After the jihadist attack on the Hasakah prison on 20 January, February was marked in Rojava by the elimination of the leader of ISIS. While the international community had largely lost interest in north-eastern Syria in recent times, these events were a rude awakening: not only is the jihadist danger far from being averted, but the countries of origin of many prisoners left in the custody of the Autonomous Administration (AANES) have been made to shoulder their responsibilities. Finally, more than ever, the relationship between the Ankara government and ISIS raises questions, particularly after the publication of several damning reports: are we still in the context of an anti-Kurdish “objective alliance”? Or has ideological proximity already led to an assumed alliance with ISIS? Even if it were “only” a case of circumstantial cooperation, with the Turkish secret services (MIT) pretending to manipulate former jihadist fighters for their own benefit, the situation would be extremely worrying: in secret operations, the classic question is who is manipulating whom... As a member of NATO, Ankara is putting itself in the position of serving the interests of the most dangerous terrorist organisation of the decade, with the objective of destroying the West’s best allies in the region...
The death toll from the jihadist attack in Hasakah and the ensuing fighting was 373, including 98 Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) members and 7 civilians. SDF commander Mazlum Kobane said on the 7th that after this event, it was clear that the 700 American troops in his region were no longer enough (New York Times). On the 14th, SDF commander Newroz Ahmed explained that a previous attack had been thwarted three months earlier: “At that time, we alerted the coalition and the international community that an attack was imminent. Unfortunately, since the battle of Baghuz, the world has had the impression that the EI has been defeated. The attack on the prison has shown that this analysis is dangerously wrong” (Le Monde).
In a solemn speech on the 3rd, President Biden congratulated himself on the success of the operation by the American special forces, which, supported by the SDF, had eliminated the leader of ISIS, Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurayshi, that very morning. According to the American President, this ended a “major terrorist threat”. It should be noted that, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the American helicopters that carried out the operation took off from a military base in Kobanê under Kurdish control and not from the large American base in Iincirlik in Turkey, which is closer. Thanking the SDF repeatedly for their “essential” contribution, Biden recalled the important role played by the jihadist leader in “the genocide of the Yazidi people in northwestern Iraq in 2014”. Yet Biden is well aware that the elimination of al-Qurayshi, no more than that of his predecessor in October 2019, means the end of ISIS. Dozens of jihadists who took advantage of the Hasakah attack to flee have not been caught. The jihadist organisation, which has become clandestine and more decentralised, proved last month that it knows how to exploit the weaknesses of its opponents to organise destabilising military operations when the opportunity arises.
The question is: when will the next opportunity come? If the international community does not provide more support to AANES, it could come soon. Firstly, many foreign nationals are still abandoned by their countries of origin in camps or internment centres run by the autonomous administration, which does not have the necessary means to operate them. Among these “forgotten” internees placed in appalling conditions are women and many children, who risk becoming the next generation of jihadists. Rapid humanitarian and legal action is needed, and AANES has renewed its demand for the repatriation of the relatives of jihadists and the creation of an international tribunal to judge them.
Secondly, the support of the AANES also requires a proper assessment of Turkey’s role in the recent events.
Like his predecessor, the last leader of ISIS had taken refuge in an area controlled by Syrian rebels who have excellent relations with Ankara. Georges Malbrunot noted in the columns of Le Figaro on the 13th that the house where al-Qurayshi had been living “was only 200 metres from a checkpoint belonging to the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, former jihadists who have come under the control of Turkish intelligence”... On the Ahval website, David Phillips notes that al-Qurayshi’s cache was only 15 km from al-Baghdadi’s, in a region, Idlib, that has become the last refuge of all jihadist groups supported by Ankara. Like all Syrian regions controlled by Turkey, it is literally teeming with Turkish MIT intelligence agents. Moreover, Turkey has the second largest army in NATO, which it uses to seek out and target Kurds deep in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, in refugee camps, and even among the Yezidi survivors of the genocide perpetrated by ISIS. Can anyone seriously believe that it is unable to locate two of the world’s most wanted terrorists “hiding” in an area controlled by its own mercenaries? Indeed, many of the factions serving Ankara, including the so-called “Syrian National Army”, have many “former” members of ISIS and al-Qaeda in their ranks.
Throughout the jihadist attack in Hasakah and the fighting that followed, according to SOHR reports, Turkish drone attacks and strikes on AANES territories were unusually intense. Finally, intelligence obtained after the attack showed that Al-Qurayshi had played an important role in its preparation. This makes it all the more disturbing that, according to some reports, among the weapons found on the Hasakah jihadists, some bear Turkish markings and appear to have come from NATO... Ankara had already played a big role in the emergence of ISIS in 2013, allowing more than 40,000 foreign jihadists from 80 countries to transit through Turkey on their way to Syria, a route that came to be known as the “Jihad Highway”...
In addition to Phillips, who in the US is calling for a parliamentary enquiry that could possibly decide to suspend Turkey from NATO, there are many voices calling for more international support for the AANES and for a better consideration of Turkey’s dangerously ambiguous role. On 1st February, the magazine Politis published a text entitled “Ne laissons pas ISIS et l’État turc détruire nos alliés en Syrie” (“Let's not let ISIS and the Turkish state destroy our allies in Syria”). Beginning with a reminder that, in the context of the attacks in France, “the Turkish state has long been suspected of providing weapons and financial support to ISIS”, the signatories call for “sanctions against Turkey’s invasion and occupation of Syrian territory” and “a no-fly zone to stop Turkish military drone attacks”.
Turkish journalist Fehim Taştekin, for its part, does not hesitate to accuse Turkey of having played “a key role” in the preparation of the Hasakah attack, mentioning the presence of ISIS cells “mainly in Ankara but also in many other cities such as Konya, Bursa and Istanbul”. Taştekin also questions the Turkish Interior Ministry’s claim that 7-8,000 ISIS members have been arrested on Turkish soil. They might have been arrested, true, but it seems they were not sanctioned in any way (Kurdistan au Féminin).
In a revelation that comes at a bad time for Ankara, the Turkish-language Deutsche Welle reported this month that a large number of intermediaries located in Turkey have long helped ISIS transfer large amounts of money out of or into Syria. In one case, a Gaziantep-based remittance company transferred US$ 400,000 from ISIS to a bi-national Turkish-Lebanese intermediary. The intermediary regularly transited through Turkish territory on his way from Lebanon to Syria, where he met with ISIS representatives. Another intermediary, owner of several jewellery shops in Istanbul, had created a fund to assist the families of killed jihadists and hosted ISIS meetings in one of his shops. He was only arrested in December 2019. Of 365 people whose property was frozen in April 2020 for terrorism, 86 were linked to ISIS (Duvar). At the end of the month, the SDF announced that it had captured an Iraqi ISIS member near Raqqa who confessed to travelling to Turkey for “treatment”. The “Jihad Highway” still seems to be working...
At the same time, in continuous violation of the 2 separate ceasefires agreed in October 2019 with Russia and the United States, the Turkish army continues its artillery fire on the territories of the AANES. The SOHR even reported in late February an increase in drone strikes since the end of January.
On the 1st of the month, Turkish fighter jets struck a power plant in Derik (Al-Malikiya), killing 4 SDF members guarding it and wounding 5 employees (WKI). According to the Turkish Ministry of Defence, the raids targeted “shelters, bunkers, caves, tunnels, ammunition depots, and headquarters and training camps” used by the PKK and the YPG (“People’s Protection Units”, the Kurdish core of the SDF). The SOHR reported the next day new strikes on “some 20 villages and sites (...) in the Hasakah region and northern Raqqa province”, with more than 40 rockets and shells fired since the previous day, with some 60 aircraft, planes or drones, also mobilised in the operation (Anadolu). “Turkey is trying to continue what the EI started”, the YPG accused on Twitter.
Throughout the month, Turkish artillery and drones hit Manbij Military Council positions. On the 6th, a drone hit two positions that had just been evacuated; on the 22nd, clashes resumed and a Turkish drone again hit a Council position; on the 28th, heavy artillery shells were used, without causing any casualties. Northern Aleppo province also saw Turkish attacks. On 7 July, violent clashes between the regime’s army and the pro-Turkish “National Army” took place near Marea. On the 15th and 16th, the Turkish army and the “National Army” again "exchanged artillery fire with the Kurds in about ten villages. Turkish shells also hit a regime checkpoint and injured several children in a stadium in Tell Rifaat. The SOHR also reported regime fire... North of Raqqa, near Ain Issa, two SDF fighters were killed and a third wounded by intensive Turkish rocket fire on the 13th. On the 19th, after a tense calm of almost a week, the Turks resumed firing on this area, without causing any casualties. More rocket fire hit on the 25th, again without causing casualties. The area of the Christian town of Tall Tamr (Hasakah), along with the strategic M24 highway, remain Turkish targets. In the middle of the month, artillery fire was directed at the latter and the areas near Ain Issa and Girê Spî (Tell Abyad). On 23 February, Turkish artillery fire again hit several villages, without causing any casualties. Finally, at the end of February, Turkish drones also hit the Qamishli-Amuda road and injured four civilians, including three women (SOHR).
In Turkey, HDP foreign affairs co-spokespersons Feleknas Uca and Hişyar Özsoy issued a statement on the 3rd denouncing the Turkish strikes, both in Iraq and Syria, the first of which came as the funerals of the 121 fighters, prison guards and civilians killed in the Hasakah prison attack were just finishing. They note that, “Intentionally or not, these attacks by Turkey clearly make the fight against ISIS even more difficult, allowing the organisation to regroup and continue to fight as the most dangerous force in the region”, adding that the silence of the “international community” in this regard can only be interpreted by the Kurds as “approval or complicity” (HDP)...
On 5 February, the SOHR published an estimate that in January, Turkish jandarma had killed 3 civilians, including 1 child, on the Turkish-Syrian border in Qamishli, Kobanê and Idlib, and tortured 6 others trying to enter Turkey. In February, the SOHR reported new cases of jandarma abuses: the shooting of a 12-year-old boy in Idlib on the 10th and the beating of two Syrian youths on the 20th.
On the other hand, in Afrin and in the other territories they occupy, Ankara’s mercenaries have continued their exactions, of which we can cite only a few examples here. Earlier this month, a Liwaa Suqur Al-Shamal commander confiscated thousands of olive trees in Bulbul under the pretext that their owners were “supporters of the autonomous administration”, before cutting down hundreds of them to sell them as firewood. On the 7th, the SOHR reported that members of Ahrar Al-Sharqiyyah had felled 200 olive trees in 2 villages in Sharran district for the same purpose. On the 12th, an elderly man from the village of Midanki died of grief, 4 years after being robbed of his house by the Al-Sham legion. In addition, four displaced civilians from Aleppo, including a woman and a child, were arrested by Ahrar Al-Sharqiyyah for “forming a terrorist cell”. The SOHR reported many other arrests of this type, often as a pretext for ransom demands... Thus, on the 5th, the “military police” released three civilians from the village of Shadira (Jendires) arrested on 20 January for “relations with the former autonomous administration”, after having received a total ransom of US$ 900 from the families. Pro-Turkish militias also continue to ransack the archaeological heritage of the areas they occupy for profit, in particular the “National Army”, which even used bulldozers to excavate the sites of Tell Laq (Sharan) and Tell Al-Sultan Baraboush (SOHR).
A spokesman for the Afrin Human Rights Organisation, Ibrahim Shekho, told the Kurdish Hawar agency that in 2022 pro-Turkish factions had already kidnapped 96 people in Afrin, including 11 women and 5 children, cut down 5,000 trees, ransacked 9 archaeological sites and murdered 10 people.
There seems to be no end to the deterioration of the economic situation in Turkey. On 2 February, official figures showed that inflation had approached 50% annually in January, a 20-year high. The figure of the National Statistics Office (Tüik) is 48.69%, but the opposition and some economists, who calculated more than 110%, still accuse this institution of underestimation. Its director was however sacked at the end of January by President Erdoğan, for the fifth time since 2019. This is more than for the Director of the Turkish Central Bank, replaced “only” three times over the same period... Mr Erdoğan holds to his Islamic line in economic matters: as the Koran prohibits usury, he imposes very low interest rates on the country, causing the currency to fall for months (–44% against the dollar in 2021) and hyperinflation (Challenges). The increases in the minimum wage decided by presidential decree (50% on 1st January), quickly erased by inflation, only accelerate it in the long term.
Energy prices are also soaring. Electricity bills have risen so much that angry consumers have started posting them on social networks, launching a protest movement that is sweeping away even the traditional supporters of the AKP, the presidential party. In the opposition, the leader of the main party, Kemal Kilicdaroğlu (CHP, Kemalist), even announced that he would refuse to pay his! Criticism is made even more bitter by the fact that some of the private electricity distribution companies accused of profiteering from the situation are owned by people close to Mr Erdoğan... (New York Times)
To divert the anger of the citizens, the AKP-MHP (the ultranationalist far-right party supporting Mr Erdoğan) turns to scapegoats. These are well known, and have been the same for months: the Syrian refugees and, inside, the Kurds.
Syrian refugees are trembling with fear after several racist murders, such as the one of the three young people burnt alive in Izmir last month. Many avoid speaking Arabic in public or even going out. Some have been forcibly repatriated to Idlib, the last bastion of Islamists opposed to the regime.
Racist attacks against Kurds or the HDP are also multiplying, with the indifference or even the approval of the Turkish justice system at the orders of the government. Thus, in Konya, in the trial against the murderer of an entire Kurdish family at the end of July, the court refused to talk about racism, despite the protests of the survivors’ lawyer (WKI). The accused, an ultra-nationalist, had shot and killed his 7 victims before setting their house on fire. Other attacks took place this month. On the 17th, unidentified people attacked the HDP offices in Yüreğir (Adana) with Molotov cocktails and firearms, causing a fire to start, which was quickly extinguished by neighbours (Bianet). After a protest rally in front of the building, police prevented local HDP officials from speaking. On the 22nd, on the campus of Akdeniz University in Antalya, a mob of 30 ultranationalists attacked three Kurdish students who were seriously injured and hospitalised.
Unfortunately, the ruling AKP-MHP opposition is no clearer about the Kurds than it is about the Syrian refugees, whose expulsion it promises. On the 13th, six opposition parties met at the invitation of the CHP to discuss their plan to return to a parliamentary system. The HDP was not invited, and during the party’s 4e congress, held the next day, its co-chairwoman Pervin Buldan warned: “When the time comes, we will know exactly how to ignore those who ignore us”... The HDP congress, held in Izmir, was dedicated to the young Deniz Poyraz, murdered on June 17, 2021 in an attack on the HDP’s office in the city. Banners in Kurdish and Turkish were displayed, demanding justice for Poyraz as well as for Aysel Tuğluk and all the sick prisoners (Bianet). Currently, the HDP is setting up a “Democratic Alliance” composed of Kurdish and left-wing parties (WKI).
The economic crisis also has international consequences. Seeking to break the diplomatic isolation he created for himself by his outrageous language, the Turkish president is resuming contact with many states whose leaders he did not hesitate to insult a short time ago: Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel. His visit to Abu Dhabi in mid-February is just the latest example. These renewed links bring Turkey desperately needed cash, through cooperation agreements and the creation of investment funds. They also allow Ankara to sell its Bayraktar military drones, as it did for Ukraine, which bought about twenty and where Mr Erdoğan visited on the 3rd. As a collateral consequence of the Turkish-Emirati thaw, the embarrassing revelations for the regime of the mafia leader Sedat Peker, based in Dubai, have suddenly “dried up”... (Le Monde)
After the outbreak of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkey, which is highly dependent on Russia for energy and to which it is also linked militarily through the purchase of S-400s, initially remained very cautious: disapproval, but no sanctions. Then, on the 27th, once Russia had moved all its warships into the Black Sea, Ankara announced the application of the wartime provisions of the Montreux Convention, which prohibits ships from countries at war from crossing the straits. While France Info believes that “The conflict between Russia and Ukraine puts Turkey, another Black Sea neighbour, in a difficult position”, given its relations with both belligerents, it could also benefit it: facing Putin, Erdoğan could once again become the necessary ally, a NATO member that no one in the Alliance will dare criticise. This could give the Turkish president an even freer hand to carry out his already intense repression against the Kurds (and all his opponents).
The month started symbolically with a new denial of repression by the ruling party. On the 1st , the AKP, with the support of the MHP, rejected the request made by Şanlıurfa’s HDP MP Ömer Öcalan in parliament for an investigation into civilian deaths caused by armoured vehicles. “During the past two decades of AKP rule”, Duvar notes, “and especially since the breakdown of peace talks with the PKK and the Turkish military’s subsequent operations in the Kurdish regions of eastern Turkey, dozens of civilians have died after being run over or crushed by armoured vehicles. [...] Most of these incidents occur in Kurdish-majority Turkish cities near the Syrian border, such as Mardin, Diyarbakır and Şırnak”. Öcalan, who recalled in his speech that between 2008 and 2022, 141 people, including 22 children, had lost their lives in 93 incidents with armoured vehicles, was rebuffed. The AKP MP for Antalya, Kemal Çelik, replied: “[Thanks to these armoured vehicles], we have brought peace and security to the region”.
On the 2nd, the police arrested several Kurds and HDP members, including three in Idil and three in Kiziltepe (Mardin). In addition, the police violently repressed demonstrations against the deaths of prisoners, notably in front of the Forensic Institute in Istanbul, where the organisers of the HDP-supported “Solidarity with Prisoners” initiative were prevented from speaking and some of them arrested. Also earlier this month, the HDP, which had voted against military operations in Iraq and Syria, also criticised the violent strikes against Kurds in these two countries.
On the 7th, the so-called “Kobanê” trial resumed against 108 defendants, all members of the HDP, including its former co-chairs. On the 10th, the court started hearing the plaintiffs even before the defence had finished its statements, despite protests from lawyers. But all the plaintiffs, some of whom are imprisoned in other cases, took turns to say they did not know the defendants and did not wish to testify against them. One of them said, changing his previous statement: “I don’t want innocent people to be convicted because of my statement”...
At the same time, the government continues to progressively silence all voices that might express any independent or critical thinking, whether they be academics, journalists or civil society activists. In Istanbul, it has taken a new step in putting Boğaziçi University under control. On 18 January, Naci Inci, the rector appointed by presidential decree against the advice of the teaching staff, had prepared the ground by dismissing three deans of departments in favour of his followers, which gave him the “majority” in the university Senate. On the 2nd, he was thus able to have the programme of the Faculty of Law opened by decree last year voted on without consulting the faculty. “A Faculty of Law established without respecting the law – this is, in short, the government’s way of proceeding since 2015”, noted Zeynep Gambetti on her Médiapart blog on the 8th. For the researcher, “Boğaziçi is sure to lose its stature as a centre of excellence and will become, like other universities in the country, an institution where fear and self-censorship are rampant”. Besides academics, journalists are the other obvious target. On the 14th, Bianet and Mezopotamya reporter Zeynep Durgut was detained in Şırnak during a raid on her home. Her equipment was also confiscated. She had already been one of four journalists charged with “belonging to a terrorist organisation” for covering the case of the two citizens thrown from a military helicopter by soldiers in Van. Durgut and her four colleagues had just been acquitted on 6 January. No official reason has been given for this new arrest, but it is clear that it is to silence her (Bianet).
Civil society also remains in the government’s sights, as shown by the case of Osman Kavala, a businessman and human rights defender who has been held in prison for more than four years on fabricated charges. On the 3rd, the Turkish President had a new distance confrontation with the Council of Europe. The latter declared that it had referred the matter to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to determine whether Turkey had failed to fulfil its obligations by keeping Kavala in prison despite the ECHR’s ruling that he should be released. This referral to the ECHR effectively launches an “infringement procedure” that could lead to the suspension of Turkey from the Council of Europe, even though it is a founding member. Asked about this, Mr Erdoğan replied at a press conference that “Turkey will not recognise those who do not recognise its courts”. Officially, Turkey did execute the ECHR decision, with Kavala now being held in a new, equally fabricated court case. On the 10th, the Istanbul Criminal Court decided to keep Kavala in detention, arguing that the case has not evolved since the previous review.
Besides, the Kurdish language, although no longer officially banned in Turkey, is still subject to continuous discrimination. At the end of January, the Istanbul police jailed four young musicians who had sung in Kurdish on Istiklal Avenue. Even after their release, the case provoked anger on social media, where the song in question went viral. On the 1st of the month, Rûdaw reported that on 31 January, HDP MP Meral Daniş-Beştaş had in protest organised a press conference in Parliament where she herself sang in Kurdish.
On the 15th, on the occasion of the 23rd anniversary of the arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, demonstrations protesting against the permanent isolation imposed on him by the authorities took place in Turkey, including in Diyarbakir, Van, Batman, Siirt, Sirnak, and Izmir, as well as in many European countries with a Kurdish diaspora. In Diyarbakir, police barred access to Dağkapı Square and surrounded dozens of protesters. In an attempt to prevent these rallies, it had launched dozens of arrests in several cities since the 11th (WKI). On the 13th, it violently arrested Free Women’s Movement (Tevgera Jinên Azad) activist Hacire Tanırgan at her home in Kızıltepe, which was searched. In Van and Diyarbakir, several members of the HDP Youth Assembly were arrested, including Mehmet Şerif Demirağaç, who is 90% disabled (Rojinfo).
On the 16th, the Court of Appeal upheld the three-and-a-half-year prison sentence for “insulting” the Turkish president of Selahattin Demirtaş, who has already been jailed since 2016 and faces over 140 years in prison on other charges. Returning from Moscow, Demirtaş had told reporters at Istanbul airport in 2015 that Erdoğan had “flown from hallway to hallway” at a conference in France to take a photo with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin... (Rûdaw) In other news, Ankara’s Criminal Court held a new hearing against HDP co-chairwoman Pervin Buldan for some of her speeches. A further hearing will be held in May (WKI).
On the 27th, the TJA, the HDP’s Van Women’s Assembly and the STAR Women’s Association issued a joint statement denouncing the sexual assault of 3 children by village guards within a year in the village of Çatak. Recruited by the state since the 1980s to fight the PKK, the Kurdish paramilitary village guard militia has been involved in numerous human rights violations, including extra-judicial killings, as well as drug trafficking.
On the 28th, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the “Roboski massacre”, perpetrated near the village of that name by the Turkish Air Force against a group of young smugglers, Güler Tunç, a former elected representative of Cizre, posted on social networks images of the event. She was charged with “terrorist propaganda”. The same happened to a Kurdish woman called Zilan, who posted on Twitter two photos of female fighters: a Yezidi and a member of the Zapatista movement, and photos of three Kurdish politicians killed by the Turkish army in Silopi... In both cases, the families of the victims denounce the impunity of the perpetrators of the shooting or bombing. In Silopi, the three women, including a DBP MP, had gone to the town when it was under siege by the Turkish army. They were able to phone the BBC Turkish channel to say they were injured and to ask for an ambulance. However, the provincial governor refused to send an ambulance because of the ongoing fighting, and Şırnak MP Leyla Birlik, who later identified the bodies, believes that the three already injured women were brutally executed by the military. Urfa HDP MP İbrahim Ayhan said: “They were civilians and well-known personalities. We believe they were targeted and murdered”.
This month, a real legal shockwave hit the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG): on 15 February, while difficult negotiations were going on to designate a Kurdish candidate for the country’s presidency, a prerequisite for the formation of the government, the Supreme Court in Baghdad issued an unexpected ruling declaring the KRG’s oil and gas law “unconstitutional”. Two days earlier, the same Court had already judged “unconstitutional” the presidential candidacy of Hoshyar Zebari, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) candidate for the post, against the incumbent Barham Saleh (PUK).
If the status of hydrocarbon resources is one of the major issues of disagreement between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad, the other remains that of the so-called “disputed” territories, a strip of land running south of Kurdistan from the Iranian border to the Syrian border. This month they were again the scene of numerous attacks by the jihadists of ISIS, who take advantage of the security vacuum caused by the lack of coordination between Kurdish peshmerga fighters and the Iraqi military. Moreover, like all of northern Iraq, these territories have become prime targets for Turkish strikes. Ankara’s army uses the presence of pro-PKK forces in certain places as a pretext to strike or occupy vast areas. For two years, the Kurdish villagers, terrorised, have abandoned hundreds of villages, where the Turkish military then forbids them to return. The Iraqi Kurds fear that Ankara will eventually impose a lasting demographic change and the creation of Turkish control zones similar to those already established in Northern Syria...
The Supreme Court of Baghdad pronounced on 15th the “unconstitutionality” of the Oil and Gas Law adopted in 2007 by the Kurdistan Region to regulate its oil sector. It thus responded, after ten years, to a complaint lodged in 2012 against the KRG by the Federal Government, furious at seeing Kurdistan export its oil directly to Turkey. A second complaint was filed in 2019. The ruling, published by the Court on its website, stipulates “the obligation for the [KRG] to deliver the entire production of the Kurdistan oil fields [...] to the Federal Government”. Furthermore, all oil contracts concluded by the KRG with oil companies are potentially null and void, as the Court authorises the Federal Government to review them all and possibly cancel them.
The Kurdistan Regional Government reacted immediately by describing this decision as “unjust and unconstitutional”, adding: “The Kurdistan Regional Government will not renounce the rights of the region as prescribed by the constitution, and will continue its attempts to reach a solution [...] on this issue with the Federal Government” (AFP). All Kurdish parties in Iraq, with the exception of New Generation, denounced the Supreme Court ruling. On the 28th, the “four presidencies” of Kurdistan, i.e. the President of the Region, the President of the KRG (the Prime Minister), the Speaker of the Regional Parliament and finally the President of the Judicial Council of Kurdistan, met to reject the Supreme Court ruling. The Presidency of the Region then stressed in a new communiqué that “the Kurdistan Region will continue to exercise its constitutional rights and will not renounce its legal rights and powers”.
Beyond oil, the Kurds fear future rulings claiming to dissolve the Peshmerga or simply invalidating their Regional Government. The ruling on oil management came two days after a previous ruling by the same Court, which had already been widely interpreted by the Kurds (at least those close to the KDP) as targeting them: the definitive invalidation as “unconstitutional” of the candidacy for the Iraqi Presidency of former Foreign Minister and KDP leader Hoshyar Zebari, a bête noire of Iran because he is considered to be pro-Western.
His candidacy had been temporarily suspended on the 6th because of suspicions of corruption, precisely to allow the Supreme Court to rule on the complaint filed by several deputies who believed that Mr. Zebari did not meet the conditions of “good reputation and integrity” required by the Constitution. This is a surreal accusation in a country cut off by various pro-Iranian Shiite factions where, according to some estimates, more than 300 billion of the 820 billion in oil revenues collected between 2005 and 2016 were embezzled by the Shiite leaders. The parliamentary vote, scheduled for the 7th, had to be delayed. By issuing its ruling on the 13th, the Court eliminated one of the favourites for the presidential election.
The position of President is largely honorary in Iraq, but it is of undeniable importance in the post-election period, as it is the President who must appoint the Prime Minister within a fortnight of his appointment. Since 2005, the Iraqi President has been Kurdish, the Prime Minister Shiite and the Speaker of Parliament Sunni. This distribution is not written into the constitution and is the result of an agreement between the three communities. At the Kurdish level, the two main parties had originally agreed to share the posts: the KDP as President of the Kurdistan Region and the PUK as President of Iraq. This made it easy to designate a single candidate for the latter post, so that the Kurds spoke with one voice in Baghdad. Neither the KDP nor the PUK had challenged each other’s candidates until 2018, when, on the strength of its favourable electoral score and after the death of President Jalal Talabani, the KDP presented its own candidate for the post. This happened again this time, with the KDP fielding Mr Zebari against the PUK’s candidate, the incumbent Barham Salih.
Beyond the intra-Kurdish disagreement, the situation endangers the government alliance concluded in Baghdad between the winner of the last legislative elections, Moqtada Sadr, the KDP and the Sunni party Taqqadum, since the pro-Iranian parties have decided to support Barham Salih. To set the agenda for the appointment of the president, the alliance is forced to wait for the Kurds to agree. But this agreement seems more difficult than ever to obtain, because the PUK takes a very dim view of the agreement concluded by the KDP with the Sadrists and the Sunni coalition Taqqadum, which it considers prejudicial to the Kurds: its co-president Bafel Talabani declared at the end of January: “The KDP has taken measures independently and concluded agreements with certain political parties without taking into account the will of the Kurdish parties and Kurdish unity”. On the 10th, after the provisional suspension of the Zebari candidacy, Bafel Talabani had come to Erbil to meet KDP leader Masoud Barzani, but the meeting had come to nothing (Rûdaw).
On the 14th, taking note of the invalidation of H. Zebari’s candidacy, the KDP finally chose the Kurdistan Minister of the Interior, Rebar Ahmed, as its new candidate. But this did not restore the unity between the two Kurdish parties, as the PUK kept Barham Salih as its candidate.
The Iraqi Supreme Court’s ruling on Hushyar Zebari’s candidacy is purely political and opportunistic. It was dictated under pressure from pro-Iranian Shiite parties.
As for its decision on the Kurdistan Hydrocarbons Law, it invokes laws dating back to the Saddam Hussein regime and ignores some explicit provisions of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution approved by referendum. This constitution in its article 140 provided for the settlement by referendum of the status of the so-called “disputed” Kurdish territories under the administration of the central government. This fundamental article for the Kurds has never been applied despite recurrent requests and the Iraqi Supreme Court, which is politicised and has a very large Arab majority, has refused to rule on this issue. Similarly, Articles 111 and 112 of the Iraqi constitution give the KRG the right to exploit oil on its territory: "Article 111: Oil and gas belong to all Iraqi people in all regions and governorates". Article 112 provides that "The federal government, together with the producing governorates and regional governments, shall take charge of the management of oil and gas extracted from the existing fields, provided that it distributes its revenues equitably, in proportion to the distribution of the population in all regions of the country, specifying an allocation for a specified period for the damaged regions that were unjustly deprived of it by the former regime, and the regions that were damaged afterwards, in such a way as to ensure a balanced development between the different regions of the country, this to be regulated by a law". This article was clearly written with Kurdistan in mind, but the law mentioned never saw the light of day.
Interviewed by WKI, Prof. Brendan O’Leary, a specialist in federalism who participated as a legal advisor in the drafting of the Iraqi constitution, recalls that in case of conflict between federal and regional laws, Article 115 of the constitution gives supremacy to the latter. Article 110, which lists exclusive federal powers, does not mention oil or gas. Therefore, if there is a conflict between Kurdistan’s oil and gas laws and federal oil and gas laws, Kurdistan’s laws prevail... O’Leary adds that other articles of the constitution unequivocally limit federal authority to the management of fields in production at the time of the constitution’s entry into force, with subsequent fields being the responsibility of the regions: “After 2005 [he explains], there was a long negotiation between the KRG and the federal government. These negotiations came to nothing. So the Kurds decided to write their own law, as they had every right to do. And they took very careful steps to make sure that their draft law was in line with the Iraqi constitution in order to avoid exactly the kind of scenario that we are facing today. [...] No equivalent federal oil and gas law has been passed. Article 112, which provided for the drafting of federal oil and gas laws, also failed.
Furthermore, the KRG challenges the very status of the so-called “Federal Supreme Court of Iraq”. Article 92-2 of the Constitution, which provided for its creation by a 2/3 vote in parliament, has never been implemented. The current Court is a legacy of the transitional period between the US-British occupation authorities (Coalition Provisional Authority) and the government of Iyad Allawi.
For the Kurds, this double battle over oil and the presidential office, where the Supreme Court plays an important role, bears the obvious mark of Iranian pressure. Facing the Sadr-PDK-Taqqadum alliance are the losers of the last legislative elections, the pro-Iranian Shiite deputies of the Fatih (“Conquest”) alliance and the “Coordination Framework”, the showcase of the Hashd al-Shaabi militias. For many local observers, the Supreme Court’s decision on Kurdish oil is a new Iranian attempt to pressure Sadr’s coalition to offer more to its pro-Iranian opponents, which he still refuses to do...
Moreover, the Turkish army, which has been present for decades in the whole of northern Iraq and which has installed nearly 40 permanent bases there since 2018, has since the beginning of the month intensified its strikes. On 1st of February, the Turkish air force struck the refugee camp of Makhmour, killing two camp guards and injuring many civilians, and several places in the Yezidi-majority town of Sinjar (Shingal). A statement from the Kurdistan Anti-Terrorist Services also reported strikes in the Shila area of Iraq, close to the Syrian border, and said that “the bombing caused human and material losses” (Le Figaro). In a statement, the Iraqi security forces denounced a “violation of Iraqi airspace”, saying they were ready “to cooperate to stabilise the situation at the border” (AFP), but several Kurdish groups close to the PKK denounced the indifference and inaction of Baghdad in the face of continuous Turkish strikes.
Condemnations never stopped Ankara. In the middle of the month, new strikes hit the district of Amêdî (Dohouk) and the Shiladze region. Then on the 28th, a Turkish military plane bombed the vicinity of a village in the Barzan region, terrifying girls who were playing near the school. The teacher was forced to send them home earlier than usual (Rûdaw).
Also in the disputed territories, there may be an improvement regarding the presence of ISIS. Earlier this month, the Peshmerga completed a joint operation with Iraqi forces in the Sargaran district, which, according to the Peshmerga Ministry, cleared the area of ISIS. Furthermore, Le Figaro reported on 13 September that the number of attacks had decreased somewhat, as calculated by a study by the West Point military academy. While in 2020 there were still more than 800 attacks per quarter, they have since fallen to an average of 330. The American military institution explains this decrease by several factors: the isolation of the jihadists from the population, the rise of the security forces and the elimination of the organisation’s top leaders. “A jihadist stronghold since the mid-2000s, Diyala province and its “capital” Baqouba remain the only urban centre where ISIS still commits attacks on a regular basis, as at the end of January when 11 soldiers were killed during the night in their barracks...” (Le Figaro) This improvement must be put into perspective by noting that 300 attacks per quarter still makes 100 per month, or nearly 3 attacks per day. Moreover, as soon as the conclusion of the joint Kurdish-Iraqi operation was announced, it was learned that the deployment of the joint unit between peshmerga and federal soldiers was delayed until the formation of the future government... (WKI)
The day before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, on 24 February, Le Monde ran the headline: “The nuclear agreement with Iran is about to be saved”. “A draft agreement is on the table”, explained a source close to the matter to Le Monde, while the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said: “We need political decisions from Tehran”. The day after the invasion, observers wondered about the consequences for the negotiations underway in Vienna: while Moscow hardly wants a nuclear-armed Iran on its southern border, which has been the key to its participation until now, Russia’s renewed antagonism with the West, and especially with the United States, could lead it to “take the talks hostage”... Yet reaching an agreement is vital: “According to experts, the country would have already enriched enough uranium to move on to making a bomb if it so decided" (Le Monde). For the West, the end of February is the limit for the agreement to lapse... On 28 February, Iran asked for Western commitments on three key points: the extent of the lifting of sanctions, the guarantee that the United States will not leave the pact again, and the resolution of questions relating to the traces of uranium discovered at several old but undeclared sites in Iran (Reuters).
If a new agreement is finally reached, it could be accompanied, as was the case when the first one was concluded, by the reciprocal release of prisoners. In January 2016, Washington had released or dropped charges against 7 Iranians, and Tehran released 5 Iranian-Americans. On 22 February, Washington’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, has called in a tweet for the release of 4 Americans detained in Iran, while Tehran is still asking for the release of more than a dozen of its nationals imprisoned in the United States, most of them detained for violating US sanctions (Le Monde).
However, the problem of foreigners “taken hostage” in Iran is far from being solved. On the 8th, the dissident Iranian news agency KurdPA denounced on its website the risk of execution faced by the German citizen of Iranian origin Jamshid Sharmahd. He was illegally abducted in Dubai by Iranian agents in 2020, as had been the Iranian dissident Rohollah Zam living in Paris, and is accused of planning terrorist acts in Iran. With the indictment containing the dreaded term Mofsed-e-filarz, “corruption on earth”, Sharmahd, virtually incommunicado and prevented from choosing a lawyer, faces the same fate as Zam, who was brought back to Iran and executed in December 2020 after a sham trial. The Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has called on the various United Nations bodies and its member states to demand Sharmahd’s release, an immediate end to the abductions and an end to the criminalisation of dissent in Iran. Several other dissidents abducted abroad are being tried in Iran, such as the Swedish-Iranian Habib Chaab, abducted in Turkey, whose trial began in Tehran on 18 January.
The presence in the Iranian presidency of the former head of the judiciary Ebrahim Raisi, who was a member of Tehran’s “Death Commission”, gives little hope that CHRI’s demands will be heard. Along with eight other human rights organisations, CHRI urged on the 18th the governments of the countries negotiating with Iran in Vienna not to lift sanctions against Iran until human rights are respected, and in particular to maintain sanctions against its president, who is guilty of crimes against humanity. The signatories recall that the “Death Commissions” organised in 1988 the extrajudicial mass execution of tens of thousands of political prisoners already on trial and serving their prison sentences. Raisi should be tried for his participation.
On the other hand, the regime’s exactions continue in Iranian Kurdistan. On the 4th, the police killed Mohammed Ahmadi, a Kurd from Kermanshah who was travelling with his family, in his car. According to several local human rights groups, he had refused to pay a bribe at a checkpoint. Also in Kermanshah, Muhseen Mahmudi, jailed for his participation in the 2019 protests, committed suicide in prison. He had gone blind after being shot during the protests (WKI).
Near Salas-e Babajani, the pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) seriously injured a man they accused of smuggling. Maziar Azizi is just one of many victims of the regime’s deadly hunt for kolbars (cross-border carriers). Others are victims of mines dating from the Iran-Iraq war and deliberately left in place to prevent the crossing of the border, as in Dehloran on the 5th, where a member of the Zanganeh tribe who had come from Kermanshah to graze his cattle had to have a leg amputated. On the 21st, another mine injured the legs of 3 kolbars from Sardasht who had to be hospitalised in Baneh, while another Paveh porter suffered the same fate near Nowsud. The border of Shooshmi (Kermanshah), is riddled with mines that regularly injure or kill kolbars or ordinary people (KurdPA).
On the 13th, 14th and 16th, three kolbars were fired upon without warning and wounded by the Pasdaran near Nowsud, Paveh and Baneh respectively. All three had to be hospitalised. On the 25th, a civilian driving a car, Saadi Piran, father of two, was shot dead by soldiers near Baneh. Suspecting him of carrying contraband, they opened fire without warning (KurdPA). Iranian border guards injured another kolbar in another attack near Sarvabad (WKI).
These Kurdish porters, regularly killed without warning by the forces of repression, are reduced to this dangerous job by the deliberate policy of economic discrimination that Iranian Kurdistan is undergoing. The rest of Iran is not spared, as shown by the recent suicides of several teachers, in Minab (Hormozgan) on the 3rd, or in Gerash (Fars) last September. In addition to the high inflation of the previous three years, food prices have risen by more than 60% in recent months, while teachers receive less than $200 per month and are frequently in arrears. Numerous teacher protests took place earlier this month throughout the country, including in Kurdistan. Many were arrested and imprisoned for protesting against their working and payment conditions (WKI). In Mariwan, they gathered on the 7th to demand the release of several of their colleagues, such as Shaaban Mohammadi, arrested on 30 January 2021 (HRANA).
Finally, in Khorramabad, the capital of Lorestan, a street vendor set himself on fire after the municipality banned him from working.
Everyone in Iran is susceptible to repression, but ethnic and religious minorities, including the Kurds, are always particularly targeted. For example, Zara Mohammadi, a native of Sanandaj and co-founder of the humanitarian and cultural organisation Nozhin, was imprisoned for teaching Kurdish children their own language. Her sentence, originally set at 10 years in prison, was reduced to 5 years under public pressure, but she does not actually deserve any imprisonment! The Kurdish Institute in Washington tells her story in a short video published on Youtube, entitled Unsilenced Voice (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQencSE0sZA), in which her brother testifies. Significantly, it was on the occasion of the “International Mother Language Day”, on 21 February, that a young couple of very active Nozhin members, Pajam Meri and Waran Nazhad, were in turn arrested in Sanandaj while distributing documents and posters dedicated to this day (WKI)...
The Hengaw Human Rights Organisation reported that in January the regime arrested 50 Kurdish activists. February was also marked by numerous arrests and convictions. For example, on 1st February, trade union activist Rebwar Abdollahi, who had been arrested the day before without a legal warrant, told his family by phone that he was being held at the Sanandaj Security Office. The following week, another activist, Khabat Shakib (or Dehdar, depending on the source) was arrested in the same town. In Oshnavieh, 5 Kurds were transferred to prison after weeks of interrogation by the Etelaat (Security). They are reportedly accused of “belonging to Kurdish parties”. In Paveh, 18-year-old Roya Mehedini was sentenced to one year in prison on the same charge. On the 10th, Soran Mahmoudi was arrested without a warrant at a checkpoint in Kermanshah and taken to an Etelaat detention centre. He was able to inform his family by phone, but they could not find out what charges he was facing. On the 13th, four residents of Piranshahr were arrested in the same conditions. On the 14th, Ebrahim Tarimoradi, an inhabitant of the village of Amroleh (Sanandaj), who had been arrested last July in a raid on his home, was sentenced on appeal to one year’s imprisonment for “propaganda against the regime and affiliation with one of the Kurdish opposition parties” (KurdPA). In addition, a soldier of Kurdish origin, Mohammed Azizi, was arrested, according to Hengaw, because his sister belongs to a Kurdish party... The IRGC (pasdaran) also raided a Kurdish publishing house in Ilam called Bashur, as well as the home of its owner, the poet and writer Mohammed Nisari (WKI).
On the 15th, Kurdish activist Kiomars Latifi, who had been under surveillance for a long time by the Security Police, was arrested in Sanandaj. He had been in hiding for 6 months, but was spotted by a surveillance camera placed near his home. His sister was also taken into custody after a raid on her home. On the 19th, Piranshahr resident Loqman Seyedeh was arrested and held incommunicado during a security raid on his home. In addition, Kermanshah poet and activist Kamaran Takouk was sentenced to two years and four months in prison for “disrespecting the Supreme Leader” and “propaganda against the state”. Other arrests included residents of Bokan, and a Kurdish language teacher, Maisam Khorani, in Ilam (WKI).
As mentioned, most of the arrests this month were made without a legal basis, as no warrants were shown and no charges indicated.
The jihadist attack on the Ghwayran prison in Hasakah on 20 January brought the issue of the fate of the families of jihadists, especially children, back to the forefront. Indeed, it appeared that hundreds of minors aged between 12 and 18 were incarcerated in this facility. After the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took control again, at the cost of hundreds of deaths, Unicef announced in a statement that it had been able to meet with the children still present there, without specifying their number, and indicated that, despite some essential services now guaranteed, “the situation of these children [was] incredibly precarious”. SDF spokesman Farhad Shami told AFP that “hundreds” of minors were still being held in Ghwayran, but refused to give an exact number. Before the assault, Save the Children and Human Rights Watch estimated their number at more than 700... (AFP)
The Kurdish authorities (AANES) have repeatedly called for the repatriation of relatives, women and children, but also of the foreign jihadists themselves, criticising their countries of origin for not taking their responsibilities. Already in January 2021, the UN had called for the repatriation of the children of foreign jihadists in Syria. After the Ghwayran attack, this issue is again in the news. UNICEF’s representative in Syria, Bo Viktor Nylund, once very critical of AANES, has softened his tone somewhat, saying: “UNICEF recognises the efforts of the local authorities to stabilise the situation inside and outside the prison”. He said his organisation was “ready to help fund a new safe house in north-eastern Syria to care for the most vulnerable children”, adding: “We call on the member states of foreign children to repatriate these children as a matter of urgency, in accordance with their best interests”.
There are about ten young Frenchmen among the Ghwayran minors, and up to 200 children throughout Syrian Kurdistan, for whom the request for repatriation, as well as for their mothers, was renewed at the beginning of February by several French MPs. The European Court of Human Rights was also seized of this issue. Then on 15 February, several NGOs meeting at a press conference sounded the alarm about the “danger of death” that threatens these French children of jihadists, some of whom have been detained in Syria since 2017, urging the French authorities to repatriate them. Françoise Dumont, Honorary President of the League of Human Rights, urged the French government to “break the legal, humanitarian and security deadlock” in which it has placed itself. Patrick Baudoin, Honorary President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH / IFHR), recalled that children who are forcibly recruited in conflicts are never considered as guilty, but as victims of the conflict: “International conventions oblige France to protect them. As for women, French justice is fully competent to judge them”. But French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian ruled out any repatriation of adults. Yet several European countries have recently repatriated women and children from Syria, including the Netherlands and Sweden. Repatriation, this is also the demand of the Syrian Kurds, who say they can no longer ensure the security of the camps in the face of the resurgence of ISIS...
On 24 September, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a statement claiming that France is violating the rights of children held in Syria by refusing to repatriate them.
Beyond the sole case of France and these children, it is all the countries whose nationals, children or adults, are still in the places of detention administered by the Kurds, who must now assume their responsibilities – and even more so since the Ghwayran attack.