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Special Briefing, Kurdish Affairs, September-October 2020

Political repression of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including the arrest of party officials and the removal from office of mayors, has intensified in the past two months. This came at the back of a major cross-border Turkish military operations against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) territory. In Iraq, renewed efforts to resolve the disputes between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Federal Government began to yield results with the agreement on a new security arrangement for the Sinjar district.

Turkey

A new stage in the repression of the Kurdish political opposition

Repression of the HDP continued with a new round of arrests taking place in 7 provinces on September 25. The arrests were in the re-opened case of ‘Kobani protests’, which took place on October 6-8, 2014 across Turkey against the Turkish government’s refusal to facilitate aid to the Kurdish fighters surrounded by the Islamic State in Kobani, Northern Syria. In total, 20 former or currently active officials of the HDP were detained, including former MPs Altan Tan, Nazmi Gür, Emine Ayna, Ayla Akat Ata, and Sırrı Süreyya Önder and the current mayor of Kars Municipality Ayhan Bilgen. 17 of the detained HDP officials were arrested while Sırrı Süreyya Önder, Altan Tan and the Alevi rights activist Gülfer Akkaya were released but subjected to a ban on leaving the country.

Many HDP officials were previously detained and investigated in this case, but the public prosecutors investigating the case could not bring forward any charges. Hence, the re-opening of the ‘Kobani case’ and arrest of the HDP officials has been interpreted as a part of the government’s ongoing efforts to marginalise and subjugate the party. The arrests were used as the pretext to remove most of the remaining HDP mayors from their position, including the mayor of Kars Municipality Ayhan Bilgen, and replace them with a government-appointed trustee (kayyum) usually the district or provincial governor. On October 30, the provincial leaders of the HDP in Diyarbakir were arrested on grounds that they were members of an ‘armed terror organisation’.

Indiscriminate targeting of Kurdish civilians

News of two Kurdish farmers, Osman Șiban and Servet Turgut, being taken into intensive care after having endured torture and lynching in the hands of Turkish soldiers following their arrest on September 11 has shocked the Kurdish community in Turkey. Recounting the horrific event, Osman Șiban told MP Ahmet Șık that he and Servet Turgut were initially detained by soldiers in their village (located near Çatak district of Van Province in Eastern Turkey) following a military operation against the PKK guerrillas, and were tortured during their initial detention and interrogation. They were then transported by a helicopter to a military base in Van Province and were beaten by soldiers throughout the journey. Upon their arrival at the military base, they were pushed out of the helicopter and subjected to a lynching attempt by a large group of soldiers, who kicked and stamped on them until the victims lost consciousness. Then the victims were left at a hospital in Van city for medical care and the military officers that brought them to the hospital gave ‘falling from a helicopter’ as the cause of their injuries.

Both victims suffered life-threatening injuries. Servet Turgut died on September 30 and Osman Șiban was discharged from the hospital on September 20, and taken to Mersin city, where his family normally resides, to continue his recovery at his home. The Governor of Van Province denied torture and stated Servet Turgut attempted to flee when soldiers tried to arrest him and received his injuries as a result of a fall.

However, rather than taking any action against the perpetrators of the attack, on October 6, the police detained the journalists who reported on the incident and four journalists were arrested by the court on October 9. On October 29, Kurdish media reported another incident where a Kurdish civilian, Şerali Dereli, was killed by soldiers in the Yüksekova district of Hakkari Province in the Kurdish majority South-East region of Turkey.

Dynamics of the armed conflict

Turkish army’s counterinsurgency operations against the PKK in the past few years have concentrated mainly in the territory of the KRI, where large numbers of the PKK fighters have been based since the late 1980s. On June 16, Turkish Armed Forces announced the start of the ‘Operation Claw-Tiger’ (Pençe-Kaplan Operasyonu) against the PKK presence in the Haftanin region. Clashes between Turkish soldiers and PKK guerrillas occurred throughout the summer and the Turkish army increased its territorial control in the region. On September 5, Turkey’s Ministry of National Defence announced that its operation against the PKK positions has successfully ended, and it claimed that in total 320 PKK militants were ‘neutralised’ (killed, captured or wounded) and a large number of weapons destroyed.

On October 20, the HPG – the PKK’s military wing – announced that it carried out an attack using armed drones against Turkish soldiers in the Çukurca district of Hakkari Province. It claimed that it attacked a Turkish military position in Haftanin region on 28 October and attacked a Turkish military position in Bêgova town of Zakho district on 29 October.

In early October, the state officials have blamed the PKK for starting the forest fires in the Province of Hatay in southern Turkey bordering northwest Syria, but on October 12, this claim was strongly denied by the HPG in a statement. On the evening of October 26, Turkish media began reporting that a suicide bomb attack by the PKK had been foiled, resulting in the death of the two attackers with no civilian casualties and only minor damages to the nearby businesses reported. Turkish army’s pursuit of PKK guerrillas inside Turkey and in the KRI territory has continued in the period. On October 23, Turkish media reported that the suspect in the bomb attack in Kayseri in December 2016 that resulted in the death of 15 soldiers was captured in the KRI and brought to Turkey to face the charges.

On October 28, the HPG announced that its sabotage attack in the rural areas of Mardin Province destroyed a segment of the Botaş oil pipeline, resulting in the significant disruption of oil exports from the KRI.

Meanwhile, lawyers attempt to meet PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan has been continuously refused, with each application submitted to the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Bursa Province for a meeting being rejected.

Looking forward: In the past month, the government has been intensifying its efforts to consolidate its Turkish nationalist base and keep together the coalition it has built with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Although the elections are currently due to be held in June 2023, many political figures from the opposition parties and political analysts expect it to be held in late 2021 or early 2022. A tough position against the Kurdish opposition is at the heart of the government’s strategy and representing the HDP as a violent separatist party will further delegitimise it and prevent it becoming part of the grand coalition that the opposition parties are rumoured to be building to topple the AKP-MHP alliance. Hence, the criminalisation and marginalisation of the HDP are likely to continue in the coming months as the governing alliance tries to reverse the deterioration of its standing among the voters. The military pressure on the PKK has significantly weakened its capability to carry out attacks inside Turkey and the operations inside the mountainous Kurdish regions of Turkey as well as in the KRI are likely to continue as well.

Iraq

Tensions flare between the Kurdish authorities and the Shia militia Hashd al-Shaabi

One of the main highlights of the past two months was the rocket attack on October 1 that targeted the Erbil International Airport and the nearby American military base. The Kurdish authorities blamed the Shia militia Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units, PMU) for the attack. The tension further increased when the Baghdad headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) was attacked by the PMU on October 17. Initially, the attack began as a protest against the comments by Hoshyar Zebari, a senior KDP politician and Iraq’s former foreign and finance minister, lending his support to the removal of the PMU in Baghdad’s Green Zone and describing it as an ‘essential task’ for the stability and security of Iraq. Some of the protestors entered the building and set it on fire and stepped on the photographs of KDP leader Masoud Barzani as well as on the Kurdish flag.

Renewed efforts to resolve the disputes with the government of Iraq

The problems between the KRG and the Iraqi Federal Government on several issues (the non-payment of the KRI’s budget, the status of the disputed territories etc…) persisted in the period but attempts to find common ground seem to have received a new impetus. On September 2, during his meeting with Prime Minister of Iraq the President of the Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani said: ‘the Kurds are proud of their Iraq, and they are determined to continue to work for the sake of Iraq’s stability, security, and sovereignty’, which was interpreted as a sign for a renewed effort to reach agreement on the multiple issues that have been the source of tension between the Federal Government and the KRG.

Agreement on the control of Sinjar

On October 9, an agreement on the security and governance of the Sinjar district, home to the Yezidi Kurds in Northern Iraq, was reached between the KRG and the Federal Government. This agreement was brokered by the UN and described as an important step towards beginning the reconstruction of the ruined region and paving the way for the return of its internally displaced residents.

It was agreed that the military groups that emerged and started to play a significant role in the security of Sinjar district in the aftermath of the 2014 attacks by the Islamic State will be removed from the region and a new 2,500 strong security force composed of Yezidis will be established. An agreement has also been reached for the election of a new mayor and appointing officials to other administrative positions as well as the commencement of the reconstruction of the district.

The Sinjar Autonomous Administration – the Yezidi self-government that grew out of the efforts to expel the Islamic State from Sinjar – has rejected the agreement on grounds that Yezidis were not consulted when the agreement was reached and that it does not recognise the Yezidi representative bodies. The Sinjar Autonomous Administration and its defence forces, the Shingal Resistance Units, are seen by the KRG and the Federal Government as affiliates of the PKK.

Media freedom in the KRI under the spotlight

The Erbil and Duhok studios of the Sulaymaniyah based media group, NRT (Nalia Radio and Television), has remained closed in September and October, which has severely disrupted the broadcasting on several of its Kurdish and Arabic language TV channels. Over the past months, the NRT has been providing coverage to several anti-government protests that have been taking place in the KRI and it is owned by an opposition figure and leader of the New Generation Movement, Shaswar Abdulwahid Qadir. Kurdish authorities have tried to justify the closure of the studios by accusing the NRT of disturbing public order and provoking people to protest, but their actions have been widely interpreted as politically motivated.

NRT channels have been facing harassment and penalties from Kurdish and Iraqi authorities before mainly for their coverage of protests against the government and the recent episode of repression began when the channel started to cover the anti-government protests that were taking place in several cities in the KRI during August. The protests were organised by the opposition, New Generation Movement and demanded the dissolution of the KRG and holding free and fair new elections. The call for protest was made on August 11 through NRT channels. Initially, on 19 August, NRT studios in Duhok and Erbil were raided by the KRI’s police force, Asayish, some employees were detained for several hours, and the channel was closed down for three days. On a separate incident, three NRT staff, including a reporter, were arrested in Zakho for covering the protest that broke out following a Turkish airstrike in Akre district on August 19, which resulted in civilian casualties. The reporter was detained for 11 days and released on bail and the charges against him were subsequently dropped.

Death of Dr Najmaldin Karim

On October 30, Dr Najmaldin Karim (71) passed away in Washington DC. He was a veteran Kurdish rights activist and between 2011 and 2017, he was the mayor of Kirkuk Governorate. Dr Karim completed his studies in medicine at the University of Mosul and subsequently was involved in the Kurdish resistance in the early 1970s and after the defeat of Kurdish insurgency, he settled in the U.S. in 1976. He completed training in neurosurgery in the U.S. and worked and lived in Washington DC until his return to Iraq in 2009. He was elected as the Governor of Kirkuk in 2011. He had been a central figure in the Kurdish diaspora political activities in the U.S. and following the deterioration of his health because of pancreatic cancer, he returned to the U.S. in Autumn 2019.

The KDP-PKK tensions

For nearly three decades, the PKK-KDP relations have been tense and periodically tensions boil over leading each party to denounce the other for its hostile attitude and collaborating with the enemies of the Kurdish nation. Over summer 2020, the PKK has been criticising the KDP for failing to condemn Turkish military operations against the PKK positions in the KRI and the KDP has been accusing the PKK of destabilising the region by conducting its struggle in the KRI’s territory.

On October 11, the KRI’s internal security forces, the Asayish, accused the PKK of being involved in the killing of Ghazi Salih, the head of security of a border crossing in Duhok Governorate. On October 21, the PKK announced that it completed a comprehensive investigation into the incident and denied any involvement. In mid-October, the special forces of the KRI together with heavy weaponry moved to various locations near the Gare Mountains in Duhok Governorate. On October 26, Murat Karayılan, a senior PKK commander, claimed that, in cooperation with the Turkish military, the KDP was preparing a major military offensive against the PKK guerrillas positioned in Haftanin, Metina, Gare and Behdinan regions. He also called for the mobilisation of the Kurdish public against the attack and to put pressure on the KDP to reverse its course.

On October 26, the Kurdistan Region’s Security Council announced that Kurdish security forces arrested 17 ‘suspects’ linked with the PKK who were actively planning ‘sabotage attacks’ against diplomatic missions and businesses in the KRI. On October 27, the Council members from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) appeared to reject the statement when they denied any knowledge of such an attack. The PKK again strongly denied the accusation and interpreted it as an attempt to pave the way towards legitimising the Turkish military attacks against the PKK positions in the KRI.

Looking forward: Kurdish grievances in Iraq can be addressed through wide-ranging political reforms but this requires a consensus among Iraq’s political parties. At this moment in time, it is difficult to envisage widespread support for addressing Kurdish demands in Iraq will emerge anytime soon. The extent to which the Kurds retain their political power in the federal institutions will shape this process. Greater commitment to remaining within Iraq and engaging with the political process could help Kurdish political parties to build and strengthen their links with Iraqi political groups. The tensions between the PKK and the KDP has existed for several years and while they have not managed to find an agreement for their differences, they have not resorted to violence either. However, on this occasion, it seems difficult to rule out violence breaking out as both sides have been reluctant to de-escalate the tensions.

Syria

The Kurdish-led autonomous region, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), has experienced a relatively stable period during September and October 2020. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continued to take part in the routine anti-Islamic state patrols with the U.S. led coalition forces and the region has not witnessed a major attack in the period. However, there has been a steady increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the region, but given the lack of testing facilities, it is likely that the virus is more widespread than the reported numbers.

On 12 October, the Justice Council of the NES announced that it has agreed to a general amnesty for the prisoners in the region. Prisoners who have committed serious crimes will see their sentences halved, but those who are convicted of less serious crimes and those who are over the age of 75 will be released. The amnesty will not apply to people convicted of espionage and treason, honour killings, drug trafficking, commanders in terror organizations, such as ISIS, and terrorists guilty of violent crimes. However, the low-rank members of ISIS will be able to benefit from the amnesty provided that they display good behaviour. The amnesty is issued to relieve the pressure on the prison facilities, promote a new approach to justice and revitalise the community relations. A separate amnesty for the Syrian residents of the al-Hol Camp, mainly the wives and children of the captured or dead ISIS members, is currently in preparation.

A delegation comprised of several high-ranking officials of the NES delegation visited Russia on August 31 where they met with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, who reaffirmed ‘Russia’s readiness to continue to aid the promotion of an inclusive constructive inter-Syrian dialogue’. On October 1, Lavrov claimed that the U.S. was trying to establish a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria that will ‘enjoy similar powers as a state authority’ and this will increase the instability in the region. The officials of the NES responded that these statements will not help solve the Syrian crisis and only encourage Turkey and Iran to take hostile action against the NES.

Hints of future Turkish incursions

During the last week of October 2020, artillery fire by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army targeting the villages around Ayn Issa (south of Tell Abyad) town increased. Also, during the last week of October, threats by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to start another attack against the Kurdish forces in Syria were made on two separate occasions, which increased anxiety in the region despite the Pentagon Spokesperson Jessica McNulty calling on Turkey to adhere to the terms of the Joint U.S.-Turkey Statement negotiated in October 2019 that established a ceasefire between the SDF and the Turkish Army and its Syrian backed military groups. Meanwhile, human rights violations against Kurdish civilians in Afrin region that is under the control of Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups have continued to take place.

Stalemate in efforts to forge intra-Kurdish unity

The period was characterised by the intensification of efforts to broker a power-sharing agreement between the different Kurdish political factions. However, the dialogue process between the Kurdistan National Congress (KNC) composed of the political parties loyal to the KDP and the political parties working closely with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant political group within the NES has reached a dead-end in October. The talks were supported by the U.S. and France and have been going on since March 2020 with the second phase commencing in August 2020. Some progress had been made on the establishment of a joint Kurdish administration (‘Kurdish High Council’), with each main bloc allocated 16 seats and 4 seats reserved for independent political actors.

However, the talks broke down at the end of October 2020 without a final agreement being reached. According to Aldar Xalil, a senior official of the NES, the KNC bloc imposed unacceptable conditions, such as ending the co-chair system introduced to include women in politics and insisting that the Syrian state curriculum be used in the schools rather than the new curriculum developed by the NES.

Looking forward: The lack of political support has been one of the main barriers preventing the NES to play a more constructive role in the resolution of the Syrian conflict. The military support the U.S. led anti-Islamic State coalition has proved essential to the stability of the region, but without the political backing and a firm commitment to the defence of the region in the face of another possible Turkish incursion, this fragile stability cannot be preserved and will be exploited by the Syrian state to bring the region under its full control. The political disagreements between the two Kurdish political blocs in Syria are likely to continue as long as the uncertainty about the long-term future of the region remains. The pan-Kurdish dynamics, particularly the tension between the KDP and the PKK also amplifies the distrust between the two blocs and will weaken the push for Kurdish unity in Syria.

Iran

More cross-border couriers killed

Although it has become more commonplace for fighters affiliated with the Iranian Kurdish political groups based in the KRI to occasionally carried out military attacks targeting Iranian soldiers in the past few years, this year so far they have not been very active. One of the main features of the tension between the Islamic Republic and the Kurdish minority in recent months has revolved around the continual killing of the cross-border smugglers known locally as kolbar by the Iranian border guards and IRGC. This has been an ongoing issue over the past years and the Iran-Iraq border has become a highly securitised zone.

The targeting of the Kurdish kolbar has continued throughout September and October 2020, and according to a report by Hengaw Organisation for Human Rights 4 kolbar were killed and 11 wounded. Although some are killed as a result of accidents or falls, the great majority of the kolbar are killed directly by border guards and soldiers shooting them. However, despite the many dangers involved, many people don’t have any other choice but resort to smuggling goods to due to the economic hardship the Kurdish regions of Iran experience. The death of an Iranian Kurdish family in French waters after their boat was overturned as they tried to reach the UK has brought some international media coverage of the situation of the Iranian Kurds.

The economic situation in the Kurdish populated region has worsened this year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the effects of the economic sanctions imposed on Iran. The periodic protests that have been taking place in the Kurdish regions of Iran are an expression of the deep Kurdish grievances but the lack of any meaningful political process in Iran to accommodate these demands means the current status quo is set to continue.