When over a thousand people marched through the Hague on Tuesday to demand that the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons live up to its name and investigate the repeated accusations of Turkish use of chemical weapons in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, they were attacked by mounted Dutch police and threatened with police dogs. Organisers from The Kurdish Women’s Movement in Europe (TJK-E) and the European Confederation of Kurdish Associations (KCDK-E) reported that about 30 demonstrators were injured, two seriously, and 12 demonstrators were “unjustly” detained. As a statement of international indifference to the Kurdish plight, and an example of the spread of authoritarianism, this could hardly have been clearer.
On the same day, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, spoke to the annual forum of the Middle East Research Institute in Hewlêr (Erbil). In response to a question about the recent attacks by Turkey and Iran on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, she stated that the UN “cannot solve it”, making it clear that the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqi government had to put their own house in order. (You can listen to her here, around nineteen minutes in) How such a statement could be understood as being in line with the UN’s primary purpose of maintaining “international peace and security” is not clear, but the inability of the UN to fulfil its intended purpose was, yet again, only too apparent.
For a further instance of the UN’s institutional failure, we need look no further than Iran. America’s Vice President, Kamala Harris, announced on Wednesday that the United States intended “to work with our partners to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women”. But why, when the nature of Iran’s repression of women was so blatant, was Iran elected to the UN body in the first place? When they joined in March, the executive director of Geneva-based UNWatch commented, “Electing the Islamic Republic of Iran to protect women’s rights is like making an arsonist into the town fire chief… By elevating a misogynistic regime to its highest women’s rights body, the UN is sending a message that women’s rights can be sold out for backroom political deals”. UNWatch has also calculated that at least four western democracies must have voted in support of Iran joining the commission.
Also this last week, NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, has been in Turkey, where he has attempted to persuade President Erdoğan and his ministers that Sweden has effectively caved in to Turkish demands and that Turkey should now lift their veto on Sweden and Finland joining NATO. Turkey is demanding a clamp down on the PKK and related organisations – in which they include the Syrian-based YPG and YPJ – and the extradition of Kurdish political exiles. Stoltenberg’s desire to keep Turkey on side makes him oblivious to any issues of morality or basic freedoms; and pushes him to ignore both the YPG and YPJ’s central role in the fight against ISIS, and Turkish support for ISIS and other brutal Islamist militias, so as to portray Turkey as playing a “major role” in the “fight against terrorism”. Sweden’s new right-wing anti-immigrant government may be prepared to give Turkey what they ask for and allow Erdoğan another victory over Kurdish rights, but even if they are not, Erdoğan can use the situation to promote his strongman image and to boast of his power over the Nordic countries and NATO.
Earlier in the week, the co-chairs of the Kurdish Friendship Group in the European Parliament, Andreas Schieder and François Alfonsi, visited the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and met with representatives of the administration, of the YPJ, and of civil society. And everywhere they went they were reminded of the indifference being shown to the peoples of the region by the international powers, as this oasis of democracy, women’s rights, and multi-ethnic coexistence faces a multitude of threats. Turkey threatens its very existence. It also suffers under an economic boycott by the Turkey-friendly government of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and struggles to maintain an uneasy equilibrium with a Syrian regime that refuses to countenance anything less than the centralised control they maintained before 2011.
Syria’s President Assad relies on Russian support, but the MEPs heard that the Autonomous Administration’s talks with Russia are going nowhere because Russia is not prepared to force Assad to compromise. And they heard that the United States insists that their only concern is the war against terrorism. There is no American political support for the Autonomous Administration, and no country wants to give them political recognition and to allow them a role in negotiations over Syria’s future.
The presence of troops from the US-led coalition discourages a major Turkish attack, but, when put to the test, they will not stand against their NATO ally, Turkey. North and East Syria’s Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have not been supplied with the weaponry they would need to stop air attacks, and the United States has not responded to requests for a no-fly-zone to protect the region from Turkish drones and planes. The SDF keeps the coalition informed of Turkey’s continued small-scale attacks in breach of ceasefire agreements, but, although the US is a ceasefire guarantor, they do nothing. The SDF also documents Turkish support for ISIS.
Russia – guarantor of another ceasefire – also does nothing to stop Turkey’s attacks. Their priority is support for the Assad regime. The Syrian regime forces that have been stationed along the border with the Turkish-occupied areas since the 2019 ceasefire could do little in the face of another Turkish invasion.
North and East Syria has also been left to look after thousands of ISIS prisoners and tens of thousands of ISIS wives and children, including many foreign nationals. Their requests for the creation of an internationally recognised court to try the prisoners have met with little response, and they are having to request help to build better detention facilities. ISIS women and children from North and East Syria are being rehabilitated in their home regions under the protection of local leaders, but those from other parts of Syria cannot go back or they would be killed, and repatriation of foreign nationals is only taking place very slowly, with their home countries very unwilling to take responsibility.
The region was kept underdeveloped by Assad, and suffered major destruction of its infrastructure in the fight against ISIS. Since capturing the Alouk pumping station, Turkey has ensured that a million people in the Heseke region are frequently without a water supply. Large numbers of displaced people from the Turkish-occupied areas and from other parts of Syria add to the pressure. Oil extraction provides some income, but the Administration is desperately short of funds, and, although US sanctions have now been lifted, no one wants to invest in an area with such an uncertain future. The only border crossing into North and East Syria connects it to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and their boycott stops the entry of all heavy machinery and many medical supplies.
NGOs provide some immediate aid, but no long-term development, and, because the region has not been given official recognition, any aid from foreign states has to come via the official Syrian regime in Damascus, which creams off large amounts.
As the Autonomous Administration acknowledges, economic hardship makes it easier for ISIS to recruit.
The Kurdish Friendship Group will take their observations back home, where, as Andreas Schieder observes, “The Kurdish people need more friends in Europe”.
In other news from Syria, under Russia’s watch, Turkey has been shelling villages near Kobanê, and a spokesperson for Girê Spî Military Council claimed that in their region Turkey carried out over 200 attacks during October, aimed at driving away the local population and – eventually – replacing them with Turkey’s Islamist mercenaries.
And Russia has allowed the Syrian regime to tighten its blockade on the autonomous Kurdish-majority areas of Aleppo – Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiyeh. They are now short of medicines, flour, bread, and fuel, and local workshops and factories have had to close.
It has been reported that Turkey is attempting to unite its different mercenary factions, but that the commanders fear losing their power and their ability to make money, and, so far, this plan has been rejected. Tuesday’s Arab League summit in Algeria agreed on the importance of finding a peaceful solution through intra-Syrian dialogue. And SDF fighters have received a pay rise. They earn considerably more than Syrian government soldiers or Turkey’s mercenaries, but in general, economic constraints ensure that salaries in the region are very low. Some people leave jobs in the administration to work with international NGOs that pay many times more, or try and emigrate.
In Iran, protests continue, and so does the violence of the state’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. CNN reports that over 2,000 people have already been indicted, with many charged with “war against God and corruption on earth”. These can expect to face a death penalty in a court where the prosecutor is also the judge and defence lawyers are not allowed. Over 14,000 people have been arrested, so the situation can get even worse. A death sentence has already been handed down to the Kurdish rapper, Saman Yasin, who sang about issues such as unemployment and government oppression, and gave public support to the protests. As if this were not enough, he is believed to have been subjected to severe physical and mental torture.
More than 2000 Academics in the United States, including ten Nobel Laureates have written a letter to US President Biden highlighting the role of students in the protests and calling on him to do more in support. In particular, they are asking the US government to stop all negotiations with the Iran regime, prevent any kind of sanctions relief, and respect the protestors’ right to self-defence.
At a campaign rally for America’s mid-term elections, on Thursday evening, Biden responded to calls to “free Iran” by telling his audience “Don’t worry, we’re going to free Iran” – and then, as though he suddenly remembered that blatant intervention is not acceptable – “they’re going to free themselves pretty soon.” The next day a Whitehouse spokesperson clarified that his comment signalled only solidarity and not direct involvement, but the Iranian regime has tried to use it as evidence that America is pulling strings from outside. There should be no doubt that the movement within Iran is coming from the people themselves. We can be sure, too, that the US will also try and mould events to suit its interests, though they may be holding back to see which way the wind blows. As can be observed across the world, American attempts to force regime change have been disastrous, and more active intervention – beyond ostracising the regime – is to be feared.
The current instability and corruption in Iraq are a legacy of US military intervention to bring down the government of Saddam Hussein – intervention that can be criticised without defending Saddam. The chaos the 2003 Iraq war created allowed the growth of ISIS, and has now produced an Iraqi government that is sympathetic to the government of Iran. Iran has shown themselves well pleased with Iraq’s recent government formation.
In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, western governments continue to give support to the Kurdistan Regional Government despite its endemic corruption and increasing authoritarianism. On Thursday, the congress of the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) re-elected Masoud Barzani as party president, with, as first deputy, his nephew, Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani and, as second deputy, his son, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani. The feudal line-up can hardly be seen as an example of the liberal democracy to which the region’s western friends play lip-service.
Meanwhile, in northwest Iraq, by the Syrian border, Turkish drones target the Yazidi region of Şengal (Sinjar). There was an attack last Saturday, another on Tuesday, and a lethal targeting of a vehicle on Thursday, in which a man died, and a woman was injured. These attacks on a community of genocide survivors and their self-administration are ignored by an international community that has attempted to hand the region over to the control of the Iraqi government and the KDP over the heads of local people. The Yazidis’ would-be-masters are those who abandoned them in 2014, without protection, to face ISIS forces intent on their destruction – and they are determined not to have to rely on others for their defence again.
In Turkey itself, the continued government crackdowns are no longer deemed newsworthy by a western media that has no interest in criticising Turkey. Most people outside Turkey are unaware that parts of the Kurdish southeast are effectively a war zone. A large part of Colemêrg (Hakkari) province has been declared a prohibited zone, with police stations and checkpoints everywhere. In Gever (Yüksekova) all inhabitants are being illegally fingerprinted, ongoing military operations in mountain villages have lasted for six days, and shepherds have been told not to take their sheep to nearby springs or they will be bombed.
In Ankara, nine of the journalists detained last week have been arrested and sent to prison to await trial; in Cizre, nine people, including Kurdish youth activists, were detained in house raids by police counter-terrorism units last Saturday; and Kurdish lawyer, Aryen Turan, whose speech, two weeks ago, at the İzmir Bar Association was met by an angry reaction from nationalists in the Republican Lawyers’ Group, was detained by the police on Thursday. She had raised the issues of sick prisoners, of allegations of Turkey’s use of chemical weapons, and of misogynistic society, and she had finished with the call Jin Jiyan Azadi (Woman Life Freedom). Yakup Brukanli, a Kurdish political prisoner in the central Anatolian province of Konya has set himself on fire to protest against cruel prison conditions, including prolonged isolation in single person cells. It is reported that he had been given a one-month ban on visits and communication for resisting a strip search, and that he is now in critical condition.
Friday was the sixth anniversary of the beginning of the major crackdown on the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which has seen over 12,000 members imprisoned, including the party’s co-chairs, and elected MPs and mayors. This week, at an event to mark the anniversary of the removal of Cizre’s elected mayor and their replacement by government-appointed trustee, a policeman threw a spent bullet at HDP MP Hasan Özgüneş, sending out a clear and public threat. Meanwhile, the speech by HDP co-chair, Pervin Buldan, responding to Erdoğan’s speech for the 99th anniversary of the Turkish Republic, was deliberately misquoted in an attempt to discredit her and her party.
This week, too, we learnt that Medya News is being blocked in Turkey.
The resistance goes on
But the resistance goes on. I began this week’s review with the demonstration in the Hague calling for an investigation into Turkey’s use of chemical weapons. There have been demonstrations in other cities across Europe, too, and there are plans for more demonstrations next Saturday. German Left Party (Die Linke) MP, Gökay Akbulut, has written to Ambassador Thomas Schieb, Germany’s representative in the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, requesting action. The German Society of Legal Medicine (DGRM) has demanded the immediate release of the imprisoned head of the Turkish Medical Association, who is being targeted for calling for an investigation into the chemical weapons claims, and they have also demanded “comprehensive independent investigation into the possible violation of the ban on chemical weapons.”
Sarah Glynn is a writer and activist – check her website and follow her on Twitter