If you go to the information website of the YPJ, the Women’s Protection Units of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, you will find some of the most disturbing 4 ½ minutes of video you are likely to meet. These largely consist of a compilation of clips taken from mobile phones that have been confiscated from captured foreign ISIS women held in Al Hol Camp, along with some short recordings made inside the camp itself. Extracts from slick, ISIS-produced videos show boy soldiers undergoing military training, and watching and carrying out assassinations. The YPJ’s subtitle explains that “ISIS never concealed their use of child soldiers, on the contrary, they use them strategically as means of propaganda”. We are told that all the women who had these phones had children of their own, and that the manipulation of camp children even includes forcing boys to impregnate camp women in order to make the next generation of ISIS fighters. Alongside the phone videos, the YPJ has appended some short recordings made inside the camp that show children learning to fight and making gestures that mime beheadings. The video is a searing reminder of the sadistic brutality of ISIS, and also of the bankruptcy of states in Europe and across the world; states that refuse to repatriate their nationals from the camp, while castigating the massively overstretched Autonomous Administration for failing to protect the children, and states that also stand by as Turkey pursues its low-level war against North and East Syria.
The foreign fighters were able to enter Syria through Turkey, which gave – and continues to give – logistical support to ISIS and to other militant groups that carry out oppression in the name of Islam. The mercenary groups that Turkey has put in charge of the parts of Syria that they have occupied often follow practices similar to ISIS and include former ISIS members; and Turkey’s deliberate destruction of the region’s stability generates the conditions on which ISIS thrives. None of this elicits a response from Turkey’s NATO allies. (Going back a bit in time, the United States had themselves tried to support some of these militant jihadi groups in an attempt to force regime change in Syria, until they realised that this was not effective.)
Thanks to these actions by Turkey, and to the ongoing instability in Iraq following the US invasion, ISIS is able to continue its callous disruptive actions. Last month, ISIS attacks killed four people in North and East Syria – three military and one civilian – and injured two more. And they put up threatening posters on mosque walls in Deir ez-Zor, naming people who should die for “deviating from the truth”.
Although ISIS has just announced the death of its latest leader, this is unlikely to affect its activities.
Thursday saw the ninth anniversary of the biggest atrocity that ISIS has carried out – the genocide of the Yazidis of Şengal (Sinjar). Yazidis are generally regarded as Kurds, but have their own ancient religion. Şengal – a majority Yazidi region in north-west Iraq near the Syrian border – is one of the areas where control is disputed between the Kurdistan Regional Government in Hewlêr (Erbil) and the Iraqi Federal Government in Bagdad, but neither of those governments defended the Yazidis. When, in August 2014, the forces of the expanding ISIS caliphate began to encircle the area, there were thousands of Peşmerga fighters stationed there, attached to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is controlled by the Barzani family. They promised to defend Şengal, and had even removed weapons belonging to the Yazidis. But the peşmerga slipped away without warning, leaving the Yazidis exposed to people whose ideology told them that Yazidis were infidels who should be killed if they refused to convert to Islam.
In the following days, over 5000 Yazidi men and elders were murdered, and over 6000 women and children were abducted. The women would become sex-slaves and the boys would be trained as ISIS fighters. An estimated 2,800 women and girls are still unaccounted for, with many believed to be with their captors in Turkish-occupied Syria. Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled to the safety of the mountain, where they were stranded, without food or water, until a small band of fighters from the PKK and from Rojava’s People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) cleared a route for them to escape across the border into Syria.
Later, the PKK and YPG/YPJ helped the Yazidis to retake control of Şengal and establish their own autonomous administration – along the lines of Abdullah Öcalan’s “Democratic Confederalism” – and their own defence forces. The importance of these ideas for everyone in the region was demonstrated last Saturday by a march in support of Öcalan organised by Şengal’s Arab population. 78 YPG and YPJ fighters died defending the Yazidis in Şengal between 2014 and 2017.
The Yazidi defence forces became part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units, an umbrella organisation of militias that is recognised by the Iraqi state, however no formal recognition was given to the Yazidi administration, despite the possibilities presented by Iraq’s federal constitution and the example of the autonomous Kurdistan region. Instead, in October 2020, the United Nations, supported by the United States and bowing to Turkish sensibilities, brokered an agreement over the heads of the Yazidis that divided control of Şengal between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Region. There have been attempts by Hewlêr and Bagdad to impose this arrangement through intimidation and force, but they have been resisted by the Yazidis in Şengal, and the current situation is an unstable stalemate. In the words of the Yazidi Women’s Freedom Movement, the Agreement is regarded as “a continuation of the edict against the Yazidi people”.
And every so often – just enough to disrupt any sense of security and to discourage displaced families from returning – Turkish bombs and drones target Şengal, picking off leading figures dedicated to building the autonomous community – and also anyone else who happens to be in the way. The Yazidis have never attacked Turkey, but in the rhetoric of the Turkish government, anyone attempting to organise their society according to Öcalan’s ideas is a terrorist. From the perspective of the Yazidi genocide survivors, Turkey is perpetuating the ISIS genocide.
Around 180,000 Yazidis still live in deteriorating IDP camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. They do not want to risk returning to a place that is under attack and is still largely in ruins. Growing numbers have opted for emigration – through both official and unofficial routes.
In Şengal, the genocide anniversary was commemorated with remembrance ceremonies, including an official ceremony by the autonomous Yazidi defence and security forces. At a conference in Bagdad organised by the Yazidis’ autonomous administration, delegates called for the Iraqi government to recognise the ISIS attacks as genocide, and to accept their autonomous administration as “the will of Şengal”. They also demanded an investigation into the abandonment of the Yazidis, and the establishment of an international court to try the ISIS perpetrators.
The Yazidi defence forces put out public statements in which they committed themselves to defending their people, their autonomy, and the ideas of Öcalan, and honoured those who died defending the Yazidis.
A week ago, a Yazidi NGO based in Germany filed a complaint against Turkey with the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. This concerned a Turkish airstrike on Şengal, two years ago, that targeted a small hospital, killing eight civilians and severely injuring many more. And Yazidi civil society organisations have made a public demand to the Iraqi Government for adequate funding for the physical reconstruction of Şengal. They are asking for $1.5 Billion, which is 1% of one year’s national budget.
The ISIS attacks have been formally recognised as genocide by the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, Canada, France, Armenia, Iraq, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and – since Tuesday – by the United Kingdom. But this does not imply any active support. At the same time, the U.K. is tying itself closer to Turkey by negotiating stronger trade links. The US reiterated their “unwavering support” for the Yazidis, while urging full implementation of the 2020 Agreement for joint control over their homeland by the Iraqi Government and Kurdistan Regional Government. And the European Union also called for implementation of the Agreement.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Government is building a barrier along the Syrian border close to Şengal, with the excuse that it will keep out ISIS, and the unstated aim that it will impede links between Öcalan-inspired groups in Syria and in Iraq.
And the Barzanis have used the occasion for a shameless attempt to rewrite history.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party
Both Nechirvan Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in his official commemorative speech at a ceremony in Hewlêr, and his cousin, Kurdistan Prime Minister, Masrour Barzani, on Twitter, have presented the Peşmerga as the heroic liberators of the Yazidis. And – in line with Turkey – they have attempted to blame the Yazidis’ current woes on the Yazidis’ own autonomous defence forces. These are referred to as “illegal armed groups” by Masrour, and as PKK forces by Nechirvan. The Barzanis won’t want to remember that, ten days after the start of the genocide, Masrour’s father, Massoud Barzani, President of the KDP and, at that time, President of Kurdistan, personally thanked the PKK guerrillas for their role in saving the region from ISIS.
Under KDP dominance, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has become virtually a client state of Turkey. Today, the KDP has no sympathy with the PKK, and actively supports Turkey’s military incursions into Iraq and their assaults on the PKK bases in the mountains and on the autonomous Yazidi leaders in Şengal. The KDP have sponsored an alternative Yazidi leadership that shows loyalty to their party.
A week ago, the Kurdistan Region Security Council blamed the PKK for the recent murder of a former leading Kurdistan Regional Government intelligence officer, who died when a bomb exploded under his car. The PKK have denied all involvement and have accused the KDP of repeatedly using Kurdistan government institutions, such as the Security Council, for its own interests and to cover up crimes committed by the “invading Turkish state”.
The increasing authoritarianism of the KDP-dominated administration is well-documented, so allegations this week that the KDP attempted to poison imprisoned journalist, Şerwan Şerwani, have to be taken seriously. Şerwani’s critical journalism has ensured that the Barzanis are determined to keep him locked up. His sentence was extended two weeks ago on a clearly spurious charge, and in their report on the case, the NGO, Community Peacemaker Teams – Iraq, observed that “Iraqi Kurdistan is increasingly an unsafe place for journalists and activists. At least nine journalists have left Iraqi Kurdistan in the past six months due to active threats on themselves and their families.”
North and East Syria
Across the border in Syria, Turkey’s drone attacks continue. Civilians have been injured in attacks on Shehba and Til Temir, and on the anniversary of the Yazidi genocide, a Turkish drone targeted a car near Qamishlo that was carrying members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), killing four men and wounding two more. The men who died that day had all been involved in defending the region against ISIS, and one – Commander Aram Muhammad Ibrahim – had lost an arm in that fight.
Much of Syria’s own Yazidi population lived in Afrîn, which is now under Turkish occupation. Today, Afrîn is controlled by jihadi militias that reserve some of their worst cruelties for the remaining Yazidis and take especial delight in destroying everything they hold sacred. The US State Department spokesperson was criticised this week for refusing to see the settlement of refugees from other parts of Syria in Turkish-occupied Afrîn as part of an intentional project of demographic change.
The impact of Turkey’s withholding of river water from Syria is becoming ever more worrying. This long slow attack on every aspect of life receives little coverage, but, this week, drought in Iraq was the subject of a long article in the New York Times, which acknowledged the part played by Turkey – and also Iran – in taking water before it could reach their downstream neighbours.
For the population of Syria’s Hasakah, the problem is not the lack of river water, but Turkey’s capture of the Alok pumping station in 2019. Turkey and its militias are refusing to supply water to over a million desperate people, and UNICEF has admitted failure in their attempted mediation.
Environmental attacks continue within Turkey too. The growing protests against the destruction of Akbelen forest in southwest Turkey will be discussed in a special meeting of parliament next week. The forest is being cleared in the face of massive opposition to make way for lignite mines to fuel the adjacent power stations. Per kilowatt of energy, lignite produces even more carbon dioxide than harder forms of coal. None of this could be further from the published Mission Statement of the private company behind the operations, YK Energy, which has been allotted numerous public tenders – and is also in a dispute about unpaid wages. They claim “to provide a sustainable contribution to the energy needs of our country with continuously improving quality-oriented approaches that respect nature and people at every stage of our practices.” When it comes to the government, the contrast between their international treaty commitments and their action in Akbelen forest has become the subject of a complaint to the United Nations. Over the last ten years, 110,000 hectares of Turkish forest were allocated to mining (which Gercek news translates as 154,000 football pitches).
Meanwhile, Canadian oil company, Trillian Energy, has signed an agreement to work with the Turkish national oil company in the exploration and development of oil fields in Şırnak. The potential for production is still unclear, but any significant oil extraction in the Kurdish region will not only have environmental consequences but will also encourage the government to tighten central control even further.
The treatment of Turkey’s Kurdish provinces has been described as an internal colonisation. Schools have always played a central role in this process – beginning with compulsory use of the Turkish language – and the nature of this colonialism was made horribly apparent in a video of a performance put on by a primary school in Urfa. Kurdish boys in military uniform act out shooting and dying, and the girls cover their “bodies’ with giant Turkish flags.
The war on Kurds is relentless. Again in Şırnak, councillors belonging to the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were made to undergo a police search before being allowed into a council meeting. Leyla Zana, former member of parliament, former political prisoner, and tireless campaigner for peace and Kurdish rights, is to be put on trial yet again. She faces the usual charge of terrorist propaganda, and is also accused of “Acceptance of Titles and Similar Honours from the Enemy”. Her brave stance has won her many human rights awards from Europe and the United States, but, her lawyer asks, “Which country has Turkey declared war on?” Meanwhile, the Kobanê Case, which is riven with judicial anomalies, has moved into its 53rd hearing. This is the case in which 108 people, including leading members of the HDP, are on trial for calling for a show of support for the city of Kobanê as it battled against ISIS in 2014. As former MP and HDP Co-Chair, Sebahat Tuncel, told the court, “You are defending the barbarism of ISIS. We are on trial because we stand with the people of Kobanê.”
I am running out of words, but I want to include some frightening statistics from Iran. Last month, at least 225 people were arrested, including at least 131 Kurds; and at least 61 prisoners were executed, including 12 Baloch, 11 Kurds and 9 Azerbaijani Turks. Last week, at least nineteen prisoners were executed in the four days from Sunday to Wednesday, including eleven Baloch. Most executions were nominally for drug-related charges, but in Iran’s corrupted justice system, this tells us nothing.
When people are discriminated against, economic disputes can gain an ethnic dimension. Protests about exclusion of local people from jobs in an Iranian gold mine were met with a violent crackdown by government forces, resulting in severe injuries, destruction of homes and vehicles, and the detention of numerous Kurds.
I want to finish with some international solidarity, but must first mention a troubling report in Die Zeit, which exposes friendly connections between the Social Democratic Party leader in North Rhine-Westphalia and a supporter of the Turkish fascist Grey Wolves.
Over in California, following a major signature campaign coordinated by Armenian Americans, Disney+ has announced that they won’t be showing their planned six-part series on Kemal Atatürk, though it will still be shown as two feature films on Disney-owned Fox and in Turkish cinemas. Although Atatürk was not himself involved in the Armenian Genocide, he rehabilitated those who were, and built the Turkish republic on the back of minority oppression. Disney is now the target of Turkish anger from both public and government.
With concerns growing over Öcalan’s well-being and over the lack of any communication with the Kurdish leader, protests have been held in several European cities and in Toronto. In Rome, solidarity was organised through a concert, which also drew attention to the wider Kurdish struggle. And in Strasbourg, young Kurds carried out an occupation of the European Institutions to protest their inaction.
But international organisation isn’t just about protest. In Bogatá, Öcalan’s ideas were the focus of a major international conference organised by the Kurdish Movement together with Columbian organisations under the heading “Challenging Capitalism: towards the Construction of a Democratic Society”.