kurdish channel Rûdaw: after her appeal against her first conviction, the Court of Appeal had asked the Ministry of Intelligence to send the evidence against her. After more than two months, the Intelligence Ministry could only provide a photo of her at the funeral of the Kurdish poet Jalal Malakshah, who died in October... Nevertheless, she was not acquitted. Calling on Instagram her last five-year sentence “a total injustice”, she said she would appeal again.
Among the many Kurdish political prisoners in Iran is Zeynab Jalalian, for whom Amnesty International launched an “urgent action” on 1st February (https://www.amnesty.org/fr/documents/mde13/3605/2021/fr/). Arrested in June 2008 on charges of links to PJAK, Jalalian was sentenced to death in an unfair trial that lasted only a few minutes. Then, under international pressure, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She has now been imprisoned for over twelve years. Seriously ill, she is deliberately deprived of eye care, her guards thus hoping to force her to make a videotaped confession. “This deliberate deprivation of medical care has caused severe pain and suffering, as Zeynab Jalalian has suffered from serious health problems, including respiratory problems, since she was infected with COVID-19”, said Amnesty, which is calling readers to write the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raissi, to release her.
Finally, let’s end this very gloomy column on a more positive note, with news about British-Iranian anthropologist Kameel Ahmady. Known for his research into female genital mutilation, Ahmady, who lives in England, was arrested during a visit to Iran and sentenced to more than nine years in prison (and fined more than £500,000) for conspiring with “hostile state powers”. He appealed his conviction and was released on bail pending his retrial. This month it was reported that he had escaped through the mountains of Iranian and then Iraqi Kurdistan before reappearing in London (The Times).
Abroad, Belgium has sanctioned the Islamic Republic’s state terrorism: Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi was sentenced on 4 February in Antwerp to 20 years in prison for preparing a narrowly thwarted bomb attack on a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the Iranian opposition in exile, in Villepinte, near Paris, in June 2018. Three Belgian accomplices of Iranian origin were sentenced to between 15 and 18 years in prison, as well as the loss of their Belgian nationality. Assadi, who was posted in Vienna at the time of his arrest, could not rely on his diplomatic immunity, as the judge considered that it could not protect him from prosecution in a country where he was not assigned to a diplomatic mission.