by Sarah Glynn
A war of attrition doesn’t make headlines. Unlike the previous two years, 2020 has seen no full-scale Turkish invasion into North East Syria, but, for the people who live there, peace is still a distant dream.
Turkish state-sponsored attacks continue to increase in intensity, despite the Russian and American brokered ceasefires, and fears grow that much worse could be on the way. Meanwhile, the stories that emerge from areas Turkey has already occupied are increasingly horrific. Every day, websites such as afrinpost.net publish a litany of abuses of different kinds faced by the Kurds remaining in Afrin – each account, a glimpse into many personal tragedies.
Last week, a Sky News report quoted the testimonies of survivors and activists in Afrin to reveal a pattern of kidnap, extortion, brutal abuse, rape, and murder of Kurdish women and girls, including accounts of girls sold into slavery, just as they were under ISIS. Tens of thousands of people who escaped the occupation of Afrin took shelter in the relative safety of Shehba, but even here they are still threatened by Turkish bombing raids, while control of the region’s borders by the Syrian regime ensures they are kept deprived of vital supplies.
Unrelenting attack from Turkey and indifference from the wider world also hampers the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria’s (AANES’s) ability to resist attacks from ISIS, which continue at an alarming rate. This year, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented 480 operations by ISIS cells in the region, which resulted in the deaths of 86 civilians (including 10 children) and 122 SDF fighters.
A more surprising bit of collateral damage has been the impact of war on attitudes to covid-19. Medical staff in North East Syria have to work in the most difficult conditions, in partially damaged buildings, and without essential equipment; but when Al Jazeera talked with the Kurdish Red Crescent in Raqqa, they were told of an additional problem: people were not taking the risks seriously. ‘Amid such tragedy and destruction’, they reported, ‘aid workers and medical professionals say it is difficult to explain the danger of an invisible enemy’ It is a well-observed phenomenon, that people who generally live less-protected lives, are more careless of avoidable risks, including, it seems, people who have struggled so hard for survival.
While North East Syria would be only too glad to be able to import outside help, Iran’s Islamic Republic prefers suicidal isolation, claiming that it will develop its own vaccine. Official covid-19 deaths stand at 55,000, and the actual figure is probably very much higher. People have resorted to social media to express their anger, with hashtags such as #buy_the_vaccine and #Iranian_lives_matter.
On Monday, Kurds remembered the Roboski massacre of eleven years ago, when Turkish army planes bombed a group of men and boys carrying goods across the Iraqi-Turkish border. Thirty-four people died in the attack, nineteen of them under the age of eighteen – and despite the continued efforts of their families, and international publicity, no-one has been brought to justice. The group’s mules had been loaded with nothing more sinister than diesel, tea and cigarettes, and the border trade was an open secret – one of the few ways of scrabbling together a precarious living.
Roboski was especially shocking because of the scale of the killing and the blatant impunity of the Turkish attack – the government dismissed it as an unavoidable mistake – but, every year, Kurdish border traders are shot dead by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in even greater numbers, just not all at once. The kolbars, who carry their loads across snowy mountain passes, are also forced into their hard and dangerous work through economic necessity. Several times a month, human rights organisations post the details of another life ended, but – like the war of attrition – this doesn’t get taken up by wider media. In fact, when it comes to Iran, the world seems to have accepted that human rights are so unremittingly awful (and foreign access so difficult) that this is no longer news.
On the anniversary of the Roboski massacre, the UK government signed a new trade deal with Turkey. While this replicates the tariff-free terms that currently exist within the EU, it allows scope to extend the customs arrangements, which is something that European leaders are resisting. As the Financial Times explains: “Many members of the bloc are alarmed by what they see as the Turkish leader’s growing authoritarianism at home and aggressive foreign policy. The UK official said it would be easier for Britain to take a ‘pragmatic’ approach with Turkey”.
British-based Peace in Kurdistan called on the British government to “use its influence to secure negotiations for a peaceful solution for Turkey’s so-called Kurdish question as part of any post-Brexit trade deal”, and insisted that the Trade Secretary “must ensure that Turkey adheres to the [European Court of Human Rights] judgement that Mr Demirtas must be immediately released from prison as a precondition for signing any trade deal”. It knows its arguments will be shaken off like water from a duck’s back, but these arguments have to be made and built on for the future.
While the European Court of Human Rights refused to examine the Roboski case on a technicality, their recent judgement, demanding the immediate release of the former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who has been held on remand since 2016, was welcomed as exceptionally strong. It has also been extensively publicised. Unlike the court’s earlier ruling on this case, it argues not only that Demirtaș’s detention has been unlawfully long, but that it should never have happened in the first place, and was only done to silence a key opposition voice. One of Demirtaș’s legal advisors, Başak Çalı, praised the holistic approach which allowed the case to be looked at in the context of the core democratic value of the protection of political speech.
Despite President Erdoğan’s predictable, angry rejection of the court’s ruling, twenty-two Turkish bar associations have signed a joint statement demanding Demirtaș’s release, and Turkey’s main opposition party, the CHP, has made clear its view that the ruling must be obeyed. CHP leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, told television representatives: “You sign an international agreement as the state and then you say: ‘I will not implement the ECHR’s decision’. There will be a cost of this for Turkey. But let me say this: they [government officials] will come around and implement it. They have no other choice”. And CHP deputies have visited Dermitaș in prison.
Benan Molu, another of Dermitaș’s lawyers, explained to Bianet that the ball is now with the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. The process will be protracted, but, with a two thirds majority, they can impose sanctions on Turkey, up to and including Turkey’s removal from the Council. Molu quoted the precedent of Azerbaijan, where the threat of sanctions was able to force compliance.
Meanwhile, Turkish TV pundits compete to demonstrate their loyalty to the government by condemning the court’s decision and calling for ever more violent punishments for HDP membership. Talk about banning the party has not gone away, but the decision as to whether or not to do so will be taken on tactical grounds, not democratic ones. It may suit the government better simply to continue with its piecemeal policy of arrests and imprisonment. The HDP has reported that during 2020, 1,750 HDP members and administrators were taken into custody, with 172 of them sent to prison. And, since August 2019, 48 municipalities have seen their elected HDP mayors removed and replaced by government-appointed ‘trustees’, with 37 of the HDP co-mayors arrested.
This week’s passing of the new law on NGOs – bundled in with a ‘Law on Preventing the Financing of the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction’ – will make it increasingly difficult to organise openly outwith, as well as within, parliament. The opinion of the rapporteurs for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, that adoption of the law would ‘further undermine the foundations of the democratic functioning of Turkish society’, is a diplomatic understatement. Recent years have seen many NGO’s shut down and activists arrested. This law will regularise such closures, without even allowing those affected to access the highly-compromised legal system. Organisations cannot operate when their papers and confidential data can be seized without warning, and every criticism they make of the government leaves activists open to be labelled as a terrorist, even if only for a tweet posted years ago.
So many difficulties on so many fronts, but there remain reasons for hope too. Turkish law makers intend the drip, drip of oppression to wear down the Kurdish movement – which suggests that they have not properly studied the resilience of those they love to hate.