The difficulties continue for the AKP-MHP government: accusations of corruption particularly unwelcome while the economy is still plunging, tensions with the military, a vaccination campaign that is hampered by the quantity as well as the quality of the vaccines. As usual, the Turkish president responds with a repressive headlong rush; his main scapegoat remains the "pro-Kurdish" HDP party...
Regarding the epidemic, daily infection figures jumped to 59,187 on April 14, the day after the start of Ramadan. This is an absolute record, five times more than at the beginning of March, when President Erdoğan had proclaimed a "controlled normalization"... To save the summer tourist season, he announced a partial containment for a fortnight. Since mid-January, the administration had been able to administer 11 million doses of the Chinese vaccine CoronaVac. With a total of 18.7 million doses injected, it hoped to bring down the epidemic curve (Duvar). However, problems soon arose: SinoVac was unable to deliver the planned 50 million doses by the end of February (by mid-April, Turkey had received only 28 million), and the effectiveness of the vaccine was called into question (Le Monde).
Finally, on the 29th, as contamination levels continued to rise, the government was forced to abandon the lifting of restrictions and instead tighten them by declaring a strict lockdown until Eid on 17 May. The streets of major cities filled with people stocking up on food...
In addition, the ruling AKP party, which since the beginning of the epidemic has used the health risks as a pretext to ban all opposition demonstrations or gatherings, has been severely criticized by the latter for having organized several regional congresses, and then its national congress, in Ankara on 24 March, without any precautions. "As a result, of the 81 provinces that make up the country, 58 are now listed as "red", with massive contamination, including the two largest cities, Istanbul, Ankara, as well as the region of Samsun, on the shores of the Black Sea, the most contaminated of the whole country" (Le Monde).
In addition, the Bianet website reported on the 22nd that the Kurdish provinces of the country were discriminated against in terms of vaccination: they received a much lower number of doses per 100 people than other regions. According to the Ministry of Health's own figures, the city with the worst coverage was Hakkari. For vaccination rates of 22% in İstanbul, 29% in Ankara and 31.8% in İzmir, and around 30% in several medium-sized Anatolian cities, in the Kurdish towns, it was well below: 11.03% in Van, 10.77% in Diyarbakır, 7.6% in Urfa and 5.62% in Şırnak. Usual discrimination by the Turkish state against its Kurdish citizens...
On the 30th, contradicting his own Health Minister, Fahrettin Koca, who said the country would run out of vaccines, the Turkish President denied any supply difficulties, pointing to ongoing negotiations to acquire other vaccines, BioNTech or Spoutnik-V (Bianet).
Finally, the catastrophic sanitary conditions of detention allow us to worry about the detainees, and in particular the Kurdish political prisoners, who are largely excluded from sanitary releases, unlike the extreme right-wing gangsters who are friends of the government.) Thus, on the 22nd, Isa Gültekin died of cancer. Imprisoned in Mersin for 28 years with 18 months left to serve, he was dying and had been refused release (Kurdistan au Féminin).
The government was also criticized for a new corruption scandal: on 21 September, the president had to sack his trade minister, Ruhsar Pekçan. She was accused of having bought more than 900,000 euros worth of disinfectants for her ministry from companies owned by... herself and her husband. Arguing that their products were cheaper than competing products did not save her. Mr Erdoğan hardly needs another scandal at a time when his calamitous management of the economy is earning him ever lower poll ratings. The opposition Kemalist CHP, in particular, has literally blanketed Ankara and Istanbul with posters asking "Where did the $128 billion" of volatile state treasury reserves go that it accuses Erdoğan of fraudulently paying out between 2019 and 2020 to "friendly" companies. The latter furiously replied that the money had been used to support the currency, but he was hardly convinced: after his statement, the currency fell by another 0.7% (Le Monde). It was precisely such accusations of nepotism and corruption that had caused the rupture between Erdoğan and his Gülenist allies.
From prison, former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş urged the opposition in an interview with Reuters on the 5th to quickly unite in an "Alliance for Democracy" to bring down Erdoğan without waiting for the 2023 election deadline. He stressed the need to be ready, as the government could take the lead: "If the economic crisis worsens sharply", it "could hold early elections to avoid [a social explosion]". The AKP has just fallen below 30% and the MHP is down to 6% (New York Times). Asked about his morale as a prisoner, Demirtaş sent in his answer another dig at the regime: he said "[I have] good morale. My conscience is pure. Thank God I am not imprisoned for stealing people's money".
The challenge is now also coming from sectors that had so far kept a cautious silence. Also on the 5th, ten retired admirals were taken into custody and investigated for conspiracy "to commit a crime against state security and constitutional order". They were allegedly behind the publication on a nationalist website of an open letter signed by 104 retired admirals strongly criticising the increasing Islamisation of the army and the Bosphorus bypass canal. This pharaonic 25-billion-euro project, highly contested by civil society, is the president's "baby". Rear Admiral Cem Gürdeniz, father of the "Blue Homeland" doctrine which calls for Turkish control over the eastern Mediterranean, is among those accused. The declaration warns against a Turkish exit from the "Montreux Convention", which since 1936 has regulated navigation between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea via the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. The president had envisaged this, and on 24 March, the AKP president of the parliament, Mustafa Sentop, had added that once the canal was completed, Turkey would no longer feel bound by this convention. Before the admirals, 126 former Turkish diplomats had expressed concern that such an exit would lead "to the loss of Turkey's absolute sovereignty over the Sea of Marmara". Accused of attempting a putsch, the admirals did not allow themselves to be intimidated. Türker Ertürk, one of the signatories, retorted in Cumhuriyet: "The real putschists are those who govern us. [...] These leaders are finished, they have no chance to win the elections. By creating tensions, they are trying to divert attention from the real problems: inflation, the loss of purchasing power, the fiasco of the health response to the pandemic, foreign policy...". (Le Monde). The HDP could not have said it better...
Then, on 24 April, US President Joe Biden dealt an unprecedented diplomatic blow to Turkey by taking a historic decision: the official recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915. The United States thus joins some thirty countries, including France, Germany and Russia, which had already recognised this genocide, which has long been described as such by the historical community.
Biden took care to speak by phone the day before with his Turkish counterpart, informing him of his decision and, according to the Turkish Presidency's account, reaffirming the strategic nature of the US-Turkey relationship. The two leaders also agreed, according to the White House, to meet in June in Brussels on the sidelines of the NATO summit. But this recognition is nonetheless a serious diplomatic setback for Mr Erdoğan. He had declared in advance on the 22nd that he would "continue to defend the truth against those who support the lie of the so-called 'Armenian genocide' for political purposes". After Joe Biden's statement, he reacted by accusing "third parties", whom he did not name, of making this debate "a [political] instrument of interference in our country" (Le Monde). Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Turkey had "no lessons to receive from anyone" on its history", before summoning the American ambassador. The pro-AKP press denounced a "scandalous statement". Sadly, almost the entire opposition came together to criticize the recognition of the "so-called genocide". Only one major party welcomed the US decision: the HDP.
On the 27th, HDP MP Garo Paylan (himself of Armenian origin) was threatened with a new genocide by ultranationalist MP Ümit Özdağ for criticizing the naming of streets and schools after Talaat Pasha (one of the architects of the genocide). He had compared the situation to "that of post-war Germany, if educational institutions and streets were [still] named after Adolf Hitler". Özdağ replied that he should and would in due course have a "Talaat Pasha experience". Paylan filed a complaint against Özdağ for "incitement to hatred", as did the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD).
Despite the constant harassment, the HDP courageously continues to bring the criticism of the government into the parliamentary debates. On the 5th, its MPs Remziye Tosun, Dersim Dağ and Salihe Aydeniz, submitted a question on the "Human Rights Action Plan" unveiled by the president last month, not hesitating to call the document "a smoke and mirrors attempt to improve relations with the EU" and noting that the proposal coincided precisely with an intensification of human rights violations. The MEPs also put a series of specific questions to Vice-President Fuat Oktay, including the number of banned public meetings, arrested association leaders, complaints of torture in prison, cases in which Turkey has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights in the last five years (Bianet). The party was not intimidated by the request to ban it on 17 March, which the Turkish Constitutional Court delayed on 31 March by sending the case back to the prosecutor for amendment because of "procedural flaws" (AFP). But the reprieve was short-lived, as the parliament started to consider the suspension of the parliamentary immunity of ten more HDP deputies, including its former co-chair Sezai Temelli.
Among the HDP deputies recently stripped of their mandates, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, who was stripped of his mandate on 17 March, drew attention to his case by refusing to leave parliament after his dismissal. The police had brutally intervened in the assembly's precinct to take him away by force in his pajamas. He was released after a short incarceration and was required to report to the police again within ten days, which he also refused to do. Once again, the police intervened brutally to arrest him at his home on 2 April: "They didn't even let him put on his shoes before taking him away," said his son Salih. The Constitutional Court, to which he had filed an appeal against his impeachment, declared itself incompetent (AFP). Taken to the Ankara courthouse, Gergerlioğlu felt chest pains and was hospitalized without his family or lawyers being informed of the hospital he was being taken to. After an angiography, he was incarcerated (Ahval).
At the same time, the Diyarbakir police raided the women's association Rosa, imprisoning some twenty of its members as well as HDP members and Jinnews journalist Beritan Canozer. Rosa had incurred the wrath of the authorities for its protests against Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, and indicated that the arrests were certainly aimed at preventing future demonstrations (Rûdaw). The following week, 16 members of the Democratic Regions Party (DBP) were sentenced in Aydın to three years and six weeks in prison for their participation in the 2014 "Kobane" protests. Meanwhile, at least ten HDP members were jailed in Mardin, Çukurca, Hakkâri and Batman, while the parliament prepared to consider new requests to lift the parliamentary immunity of many HDP MPs and ten CHP MPs, mostly for "insulting the president" or simply criticizing his policies (WKI).
But it was on 26 April that the regime launched its most violent repression against the HDP. On that day, a mega criminal trial of 108 Kurdish elected representatives, including about 20 former deputies and 5 former mayors, started in Ankara. As 28 of the defendants were in pre-trial detention, the hearing was held directly in the Sincan prison complex. Among the defendants are also the two former HDP co-chairs Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş; among the deposed mayors also charged are Gultan Kisanak (Diyarbakir), Ahmet Turk (Mardin) and Ayhan Bilgen (Kars). All of them are accused, as HDP cadres at the time, of being responsible for the "6-8 October 2014 massacre".
In fact, the HDP had called for demonstrations against the attack launched by ISIS on the Kurdish city of Kobane, in the Kurdistan of Syria (Rojava) and especially against the proven complicity of the Turkish government, which allowed the jihadists to pass through its territory while closing the border to the Kurds who wanted to come to the aid of their besieged brothers and sisters. The Turkish government then put down these demonstrations in blood, launching thousands of ultra-nationalist militiamen, Grey Wolves and radical Islamists, such as the hooded "Lions of Islam" (Asadullah), against the Kurds and progressives, together with the police. From 6 to 8 October, three days of demonstrations and violent clashes left nearly 50 people dead, most of them Kurdish civilians. Among them were 26 HDP members, a child of a Syrian Kurdish family who had taken refuge in Diyarbakir, some police auxiliaries and many injured, including policemen.
With unparalleled cynicism, the Turkish authorities are now trying to make the accused, brothers and cousins of the victims, responsible for this bloody repression, while the real perpetrators of these murders have remained unpunished: the complaints of the families of the victims and the HDP's requests for a parliamentary enquiry have gone unheeded. Now, the HDP leaders accused in this Orwellian trial are facing up to 38 life sentences!
The conditions of the trial were also worthy of George Orwell. The courtroom was so full of police that many of the lawyers were denied access "for lack of space", while the others left the room in protest. In the absence of their lawyers, the defendants, arguing their right to defense, refused to answer the judges' questions. Demirtaş, speaking by video conference from his cell in Edirne through the detestable SEGBIS system, said he wanted to denounce with his comrades this travesty of justice before public opinion, to make a kind of trial of the trial, and also to ask publicly where the 128 billion dollars disappeared from the coffers of the Turkish central bank under this corrupt power that wants to silence any opposition have gone... But the police prevented any contact of the defendants with the press. They dispersed the press conference that the two current HDP co-chairs, Mithat Sancar and Pervin Buldan, wanted to hold at the entrance of the prison complex, and also brutally prevented a press briefing at the HDP headquarters, taking, as usual, the pretext of the pandemic...
Finally, the trial was adjourned to 3 May: the usual way to discourage foreign delegations and the press from attending the hearings.
The judges are at the orders, because resisting the grip of the presidency means impeachment followed by conviction for Gulenism. Thus people publicly accused by Erdoğan, his ally Bahçeli or their ministers are systematically sentenced even if their case is empty: the latest example is the 3 years and 6 months in prison that hit Selahattin Demirtaş for "insulting the president", then to 4 years and 6 months for "terrorist propaganda" for a speech at the 2013 Newroz festival, a sentence confirmed on appeal. The defendants in the "Kobane trial" are therefore risking a lot, unless there is a major mobilisation of public opinion and Western governments.
Unfortunately, they do not go beyond verbal denunciations - starting with the European leaders. Sure, the "smoke and mirrors" of the so-called Human Rights Action Plan did not convince, but Mr Erdoğan still holds the role of "border guardian" of the European Union, with the 3.6 million or so Syrian refugees he is holding on its territory... Moreover, while Turkey remains a member of NATO, the Turkish President diplomatically softened his positions in the Eastern Mediterranean just before his meeting on the 8th with Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel. As a result, with repression still intensifying, the EU leaders arrived in Ankara at Erdoğan's invitation with half-hearted proposals for a "positive agenda" and the opening of a "new page" in relations. Mr. Michel declared from Ankara "We are grateful to Turkey for welcoming refugees" (Le Monde), and even the famous "sofa gate" (Mrs von der Leyen remaining confined to the sofa for lack of a seat) also opportunely diverted attention from the issue of the rule of law... Was this Ankara's aim? As MEP Nathalie Loiseau put it: "Europe should not ask itself where to sit, but how to stand". In any case, the 2016 pact to retain refugees in Turkey, which expired in March, should be extended...
On the humanitarian front, the month of April began under bad auspices for Rojava. On 29 March, the American ambassador to the UN demanded without success the reopening of the humanitarian access points to the Syrian borders, which Russia, a great protector of the Damascus regime, had imposed in July 2020 with Chinese support, thanks to its veto power. For Damascus, the aim was to prevent the areas outside its control, i.e. 30% of Syrian territory, from receiving direct humanitarian aid. The target areas were the rebel pocket of Idlib, controlled by jihadists supported by Turkey, and Rojava, managed by the Arab-Kurdish Autonomous Administration (AANES). As a result of this decision, the Al-Yarubiyah border post with Iraq, long a gateway for international aid, has closed in Rojava. To American criticism, Russia opposed "Syrian sovereignty", criticizing the fact that the regime had not been invited to the donors' conference on Syria, scheduled to take place in Brussels on 30 March.
The conference, held under the joint presidency of the UN and the European Union, only recorded 4.4 billion dollars of its 10 billion dollar pledge target for 2021 for this year and 2 billion for the following years: this shows the international community's weariness with a conflict that has been going on for 10 years. However, despite the proclamations of a regime that tortures its own people and constantly boasts about a "return to normalcy", the humanitarian situation in Syria is constantly deteriorating. According to the World Food Program, in December 2020, 12.4 million Syrians were food insecure compared to 9.3 million in May. The conflict has now caused 6.2 million internally displaced people and 5.6 million refugees. According to the UN Secretary-General, speaking in a video message to the conference, more than 13 million Syrians will need humanitarian assistance this year, 20% more than in 2020. Mr. Guterres added: "The Syrian economy is devastated and now the effects of Covid-19 have made things worse (UN Info).
Hemmed in between the hostility of Turkey in the north and that of the regime in the south, Rojava has not escaped this deterioration. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the number of COVID infections jumped by 243% between March and April, and if the official figures remain low since the beginning of the pandemic (15,769 positive cases), it is mainly because of the small number of tests carried out. The health system has been badly shaken by the war and can no longer cope: less than a fifth of patients on respiratory assistance (17%) survive the disease. On 29 April, the IRC sounded the alarm that the only laboratory in Rojava capable of testing for Covid-19, located in Qamishli, would run out of tests within a week, leaving the administration without any means of epidemiological control. Since the closure of Al-Yarubiyah, Rojava has been entirely dependent on Damascus for medical supplies. It has been allocated 100,000 doses of vaccine under the Covax program, but no delivery schedule has been published (AFP). At the end of the month, no vaccine had yet arrived in Rojava...
Relations between Rojava and the regime do not seem to be conducive to sending vaccines. For weeks, tensions have been rising. Already on 21 March, Damascus had closed several crossing points near Raqqa between its territories and those of the AANES, preventing civilians and goods from passing through. This quickly caused prices to rise in Rojava, especially for food, building materials and medical supplies. It seems that the regime, faced with a severe shortage of petrol as the harvest was about to begin, wanted to press for more supplies from Rojava, which controls most of Syria's oil wells. On the 4th , the crossings were reopened after AANES agreed to increase its deliveries. The agreement was for a weekly delivery of 200 trucks, while passengers and goods entering Rojava would pay a tax to the regime. According to anonymous accounts by Kurdish officials, part of the problem was the blocking of the Suez Canal by an oil tanker, which prevented supplies from Iran to its Syrian ally. Moreover, in a pattern reminiscent of the relations with Iraqi Kurdistan of the Baghdad regime under embargo in the 1990s, economic relations with the Kurds of Rojava allow Damascus to bypass the American "Caesar" sanctions. While one of the analysts consulted by Al-Monitor suggested that this agreement was also beneficial to Rojava, by allowing it to sell its oil, others pointed out that Rojava's landlocked status and the fear of a Russian-Turkish agreement at their expense do not leave the Kurds much room for maneuver in their relations with the regime (Al-Monitor). If, after the agreement, while the Syrian pound continued to fall, the AANES increased the salaries of its civil servants by 30%, the following week, the withdrawal of Russian units from the town of Tall Rifaat, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made the population fear that it was to give way to the Turks, as in Afrin... (WKI)
However, in the last week of the month, tensions between Rojava and Damascus rose again when an Asayish (Kurdish Security) official, Khaled al-Hajji, was killed in Qamishli by pro-regime militiamen at a military checkpoint near the al-Tayy neighbourhood in the south of the city (Al-Monitor). The intense clashes that then broke out lasted for five days on and off until a Russian mediation and a meeting between Kurds, Damascus representatives and Tayy Arab tribal leaders led to a ceasefire (WKI). In parallel, the Syrian army resorted to its usual retaliation by resuming on the 23rd to harass the Kurdish inhabitants of the Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrefiye neighbourhoods in Aleppo, arresting a number of them at its checkpoints (Kurdistan au Féminin). In Qamishli, the agreement was that the pro-Assad militias would give the Asayish control of the two neighborhoods of Al-Tayy and Halako, but the latter broke the agreement by assassinating a well-known Arab tribal leader, Sheikh Hayis al-Jaryan of the Bani Sabaa clan, who had taken part in the discussions. In response, the Kurds took over these areas by force, seizing several militia cantonments and an armoury. On the 26th, a joint patrol between the Russian military police and the Asayish supervised the return of calm and most of the inhabitants of al-Tayy were able to return to their homes. Some southern districts and the city's airport still remain under nominal regime control, but according to local journalist Samir al-Ahmad, pro-Iranian Lebanese militia members who arrived in February are now in charge, meaning indirect Iranian control. According to al-Ahmad, the clashes resulted in ten civilian casualties, including one child, and thirteen injured, including three children. In addition to al-Tayy and Halako, the militia lost the neighborhoods of al-Zuhur and al-Khalij Street: a gain for Russia, which seeks to counter Iran's growing influence in the area (Al-Monitor).
Unfortunately, in parallel to the tensions with Damascus, Rojava is still suffering from attacks and exactions by Turkey and its mercenaries. After a period of relative calm, they again launched fire on the suburbs of Ain Issa and the villages near the Christian town of Tall Tamr at the beginning of the month. The strikes around Ain Issa continued the following week. On the 4th, a Turkish drone struck a sand quarry in a village in Hassakeh province, causing material damage. In a village in Kobane, another drone hit a house where Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan had settled in the 1990s... Is Turkey, which has been holding Öcalan for 20 years, still so afraid of him that it has to hit a residence he left 30 years ago? In Sarê Kaniyê, the Kurdish town they occupy, the jihadists of the Sultan Murad Brigade and the Hamza Division have clashed violently over the sharing of the fruits of their racket on the inhabitants (WKI).
In Afrin, also occupied, war crimes continue. The Hamza division abducted at least a dozen Kurdish residents. On the 18th, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported on the concerns of Kurds in the village of Kuwait al-Rahma, in the Shirawa district of Afrin, about plans to resettle mainly Arab and Turkmen displaced persons in a housing estate under construction near their village. According to the Afrin human rights organization, while Kurds accounted for 97% of the town's population before the Turkish invasion, between forced displacements and new arrivals, they were down to 34.8% last January... (Rûdaw) Another concern is that during the last week of the month, according to the ANHA agency, the Turkish army started digging trenches near several Kurdish villages on the border west of Kobane, Zormixar, Ziyaret and Kor Eli. One of the residents of Kor Eli said that this could be an attempt to evict them, adding: "We will resist any form of attack" (RojInfo).
Furthermore, Turkey continues to use access to drinking water as a weapon against the inhabitants of Rojava, in contradiction with the agreement signed with Syria in 1987, which provides for a minimum flow of 500 cubic metres per second in the Euphrates. At present it is only 200, which causes a drop in the level of the Syrian reservoirs and a dramatic increase in the pollution of the water in them. Moreover, electricity production is becoming impossible. The director of the Tişrin Dam, Mihemed Terbuş, told ANHA: "Due to the despicable policies carried out by the Turkish state, a humanitarian crisis can occur at any time. Diseases such as cholera can spread" (RojInfo).
Still faced with the problem of its jihadist detainees or those close to jihadists, the autonomous administration continued during April the vast security operation entrusted on 28 March to the SDF and the Asayish in the Al-Hol camp to neutralize the still active members of ISIS. On 2 April, after a five-day search, the Kurdish forces announced that they had arrested 125 presumed members of the jihadist organization in the camp, including around twenty executives. They are believed to be the leaders of the sleeper cells that have carried out some 47 assassinations in the camp since January. According to Asayish spokesman Ali al-Hassan, many members of ISIS had infiltrated the camp posing as "civilians to carry out their activities and reorganise themselves". He warned that, despite the arrests, "the danger has not yet been eliminated, [and] will persist as long as [...] the international community does not consider the camp as a serious international problem, to which it too must provide appropriate solutions". He then reiterated the call for the repatriation of foreign detainees. On the 6th, as the operation continued, the spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition, Colonel Wayne Marotto, announced the capture in Al-Hol of a major commander of the organization, Ahmed Khoshua, thanks to the information gathered. But the following week, after two weeks of operation, the killing in the camp with a silenced pistol of an Iraqi refugee showed the truth of al-Hassan's warning. Two women were also wounded.
At the same time, actions against ISIS continued. Earlier this month, they captured several jihadists in Deir Ezzor province, where ISIS had carried out numerous attacks in the previous weeks. The following week, the SDF conducted three joint operations with the international coalition in Qamishli, Hassakeh and Deir Ezzor and arrested three more jihadists, including a commander, while a member of the Manbij Military Council fell victim to an IED. After new operations in Hassakeh, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, the SDF announced the arrest of dozens of jihadists who were planning attacks on the AANES offices in Hassakeh. However, the jihadist organization will not be easy to eradicate; it continues its attacks throughout the region, holding areas of the Badiyah desert in the south of the country from which even Russian airstrikes fail to dislodge it... Sporadic clashes between ISIS and the SDF as well as with regime forces, continued until the end of the month (WKI).
Although European countries still refuse to repatriate their nationals interned in AANES camps, the latter has been able to carry out several repatriations this month to Russia (34 children aged between 3 and 14 handed over to a Russian delegation on the 18th), and to Uzbekistan (24 women and 68 children, including 7 orphans, handed over to a delegation from that country on the 30th). According to the AANES communiqué, Uzbekistan has already repatriated some 240 Uzbek women and children... (AFP)
Regarding intra-Kurdish relations in Rojava, there have been no announcements this month regarding talks between the PYD and the opposition Kurdish National Council (ENKS). However, on the 27th, the Al-Monitor website reported that a French envoy visited Rojava in early April, followed by a delegation from the French Foreign Ministry in the middle of the month. The first envoy met with several Kurdish, Arab and Syriac personalities and invited representatives of these communities, including the PYD and ENKS, to visit the Elysée Palace to discuss the situation in Syria, an invitation that was repeated by the delegation that arrived later. France had already played a role in launching the discussions between the two components of the Kurdish political spectrum in Syria.
Although the Iraqi Parliament finally adopted the federal budget on 31st March, Article 11 of which formalizes the Baghdad-Erbil agreement on the Kurdistan budget, the latter's budgetary problems were not immediately resolved by a magic wand. The agreement does provide for the payment of 12.67% of the total, plus the salaries of its civil servants, to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in exchange for its oil and customs revenues, but it will take time to implement it, while some of the peshmergas have been waiting for their pay for two months.
On 1 April, fortunately, the United States announced the payment of the necessary funds for this. They have been assisting 30,000 of these Kurdish fighters since 2014. But since January, the funds had been delayed. Officially, this delay was due to the change of administration after the American elections, but for some, it reflected American impatience with the slow pace of reform to unify the peshmerga under a single command, which is still divided between the two main Kurdish parties (Rûdaw)...
On the 7th, the Prime Minister of Kurdistan, Masrour Barzani, declared that the KRG was "ready to assume all its responsibilities within the framework of the budget", before calling on the federal government to also "respect its commitments" and... to send the funds still due for January, February and March. Barzani also announced that the KRG's 2021 budget would soon be sent to the Erbil parliament. Admitting that it was not perfect, as the federal budget was itself a compromise, he concluded: "Our main victory is the continued protection and strengthening of our constitutional rights.
The passing of this difficult budgetary stage has certainly led to an improvement in relations between the two partners, and the President of the Region, Nechirvan Barzani, mentioned this during his visit to the Iraqi capital, referring to Baghdad as "a strategic partner of the Kurdistan Region". But the Kurds are still worried about the anti-Kurdish policy carried out in the Kurdish territories under the control of the federal government, or "disputed territories", and about the non-implementation of Article 140 of the Constitution which must decide their fate by referendum. The following week, the same Nechirvan Barzani called on UN Secretary General António Guterres to get involved in a mediation aimed at resolving these outstanding issues (WKI).
Concerning the COVID-19 epidemic, Kurdistan has recorded a new wave of contaminations, the second, with figures increasing rapidly since mid-February and particularly after Nowrouz. On 1 April, there were 755 new cases, for a total of 122,915 in the last year. To encourage testing, the KRG Ministry of Health has ordered a reduction in the price of tests. The day before, it had announced new measures to limit the spread of the virus: closing cinemas, wedding halls and sports halls, banning shisha and limiting the hours of cafés and restaurants. It had also ordered the closure of places of worship until 10 April. Kurdistan, which received 5,000 doses of SinoPharm vaccine from China, was able to carry out some vaccinations, giving priority to health workers.
But on the 7th, there were 1,217 new cases and 13 deaths in 24 hours, a peak in months, for a total of 128,264 cases and 3,756 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. The KRG then announced a curfew from 8pm to 6am until the 12th. On the 8th, as Iraq experienced a rapid increase in the number of cases, with 8,331 people infected in 24 hours, the WHO representative, Ahmed Zouiten, announced the rapid receipt of "millions of doses of vaccine". The country had received 336,000 doses from Astra-Zeneca and 50,000 from SinoPharm by the end of March, and should receive Russian Sputnik-V vaccines and 1.5 million doses from Pfizer, according to an agreement negotiated by the Ministry of Health (Rûdaw). In Kurdistan, if the population was reluctant to be vaccinated at the beginning of March, the rise in the number of contaminations has caused concern and provoked a race for the vaccine. By the 18th, the number of requests had increased sixfold, far beyond the number of doses available, and 85% of the 55,000 doses available had been administered. To regulate the flow, the KRG imposed the booking of prior appointments on the internet (Kurdistan-24). On the 30th, as the number of contaminations was still rising, the KRG announced the systematic testing of travelers coming from India and their isolation for a fortnight. By this date, Iraq, including Kurdistan, had recorded more than 1.06 million cases and 15,000 deaths since the outbreak.
The American-Iranian tensions on Iraqi soil, recently rekindled by the nuclear issue and the American sanctions, continue to have an important impact on Iraqi Kurdistan. On the 14th, a day of commemoration for the Kurds of the Anfal genocide, the Erbil airport was hit by a rocket dropped, for the first time, from a drone. It caused no casualties but damage to a building. The explosion was heard throughout the city. As in the 15 February attack, the target was the US military contingent. The attack was not actually claimed, but the group that had claimed responsibility for the previous attack, the "Blood Guardians" (Saraya Awliya al-Dam), publicly congratulated itself. Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish member of the KDP, was quick to accuse pro-Iranian militias, saying: "It seems that the same militia that targeted the airport two months ago is doing it again. This is an obvious and dangerous escalation. On the 16th, the German, French, Italian, British and US governments "strongly" condemned the attack in a joint statement, where they reiterated "[their] determination to continue the fight against ISIS" within the US-led coalition (AFP). At the end of the month, several pro-Iranian Iraqi media outlets sought to justify the attack by the presence of the Israeli Mossad in Iraqi Kurdistan. KRG spokesman Jutiyar Adel denied the information and threatened to sue one of the TV stations concerned. The KRG also called on the Iraqi government "to open a transparent investigation and send a commission of enquiry to the site of the alleged Israeli center in order to put an end to these false and dangerous accusations" (WKI).
Beyond the budget, Baghdad and Erbil remain at odds over the governance of the disputed territories. In Kirkuk, the Iraqi Interior Ministry launched prosecutions against 75 police officers for voting in the 25 September 2017 independence referendum, organized at the time in the province by its Kurdish governor Najmaldin Karim, who was later dismissed by Baghdad. Kurds protested against the prosecution, seeing it as a continuation of the anti-Kurdish purge policy that began with Karim's removal after Baghdad regained control of the province in October 2017. Hundreds of Kurdish officials and security officers have since been removed and replaced by non-Kurds (WKI).
Another territory still under tension is Sinjar, despite the Baghdad-Erbil agreement of last October. The few Yezidi families who have returned to the district since the ISIS invasion complain about the lack of basic services. A resident of the village of Siba Sheikh Khidhir testified on 14 August on Rûdaw: "There is no water or electricity here. During the summer, we are forced to take shelter in the ruined buildings just to escape the heat. It is estimated that out of 5,000 families living in the village before the ISIS attack, only 65 have returned. For the whole of Sinjar, only 20% of the 300,000 displaced by the attack have returned (Middle East Monitor).
However, on the 22nd, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense reported that about 7,500 displaced families in Kurdistan, mostly Yezidis, had returned to Sinjar and Tal Afar under the supervision of the Iraqi army. The Ministry did not specify the date of these returns, but said that the cleaning of villages was continuing to allow for more. The KRG blamed the difficulties of return on the presence of several "illegal armed groups", in particular those affiliated with the PKK, which, according to the October agreement, should leave Sinjar. The administration of the district appears to be contested not only between Baghdad and Erbil, but also by a local "autonomous administration" inspired by that of Rojava...
The jihadist organisation ISIS is still present in the strip of disputed territories between the KRG and the federal government. Its members operate in particular in the mountainous areas, which they use as sanctuaries from which to launch their attacks. At the beginning of the month, both the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army launched several operations in the Qarashogh Mountains with the support of the coalition. Meanwhile, Kirkuk Provincial Security arrested several jihadists and seized rockets in the Hawija district. In Kurdistan, the Security Council released the following week the video confessions of several jihadists arrested in February, who were planning attacks in Erbil. They said they had been directed remotely by agents in the Al-Hol camp in Rojava. The multiplicity of tensions and actors sometimes makes it difficult to determine who is responsible for an attack. On the 16th, the pro-Iranian Hashd al-Shaabi militia in Bartila (25 km east of Mosul) accused the Peshmerga of firing a rocket at one of their posts, which denied it. On the 19th, another rocket hit the Kifri district (Diyala), injuring a civilian and causing material damage. In this second case, both the Hashd militia and ISIS could be responsible... (WKI)
Another factor of tension is the continuation of Turkish strikes in the border areas of Kurdistan, which always cause civilian casualties, regularly presented by the Turkish General Staff as "neutralised terrorists", and have already caused thousands of displaced persons. The Turkish contingent in Iraq now probably numbers more than 5,000 men and has some forty bases, mostly in the Kurdistan Region. On the 14th, at the time of the drone attack on Erbil, three rockets also hit one of these bases in Bashiqa (Mosul), injuring a child and killing a Turkish soldier (Reuters). Pro-Iranian groups in Baghdad had already demanded the evacuation of this base in vain, threatening to strike it...
Earlier this month, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar again threatened to strike the PKK in Sinjar and Makhmur. Then on the afternoon of the 23rd, the Turkish army started a new anti-PKK ground and air operation in Iraqi Kurdistan, sending commandos supported by drones and helicopter gunships (AFP) to the Metina area and carrying out attacks in other areas of Dohuk province, including Avashin, Basyan, Kani Masi, Zab and Kesta. The PKK has confirmed fighting with Turkish troops, which it has accused of using chemical weapons on at least three occasions. For its part, the Turkish Defense Ministry claimed to have lost three soldiers and "neutralized" 37 PKK members (WKI). In Sulaymaniyah, about fifty demonstrators were imprisoned after gathering to protest against this offensive (AFP).
On the 30th, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced the establishment of a new base in the Metina area. Speaking to AKP members, he said: "This area is a route to Qandil; we will control this route. This operation seems to be part of Ankara's strategy to deny the PKK any East-West communication beyond its southern border. But this permanent reinforcement of the Turkish presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, which looks more and more like an occupation, alarms more and more Kurdish observers. The HDP deputy Hisyar Ozsoy worried in an interview with Al-Monitor about an operation which, under the pretext of targeting the PKK, could have the real objective of "progressively occupying Iraqi Kurdistan", as Turkey has done in Northern Syria.
While indirect negotiations are underway in Vienna with the United States in an attempt to revive the 2015 agreement on Iran's nuclear program, the regime has clearly been shaken by the new attack on its enrichment site in Natanz on 11 April. The number of successful attacks on the territory of the Islamic Republic is enough to worry the leaders. After a first incident attributed to sabotage at Natanz at the beginning of July, it was the assassination of the physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on 27 November in the suburbs of Tehran, followed by this new "accident", which was quickly qualified by the authorities as a terrorist act. In the meantime, on 7 August, the number two of Al-Qaeda was machine-gunned in Tehran...
Such a wave of unprecedented attacks suggests that the perpetrators have a network in place, perhaps Iranian citizens... Hence the endless turmoil and dissension between leaders revealed in broad daylight: the head of the Parliament's Strategic Centre declared that Iran had become a "haven for spies"; deputies called for the resignation of those in charge of the security and intelligence apparatus, whose former commander of the Revolutionary Guards (pasdaran) also called for its reorganization. The paranoia has spread to the point of suspecting an unnatural origin for the death of Brigadier General Mohammad Hosseinzadeh Hejazi on the 19th. This deputy commander of the Al-Quds Force, former executioner of the Kurds in the 1980s and architect of the current repressive apparatus, is said to have suffered a heart attack (New-York Times). As the presidential election of 18 June approaches, internal disputes within the pasdaran have also been brought to light. Yadollah Javani, deputy head of political affairs, accused another Guardian, Said Mohammad, a candidate in the election, of "violations" of the legal procedures for candidacy. The latter did not hesitate to retort that he was not the spokesman of the Guardians Corps (IRGC)... These public disputes show the nervousness of the conservatives for the upcoming elections. They seem to want to control the candidacies even more closely. In the 2020 elections, they took control of the parliament thanks to the massive disqualifications of reformist candidates by the Council of Guardians of the Constitution... (Radio Farda) But the participation rate was the lowest since the Islamic Revolution with officially 42.6% (but according to various observers only 20%).
In mid-April, the former head of Iran's nuclear organization, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, revealed the background to the July attack on Natanz: the explosives had been sealed in a heavy desk brought to the plant months earlier. As for the latest attack, it demonstrates the mastery of the perpetrators, who managed to simultaneously cut off the mains and the back-up batteries, sending thousands of centrifuges flying. These modus operandi suggest local complicity, hence the increased security tension...
Another factor of instability is the new records of the COVID-19 epidemic after the Nowruz holidays. This fourth wave is partly due to the lack of restrictions during the New Year holidays, a period when Iranians travelled by the millions. On the 7th, the Ministry of Health reported 20,954 new cases in the previous 24 hours, surpassing the previous day's record of 17,430 infections. The deputy health minister blamed (unnamed) officials at the Centre for Controlling the Epidemic for "preventing the golden opportunity of [the holiday] from being used to extinguish the flames of the coronavirus" by refusing to renew the restrictions imposed the previous year. At that time, Iran officially had 1,984,348 cases and 63,699 deaths (Radio Farda). But the figures compiled by the opposition are still four times higher: on 1 April, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), adding up regional data, put the number of deaths at more than 240,800 in 529 cities, a figure that rose to more than 252,100 on the 15th, and to 269,300 deaths on the 29th. Many Iranians give more credence to these calculations than to the official figures. On 10 April, the authorities imposed a 10-day lockdown in most of the country, but by 15 April, the official death toll in Esfahan had reached 9,400, with the number of sick increasing sixfold since Nowruz... (CNRI). On the same day, the Iranian ambassador to Russia announced the purchase of 60 million doses of Sputnik-V, for delivery between June and December, as well as production in Iran itself... Iran has also begun receiving a first delivery of 700,000 doses from AstraZeneca under the Covax programme, with 17 million doses expected to follow. On the 27th, the daily death toll of 496 broke a new record and the presence of an Indian variant was reported. Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, who at the beginning of the crisis was downplaying the epidemic, said that mortality would be on the rise for at least two weeks. By then, the vaccination campaign launched in early February was making little progress, with 824,000 vaccines administered.
On 14, the Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) called on the country, and in particular the penitentiary institution, to respect its legal obligations to protect prisoners from the epidemic and therefore to "act swiftly to deploy all legal resources to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals as much as possible". On the 12th, a group of inmates in Evin prison made a similar appeal after a cluster was discovered in the prison. Most political prisoners, prisoners of conscience and dual nationals have not been granted provisional release (CHRI), and Kurds, whose share of the prison population far exceeds their proportion in the population, are particularly at risk...
Still under sanctions and hard hit by the epidemic, the Iranian economy continues to stagnate. At the beginning of April, the Iranian Statistical Centre published its annual consumer price index. Iranian Kurdistan has the highest inflation rate: 40.1% in Kermanshah, 39.2% in Kordestan (Sanandadj), and 38.6% in Ilam (the fourth highest in Iran). The Kurdish provinces of Iran are also victims of unemployment and poor living conditions due to the discriminatory policies of the regime (WKI). As for unemployment, a Kurdish deputy, Mansour Moradi, indicated on the 11th that it had reached its highest level in ten years in Kordestan with over 60%. These figures contrast with the 13% officially calculated in the past, which have always been contested by the deputies of the region (Rûdaw). These unbearable economic conditions, coupled with delays in the payment of salaries, have fuelled a number of protests, ranging from wage earners and the unemployed to pensioners, as well as strikes of unprecedented duration. Despite the epidemic, the number of street protests has increased by 50% in the Iranian year 2020-2021 (CHRI). Slogans shifted from economic to political, denouncing the mismanagement of public funds and demanding resignations, even calling for a boycott of the presidential elections.
In Kurdistan, catastrophic economic and social conditions are forcing more and more young Kurds to take up the dangerous profession of kolbar, cross-border carrier. Although they are generally unarmed, they are regularly shot at by the repressive forces. In the second week of the month, two of them were injured in Khanera, near the Iraqi border. One of them had to be hospitalized in Soran (Iraqi Kurdistan). The following week, Turkish border guards killed three Kurdish porters from Iran in two separate incidents. According to the human rights organization Hengaw, one of the three was tortured to death. On the Iranian side, another porter was shot near Bahan and two others were seriously injured in Sardasht and Baneh. On the 25th, Iranian border guards injured five more kolbars near the Qulqula border crossing, several of whom had to be hospitalized in Marivan (WKI).
On the 27th, the young kolbar Behnam Samadi, 17, testified on Iraq's Kurdish channel Rûdaw about his capture by the Turks. Showing the scars of his torture, he described the circumstances of the death of his companion, Hassan Kachkanlu, 48: "[After beating us, the Turkish guards] took us back to the Iranian border, where they beat us again and sprayed us with water. When they released us, we fainted. When I came to, I discovered that my friend was dead. According to the Kurdistan Human Rights Network (KHRN), 52 kolbars were killed and 147 injured in 2020. 46 of the dead were shot by Iranian or Turkish border guards.
In Iranian Kurdistan, the pasdaran, in addition to assassinating the kolbars, serve as the regime's main repressive force. On the 5th, the Kurdistan Human Rights Network (KHRN) reported that they had bombed for four hours some mountainous areas on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan: "An Iranian military convoy carrying heavy equipment [of the pasdaran] stationed near the village of Kani Hosseinbag in Sarvabad and bombed the heights of Mount Shaho, between the villages of Deyvaznav and Daleh Marz". According to the Hengaw organisation, the artillery fire caused significant damage to this legally protected natural area, which the Paraguayan army has bombed every year since 2008. The aim seems to be to intimidate the Kurdish opposition political parties, the PDKI and the PJAK, whose activity has increased in this region. A gigantic Kurdistan flag was erected on 31 March on this mountain in homage to the President of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, Qazi Mohammed, who was executed on this very date in 1946 (WKI). "Before 2005, there were no Guardians' military bases in Shaho, but since 2008, they have built many roads and installed at least eight bases there," said KHRN founder Rebin Rahmani in Rûdaw.
The activities of the Pasdaran in Iranian Kurdistan are not without resistance: in the middle of the month, the PDKI claimed responsibility for the recent assassination near Piranshahr of the commander Osman Hossini, who was responsible for the death of a peshmerga of this organization (WKI). But the repression remains relentless. According to the KHRN, at least 25 Kurdish civilians were arrested in March in several cities of Iranian Kurdistan and at least 22 civilians were sentenced to sentences ranging from six months and 30 lashes to 15 years in prison. Moreover, since Nowruz, Kurdish participants in this festival, which is celebrated throughout Iran, have been sought, especially those present at gatherings where the flag of Kurdistan, which is banned, had been raised.
In the first week of the month, numerous arrests and convictions of Kurds were reported. Five members of the same family were arrested in the village of Ya'aqob (Baneh); in Darreh Shahr, the Kurdish activist Ayoub Warzi received 11 years in prison for "insulting the Supreme Leader". In Piranshahr, the Kurdish religious leader Rasoul Hamzapour received three years in prison for "propaganda against the Islamic Republic". Finally, in Kermanshah, Kurdish trade union activist Jwanmir Muradi was sentenced to one year in prison. On the 4th, three Kurds were executed in Oromia on charges of "drug trafficking" (HRANA). The following week, the Etelaat (Intelligence) arrested a participant in the Nowruz in the village of Ney (Marivan). This village seems to be particularly watched, since at the end of the month, 14 of its inhabitants were again arrested, accused of helping Kurdish opposition groups, and had to sign written commitments before being released. In Kermanshah, another Kurd, Jalal Namdari, was sentenced to eight years in prison for his participation in the 2019 anti-government protests, and activist Said Khalidi received five years in prison for "actions against national security". In Naqadeh, two other Kurds were sentenced to 43 months in prison for "belonging to Kurdish opposition parties". In the middle of the month, the Security Police arrested a Kurd named Abdul Sattar Karimi in Dehloran for the same reason. In Piranshahr, at least six Kurds were arrested, including a mother, Gulala Muradi, and her two children, the youngest being only 14 years old; in Salmas, two siblings were arrested, and one last person in Baneh.
On 21, the well-known Kurdish athlete Akbar Haiderpour was arrested in Dehloran (Ilam) on charges of helping the Kurdish parties (Kurdpa). On the 24th, the Etelaat arrested four residents of Sanandaj, including the two activists Marzia Gulam Waissi and Sirwan Abdullah. Finally, in Tehran, Kurdish educator and activist Gazal Shahi was sentenced to 18 months in prison for "spreading lies on the Internet" (WKI).
Finally, while Turkey and Iran are at odds on many issues, they are at odds in assisting each other in repressing the Kurds. According to the Guardian, five Kurdish activists exiled from Iran are currently detained in Turkey, one of whom, Afshin Sohrabzadeh, is now in a repatriation center. Imprisoned for 7 years, tortured and put in solitary confinement, he had managed to escape to Turkey through a hospital visit. Arrested this month at the Eskişehir police station, where he had gone to obtain travel documents, he is now accused of being a threat to Turkey's national security. According to his lawyer, his refugee status protected by international and Turkish law is being ignored. If returned to Iran, Sohrabzadeh faces the death penalty.
On 3 April, the premises of a Kurdish association in the 7th district of Lyon were attacked by at least ten people armed with iron bars. According to the police, who arrived on the scene after the attackers had left, four men of Kurdish origin were injured with knives, bats and iron bars. The Kurdish Democratic Council in France (CDK-F) denounced the attack in a statement saying that "Grey Wolves wearing balaclavas [and equipped] with baseball bats and white weapons, attacked with the utmost violence our association in Lyon and beat its members".
This ultra-nationalist group is the paramilitary wing of Turkey's fascist far-right MHP (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) party, which is allied in power in Turkey with the Islamist AKP party of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After having fought the Islamists for a long time, he is now very close to the "strong man" of Turkey. A fortnight ago, the Kurdish cultural association of Lyon whose members were targeted had already denounced threats and inscriptions attributed to the Grey Wolves on the door of its premises located on the ground floor. It is noteworthy that among the threatening inscriptions found on the premises were the acronym MHP and the initials "RTE"... for Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The "Grey Wolves" had however been disbanded last November by Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. This followed a series of violent attacks on the Armenian diaspora in the same region, in Décines, Vienne and Dijon. The Coordination Council of Armenian Organizations in France (CCAF) issued a statement the day after the attack calling on the French state to take firm action against the Grey Wolves. The statement said: "For many years, Islamic-nationalist thugs in Erdogan's pay have been attacking Turkish democrats, nationals of Armenian origin and representatives of the Kurdish community in Europe, as they did this time in Lyon. This fascist aggression is part of the rise of Turkish expansionism in the Caucasus, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Europe. It demands a firm response from the French public authorities, particularly in terms of criminal law, and real protection measures for opponents of Erdogan and Pan Turkism on French territory. We call on the government, and in particular the Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs, to be less cautious and complacent towards Ankara's actions, which carry the seeds of serious threats to public order and the integrity of France and its citizens. We express our total solidarity with the Kurdish Democratic Council in France, the Kurdish progressive movement, and all the forces that say no to the criminal policy of the Turkish state inside and outside its borders.