As Turkey’s attacks on North and East Syria continue without remission and with little international acknowledgement, Ilham Ahmed predicts an even more difficult year ahead, noting, “Turkey needs a military victory to win public opinion, so we should expect that there will be multiple Turkish attacks and major campaigns.”
Ahmed is the co-chair of the Executive Council of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, and she was talking at its annual meeting in Raqqa.
At the same time, within Turkey itself, major attacks continue through the politicised “justice” system, while, as always, the Turkish army continues its slow-burning war against PKK guerrillas in the Kurdish-majority provinces of the southeast.
And Turkish planes bombard the mountains of northern Iraq.
Turkey and ISIS in Syria
On Wednesday, after describing a day in which an eleven-year-old was killed in a bomb attack, two other people were killed by shelling from Turkey, an ISIS fighter blew himself up when cornered, and an operation against ISIS suspects led to the death of an innocent fifteen-year-old, the Rojava Information Centre commented, “Today’s events follow a trend of increasingly-brazen attacks on [North and East Syria] by both Turkey & ISIS.’
There have also been questions raised about the number of ISIS prisoners who managed to escape from the prison in Hasaka (see my last 2 reviews). Iraq’s National Security Advisor has claimed that 20 “dangerous” ISIS members managed to get out. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights states that ‘hundreds’ got away and have taken refuge in Turkish-occupied areas or in Turkey itself – another demonstration of how these occupied areas have become safe havens for ISIS – while some have hidden themselves in areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration, such as the five rearrested in a house in the area of the prison on Wednesday.
News has also come out about an attempted riot in the notorious Al Hol camp, which houses ISIS women and children. As described to North Press Agency, the women detainees began the riot by setting fire to some tents to attract the guards’ attention. They captured a guard and encouraged camp children to throw stones. When security forces intervened, the women attacked them with knives and other sharp instruments. The forces shot into the air to try and frighten the women off, but a child was killed in the shooting.
And anyone in any doubt about Turkish dominance in Idlib, where the ISIS leader who was killed by the US last week had his hideaway, need only search out the reports of the visit, last Saturday, of the Turkish Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu. What role does an interior minister have in a foreign country?
This week, we also learnt that in 2015 and 2016, ISIS took delivery of millions of dollars of weapons bought from China via three “construction” companies set up in the Turkish city of Mersin. Although the information, which was exposed in an article in Birgün, comes from a report made last March by Turkey’s Financial Crimes Investigation Board who were looking at freezing the assets of people linked to ISIS, no one involved has been prosecuted and the companies are still active.
Turkey’s police state
While no action has been taken against the organisers of “the most important supply chain of ISIS’s military power”, the Turkish judicial system continues to clamp down on all government opposition, and especially Kurdish opposition.
The ninth hearing of the Kobanê case, which threatens 108 people, including leading members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), with life imprisonment, has thrown up yet more procedural irregularities, including the appearance, on Thursday, of a new secret witness statement added surreptitiously to the file.
The politicians are being blamed for the lethal violence that occurred during the 2014 protests in support of the city of Kobanê, then under ISIS siege. The HDP’s Central Executive Board had called for people to come onto the streets, but the demonstrators were met by armed security services and violent counter protestors. Complainants who had made complaints about damage resulting from the protests have given “evidence” to the court. Some of the complainants are themselves prisoners for other crimes, which demonstrates how the state finds its “witnesses”. One withdrew his claim after it was pointed out that the damage he was complaining of took place before the politicians made their tweet calling people to protest.
In the case of the murder of seven members of the Dedeoğulları family in Konya last July, the court has refused to merge this case with that concerning a violent racist mob attack carried out against the same family in May by a group of around sixty people who described themselves as Grey Wolves. Separating the two cases makes it impossible to make a full examination of the nature and circumstances of the attacks, and especially of the state’s failure to take full legal and preventive action after the first attack. Between the two attacks, the Dedeoğulları family continued to suffer from daily racist abuse, and it was the May attackers, not their victims, who were given police protection. The family’s lawyers will take up the prosecutor’s refusal to combine the cases with the Board of Judges and Prosecutors.
In the case of former HDP MP, Leyla Güven, the prosecution report on her Kurdish speeches has been found to be full of translation errors. It is not credible that no-one could be found to make an accurate translation, so this can only be understood as yet another deliberate insult to the Kurdish language and those who use it.
Regardless of the campaigns for her release, former MP and HDP Vice Co-Chair, Aysel Tuğluk, has been sent back to prison after just three day’s observation by Istanbul’s Forensic Medicine Institution. Tuğluk is suffering from increasingly severe dementia that makes it impossible for her to look after herself, and an earlier, much fuller, examination by the Hospital of Kocaeli University had concluded that she was not fit enough to remain behind bars. This latest observation had been requested by her lawyer in the hope of overturning the previous refusal of release by the same Institution, which is known for keeping prisoners locked up until they are almost at death’s door.
The treatment of seriously ill prisoners continues to be the subject of protest, with demonstrations this week (despite police restrictions) in Istanbul and in Diyarbakir, where there is also a permanent vigil by prisoners’ relatives.
Concern over failures of human rights in the justice system, or, more specifically, the failure to make those failures public, has led to the resignation of several members of the Human Rights Center of the Ankara Bar Association.
President Erdoğan has filed his own claim for damages against the journalist Sedef Kabaş, who is already facing charges for insulting the president with a proverb that she quoted on television and on social media. Absolute rulers of the past had their court jesters and poets who provided a safety valve for criticisms, but modern dictators only understand force. Kabaş has even been remanded in custody while she awaits trial.
This week, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council announced that they were effectively extending their censoring powers to include foreign online media, and, indeed, all online media that shows videos or podcasts. All affected media organisations will have to buy a license. Notifications have been sent out to the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle Türkçe, and Euronews, giving them 72 hours to submit a license application and put themselves within the government’s censorship regime.
Meanwhile, Turkey is facing further cost of living disasters as a result of soaring electricity prices. Businesses are facing bankruptcy, workers are facing lay-offs, and farmers risk losing thousands of sheep as the power company has cut off the electricity supply to their wells due to non-payment. Shopkeepers have posted their electricity bills in their windows as a form of protest, and people have been demonstrating in the streets. Several Alevi houses of worship -cemevis – have announced that they will not pay their electricity bills. This is a double protest: against the rising costs, and also against the government’s refusal to exempt them from electricity payments, like it exempts Mosques, churches and synagogues. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who this week announced that he was putting his hat into the ring for the Turkish presidency, has said that he will not pay his electricity bill until the price is reduced.
Across the border, the two main contenders for the Iraqi presidency are both Kurds, as custom demands, and are backed by rival blocks. The election by parliament has been put on hold while the KDP-backed candidate, who has been the subject of allegations, is checked for his “good reputation and integrity”.
In the northwest of Iraq, a delegation from the HDP came from Turkey to visit the Yazidi homeland of Şengal (Sinjar), to show public support for the Yazidi community in the wake of Turkey’s latest airstrikes. The four HDP MPs – who included two ethnic Turks and the Yazidi MP, Feleknas Uca – promised to publicise the Yazidis’ plight through the Turkish parliament. A report out on Thursday in the New Humanitarian shows how effectively Turkey’s airstrikes have stalled the return of displaced Yazidis – as they are intended to do. Turkey has no love for these Kurdish people, and especially those of them who have taken up Öcalan’s ideas of democratic autonomy.
And there is no let-up in Turkey’s attacks on the northern mountains.
Iran continues to produce a grim harvest of statistics. Last year, at least 52 Kolbars, or mountain porters, were killed, and 163 injured. The majority were shot by (mainly Iranian) border guards, but some succumbed to the dangerous terrain, which is made even more dangerous by old anti-personnel mines. Men of all ages are forced into this hazardous and poorly paid work through lack of other options. This January alone, forty Iranian Kurds were arrested for political activism, a further eight for civil activism, and two for religious activism.
The pressures suffered by the people of Iran are exemplified by the suicide of Muhseen Mahmudi, whose troubles are recounted by the Washington Kurdish Institute. Mahmudi was imprisoned for taking part in the 2019 protests against the government, and was also shot and blinded by the state security forces. Although he had been released from prison, he suffered from mental and financial problems.
Despite all this, people continue to resist.
ISIS no longer dominates world news, but it is still recognised as a serious threat. A report published by the United Nations on 28 January reminds us that ISIS “is estimated by Member States to retain between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters across both countries [Syria and Iraq], where it is forming cells and training operatives to launch attacks.”
The UN report doesn’t have anything to say about the role of Turkey – not even a comment on the impact of their constant undermining of the region’s security and stability, which creates conditions in which ISIS can thrive. However, the SDF’s highlighting of Turkish complicity has not gone unnoticed – especially combined with the location of the hideaway chosen by al-Qureshi, the recently killed ISIS leader.
CBS News reported: “as leaders and experts warn that ISIS is trying to rebuild, and that decapitating the group won’t cripple it for long, there are mounting allegations that a vital U.S. ally in the region is actually giving ISIS room to breathe. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the umbrella rebel group of mainly Kurdish fighters that the U.S. relied on for years to lead the ground war against ISIS in Syria, says Turkey — a NATO member on the edge of the alliance’s geographic border with the Mideast — is allowing ISIS a “safe zone” in northern Syria. The death of the second top ISIS commander in three years in a home very close to Turkey’s border is presenting some awkward questions for the U.S. and its NATO partners.”
Dare we hope that the glaring contradictions in US policy, which continues to support Turkey while also leading the “Global Coalition against Daesh”, will force more people to open their eyes and ask serious questions about the possible consequences? It is hard to be optimistic in a world where even recognition of the potential destruction of our planet’s ability to support human life can coexist alongside continued fetishisation of the economic structures that make this inevitable. But we cannot give up struggling for change. NATO’s stand-off against Russia over Ukraine is providing an opportunity for Turkey to play their hand as a member of the NATO club; but, at the same time, the US is reported to be discussing putting more of the militias through whom Turkey works in Syria on their terrorist list.
International hypocrisy is hardly news, but some instances of this cannot be ignored. I wrote, two weeks ago, about the decontextualised reporting of the plight of the 700 teenage boys detained in the prison complex that was under attack in Hasaka: reporting that appeared to forget that these boys had been radicalised by their ISIS parents and were being held to protect wider society, and that everything – including the prisons – in North and East Syria is shamefully and desperately short of resources. Last Saturday, representatives from UNICEF visited the boys. Afterwards, the SDF felt the need to make their own public statement in response to a New York Times article penned by UNICEF’s representative in Syria. They welcomed the official UNICEF statement, but described the Times article as an “irresponsible” and “unacceptable” “distortion of facts”.
No one argues that the boys should be detained in a prison complex – not least the SDF – and it would be nice to be able to believe that this attention might actually result in some long-neglected international action; but the way this has been reported has been prejudicial to an understanding of the bigger picture. And where have all these concerned people been for the three years since the ISIS families surrendered with the loss of their last piece of territory? What are they doing for the children whose villages are being bombed by Turkey, or the children who have been forced to grow up in IDP camps to escape the gang-rule of Turkey’s mercenaries, who have taken over their homes in Afrîn and Serê Kaniyê? Or – within Europe – for the over 400 children among the 1500 migrants stranded in a Polish detention centre following the mass attempts by Kurds and others to cross the border from Belarus. Hanna Machińska, Poland’s deputy commissioner for human rights, described their situation to a European Parliament committee this week, noting that in one centre people were living 24 to a room, with only two square metres of space each; that some had been denied basic medical aid; and that there was almost no humanitarian access.
After the Turkish drone attack that killed an eleven-year-old boy in a village near Amûde, in North East Syria, on Wednesday, Amûde school students and teachers held a protest against the terror of Turkey’s daily bombings, which are designed to “destroy the security of the region and cause chaos”. They appealed to “the guarantor powers that are supposedly present here to protect the civilian population and territorial integrity”, and they appealed “in particular to the child protection agency UNICEF”.
Today, outside the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and in other cities round the world, we will see the culmination of a week of much more positive international action. Next Tuesday, 15 February, will be the anniversary of the capture of Abdullah Öcalan, when a conspiracy of international forces, including the CIA, prevented the Kurdish leader from reaching political asylum and sent him back to Turkey. He has now spent 23 years isolated in a Turkish prison – longer than the 20 years that he was able to be physically present as leader of the PKK. And Turkish hopes that his capture would end his influence and destroy the movement he leads have proved very wrong. Like every year, apart from the last, due to Covid restrictions, groups of activists are marching across Europe – and taking the opportunity to hold public meetings and discussions and form international bonds. As well as Kurdish marchers, there are activists from many other countries – people who are responding to the Kurds’ call for freedom, and who are also inspired by the positive vision of a better society that the Kurdish movement brings closer to reality.