(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Vote violence in flashpoint city signals long road to Iraqi Kurdistan

    As residents on the Sunni Muslim side of Tuz Khurmatu cast their ballots on the question of independence for Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday, dozens of locals gathered opposite, armed with machine guns, RPG launchers, and pistols, preparing to fight against the city’s Shia population.

    Half an hour earlier, a minibus carrying Kurdish peshmerga soldiers came under fire from the other side of the small city, almost exclusively populated by Shia Turkmen. The driver – a civilian and ironically a Shia himself – was killed instantly and one of his peshmerga passengers shot in the leg.

    Referendum day here was drastically different than in some parts of northern Iraq, where Kurdish nationalism ran high and voting was marked by cheerful optimism and flag-waving.

    This troubled city, where a wall divides residents by their adherence to Sunni or Shia Islam, may be the exception rather than the rule on this historic day for Iraqi Kurds, but it hints at the challenges that lie ahead, particularly in border areas claimed by both Kurdistan and Iraq.

    It also remains to be seen how Monday’s referendum will impact growing regional and international tensions. The vote was opposed by Iraq’s central government, neighbours of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), including Turkey and Iran, as well as by the United Nations, the United States and Britain. Voting had barely ended before the federal government in Baghdad had urged the international community to boycott crude oil exports from the KRG, and Turkey had declared the vote “null and void”.

    Violence had been expected in Tuz Khurmatu in Salah al-Din province, one of the most volatile areas in a fault line of disputed territories.

    Frequent clashes between opposing sides have become so dangerous that, for over a year, a wall has separated the two. Residents told IRIN that many locals from both sides fled ahead of Monday’s vote, fearing the bloodshed that inevitably came.

    A city divided

    Tuz Khurmatu’s residents – a mixture of Sunni Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shia Turkmen – lived in relative harmony for decades. But the emergence of the so-called Islamic State, which at one point held territory just two kilometres from Tuz Khurmatu, enhanced religious divisions.

    Fearing the threat of IS, the city’s Shia Turkmen affiliated with Iraq’s predominantly Shia Hashd al-Shaabi forces. Known in English as Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), these groups welcomed Iraqi volunteers of any faith or ethnicity willing to take on IS. The Kurdish and Arab Sunnis of Tuz Khurmatu, meanwhile, looked to the KRG’s peshmerga fighters for support. 

    Iraq’s battle against IS enabled the KRG to considerably expand its reach into disputed areas but local journalist Hunar Ahmed told IRIN that when PMU forces arrived in the area to fight IS, they also took control of territory nearby, adding: “Then they never left.”

    “There were no such problems here before but, after they destroyed Daesh (IS), the Hashd and the peshmerga started fighting each other,” he said.

    Growing violence led the local branch of Jalal Talibani’s Kurdish PUK party, which holds sway here, to authorise the construction of the wall a year ago, separating the town’s Shia Turkmen, who account for around 60 percent of the city’s population, from local Sunni Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen.

    Tuz Khurmatu 1

    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    On the Kurdish side of the Tuz Khurmatu wall, graffiti reads "yes to the referendum"

    Tuz Khurmatu 2

    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    The Turkmen side of the same wall is scarred with bullet holes

    Parts of the city had already been divided since 2010 by barriers erected to reduce attacks by al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, according to Tuz Khurmatu Governor Shalal Abdul, himself a Kurd.

    The governor told IRIN that the wall was extended last year as the city became fully segregated – even though elsewhere in Iraq, including just 30 kilometres outside Tuz Khurmatu, the PMU and the peshmerga share front lines and fight IS together.

    Abdul attributed the recent escalation in tensions to the referendum but said a change in local PMU leadership had also compromised a long-standing agreement between the two sides. “There is no trust but, despite this, we are working hard to calm things down now,” he said.

    “Tell them we will arrest any civilian carrying weapons,” he barked down the phone late Monday afternoon, issuing orders for the armed Kurdish civilians to stand down to prevent the day ending in a major gunfight.

    A bloody referendum day

    His clothes and hands smeared with blood, passenger Rami Abass told IRIN how the driver of the ill-fated minibus had stopped for tea from a temporary refreshment stall, erected as part Shia observances of the holy month of Muharram and in preparation for the religious pilgrimage of Arbaeen.

    “Our military bags were piled on top of the bus, and when the Hashd saw those they knew we were peshmerga and opened fire with machine guns,” he explained. 

    The birthday of the dead man, named as Wahaj Fuad, was Tuesday. He would have been 30. The peshmerga on the bus had been heading for their hometown of Khanaqin to cast their ballots when shots rang out, Abass said.

    Just an hour before the shooting, local Kurds had boasted to IRIN that a several-hundred strong force of armed Sunni locals had patrolled the sreets the night before the election. “The Shia did nothing because they are very scared of us,” one said proudly.

    After the shooting, it was the city’s Kurds who were looking nervous.

    TuZ Khurmatu 3

    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    Kurdish fighters gather outside a Tuz Khurmatu polling station after a peshmerga was shot dead

    “We’re making preparations because we are afraid the Iranian army will attack us,” one Kurdish civilian fighter told IRIN near a polling station, referring to the Iranian-backed PMU. He alleged that another peshmerga had been shot and critically injured by a sniper as he went to vote.

    As more armed civilians arrived on motorbikes or piled into the back of battered 4x4s, and unloaded mortar rounds in the street, an explosion shook the ground. 

    “A mortar,” the man said quietly. “The Hashd offensive against the peshmerga has begun.”

    Tense build-up

    Trouble had been brewing in Tuz Kharmatu long before referendum day.

    A week before the vote, as Kurdish anthems, songs, and speeches from a rally in support of the referendum echoed out across the city, IRIN crossed one of the walls and found local Turkmen fighters and peshmerga units in a tense and silent stand-off, holding rival positions just 200 metres from one another. 

    “Our orders are to be ready at all times to fight,” said peshmerga soldier Dolan. There hasn’t been a serious battle for half a year, “but we are always ready. As soon as we hear an explosion or a gunshot, we will start fighting.” 

    Less than 200 metres away, a large Shia flag was pinned to a wall, with another flying on top of a makeshift tower beneath which three young men kept a constant watch over the streets. Within one minute, armed Turkmen appeared on street corners, some wearing balaclavas.

    While the conflict here predates the independence referendum, Turkmen living in Kurdistan were the largest ethnic minority demographic to take a public stance against the vote. Eight Turkmen political parties made a joint announcement pledging allegiance to Baghdad and calling on all Turkmen in the region to boycott the ballot.

    Iran and leaders of the PMU also came out against the vote.

    Determined voters

    Voters, unperturbed by the fighting, still dribbled into the polling station in the city centre, past the growing group of men and guns, amongst whom a little girl wearing a dress made from Kurdish flags cycled cheerfully. 

    Volunteer Kharwan Khabat, responsible for welcoming voters and explaining procedure, told IRIN that more than half of the 4,000 registered at that spot had cast their ballots: “People haven’t been too afraid of violence to vote and, so far, things have been very good here.”

    While the armed men dispersed after receiving orders from the governor – who was frantically negotiating a temporary peace settlement -- voting stations closed their doors and started emptying the ballot boxes.

    “There are two ‘no’ votes here. Look!” said one of the election volunteers, holding up the two papers. “And I know exactly who cast those two votes.” Another ballot paper, where the voter had crossed both the yes and no boxes, would be declared void, she explained. 

    At a voting centre in the city’s predominantly Arab and Turkmen Sunni district where votes were being counted, lawyer and election observer Juma Hussein said 5,000 of the 6,500 people registered had voted. All those registered at that polling station, he said, were displaced from their villages by IS and have still been unable to return to their destroyed villages, which are now in PMU-controlled territory. Of those, 3,000 were Sunni Arabs and Turkmen, and 2,000 were Kurds.


    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    Local women cast their vote in one of Tuz Khurmatu's largest polling stations

    Across the KRG and other disputed territories, turnout was said to be as high as 72 percent.

    Some of these displaced Arabs live unhappily sandwiched between the city's indigenous (and occasionally warring) Sunni and Shia residents.

    “We have no problem with Kurdish people or Turkmen,” said 45 year-old Mariam desperately, gesturing towards the wall, under the shadow of which she has lived with her six children for three years. “We just don’t want any more bloodletting or war. We have had too much fighting and we hate war. We just want a balanced and peaceful life.” 

    If an independent Kurdish state is to emerge after the referendum, it is in ethnically mixed and politically divided areas like Tuz Khurmatu, with a history of sectarian conflict, where the future looks most uncertain.


    Related Articles

    Vote violence in flashpoint city signals long road to Iraqi Kurdistan
    Part of an in-depth IRIN series exploring the challenges facing Kurdish people throughout the Middle East as Iraqi Kurds vote on independence
  • The uncertain future of the Kurdish people

    As Iraq’s Kurds gear up to vote in a pivotal independence referendum, this IRIN in-depth series explores the Kurdish people - past, present, and future: What binds them together? What still separates them? What does the prospect of a nation state mean for ordinary people and what risks does this bubbling undercurrent of nationalism pose for the powder keg region? 

    Click on the title boxes below to read each story.

    A country called Kurdistan?

    Is independence around the corner for Iraq's Kurds?


    Martyn Aim/IRIN

    The Kurdish struggle in northern Syria

    As Iraqi Kurds prepare for a historic independence referendum, whither their Syrian brethren?

    YPG Syria Kurds cropped

    Andrea DiCenzo/IRIN

    What do Yazidis make of Kurdish independence?

    Next week's independence referendum has divided one of Iraqi Kurdistan's most persecuted groups

    Yazidis cropped

    Martyn Aim/IRIN

    Vote violence in flashpoint city signals long road for Iraqi Kurdistan

    Much of Iraqi Kurdistan may be rejoicing, but the divided city of Tuz Khurmatu still worries for its future

    Tuz Khurmatu wall cropped

    Tom Westcott/IRIN


    Iraqi Kurdistan has voted for independence. What now?

    The Iraqi Kurdish referendum won’t be ushering in independence just yet, but it has brought plenty of political upheaval


    Martyn Aim/IRIN


    Kirkuk loss fractures fragile Kurdish unity

    The battle (that wasn’t) for Kirkuk exposed the unpopularity of independence for non-Kurdish minority groups in the region

    Kirkuk cropped

    Tom Westcott/IRIN






    The uncertain future of the Kurdish people
  • What do Yazidis make of Kurdish independence?

    Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum hangs on tenterhooks, with Iraq’s prime minister promising military intervention should Monday’s vote lead to violence, the US, UK, and UN urging Kurdish leaders not to move forward, and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s parliament voting to do just that.

    With much of society apparently in two minds about the referendum, especially its timing, one group the authorities long believed they could count on for a “yes” vote was the Yazidis, a Kurdish minority singled out by so-called Islamic State for especially cruel treatment in a campaign the UN has deemed genocide.

    But Yazidis – displaced in different camps and mostly hailing from Sinjar, a contested area that could become a flashpoint for further conflict if the vote goes forward – are themselves divided on the independence question.

    “It’s the same for us if we vote or if we don’t vote,” Hassan, a Yazidi father of four living in a sprawling camp near the city of Dohuk, told IRIN. “Everyone treats us badly. Both the Arabs and the Kurds have treated us very badly. Both sides look out for their own interests and, meanwhile, nobody helps us.”  

    He gestured around the small tent he and his family have called home for two years: “There are 6,000 Yazidis living like this here, in just this one camp, but no one is interested in helping us to rebuild our homes and return home.”

    Backing for Iraq’s other armed force  

    Hassan said many Yazidis have thrown their support behind the predominantly Shia Hashd al-Shaabi forces, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Units, or PMU.

    Formed in 2014 of pre-existing militias and new volunteers with the express purpose of fighting IS and now officially under the authority of the Iraqi government, the PMU played a major role in liberating parts of Sinjar from IS, arming Yazidis who were willing to join. According to PMU spokesman Ahmed al-Asadi, 2,000 Yazidis have joined the force and are stationed in positions around Sinjar, mostly in areas still classed as military zones.

    “It’s good that [Yazidi] people are joining the Hashd,” Hassan said, while older family members nodded sagely in agreement. “They are [a] good option and a better one for us than the Kurds.”

    A key PMU leader has recently come out against the referendum. Iran, which supports the PMU with weapons, ammunition, and training, is also opposed to the vote. 

    But a few kilometres down the road from Hassan and his scepticism, at a makeshift garage and petrol station, Yazidi mechanic Yusef, selling fuel from barrels, was brimming with enthusiasm. “This referendum is good for the Kurdish people and good for the Yazidis,” he said, beaming. “The Kurds are supported by the US and together they support us. I’ll absolutely be voting yes.”

    History of persecution

    Most of Iraq’s Yazidis hail from Sinjar, in Nineveh province. More than 275,000 people – including tens of thousands of Yazidis – were driven from their homes there in August 2014 as IS swept through, terrorising the Yazidi population, who they characterise as pagans. 

    Innocent civilians were killed, abducted, and forced to convert under torture. Women were taken into sexual slavery, and many are believed to be still captive. Many fled IS slaughter to the top of Mount Sinjar, where some were dramatically rescued.

    Yazidis who remained on the mountain split. Some joined forces with a militia that has ties to Turkish- and Syrian-based Kurdish groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), while others are loyal to KRG President Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).


    Kurdish fighter has a cigarette as battle for Sinjar city rages below
    Tom Robinson/IRIN

    In March this year, fierce fighting broke out between the groups, sending yet more civilians into flight. The split in the fighters – many of the first group have since joined the PMU – suggests how divided the Yazidis are politically and raises questions about who might control the territory in the future.

    What becomes of the Yazidis matters even more for the future of Iraq as Sinjar – strategically located near the borders of Syria and Turkey – is one of the key disputed territories.

    Renad Mansour, an expert on Iraqi Kurds at Chatham House, told IRIN that Sinjar and other disputed territories – claimed by both Iraq and the KRG – are particularly important as the referendum is a “tactic to increase [the KRG’s] bargaining power in negotiations on post-IS [territorial] settlements.”

    With a variety of interested parties – including Turkey because of the PKK presence and the PMU – Sinjar will be hotly contested and potentially dangerous.

    In Sinjar and elsewhere, Mansour pointed out, “[Haider al-]Abadi will not want to be the [Iraqi] prime minister who lost territory to the Kurds.”

    Arab vote issues

    So far, very few Yazidis or Arabs from Sinjar have been able to return home. Those originally from the area, from both ethnicities, are theoretically eligible to vote in the referendum. Most Yazidi IDPs now live in camps in the KRG, where they should be able to vote. The more complex problem lies with Arab families originally from Sinjar, most of whom were forcibly relocated by IS and are now living in IDP camps outside Mosul, beyond Kurdish territorial borders.

    “Of course we will invite the original Arabs from Sinjar to vote, but some of them supported Daesh [IS] in the beginning and I don’t think they will be allowed,” Jutyar Mahmoud, a member of the KRG’s Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, told IRIN.

    Mahmoud did not explain how these decisions on excluding certain voters would be reached, but indicated it would be a challenging process to include displaced Arabs from Sinjar in the vote.

    “It’s a very complex situation because we can’t put ballot boxes outside Kurdistan,” he said. “So for these people to vote [from Mosul], they would either have to come back to Kurdistan or already be living in camps inside Kurdish territories.”

    Arabs from Sinjar living in west Mosul camps told IRIN it was very difficult for them to leave the camps. They said they believed they would be prohibited from attempting to return to their former homes, most of which they claimed had been demolished by peshmerga forces – something peshmerga commanders have denied.

    Even if they were eligible to vote and able to reach polling stations, Sinjar Arabs said they were not keen on the idea of an independent Kurdish state.

    “Kurdistan can’t be independent,” 38-year-old Ahmed, a displaced Arab originally from the Sinjar village of Rabia, told IRIN. “There can’t be two countries in Iraq and, right now, we need unity to help each other rebuild Iraq.”

    Hijacking the Yazidi cause?

    One Western humanitarian worker based in the KRG for several years said he felt the suffering of the Yazidis had been manipulated in support of the referendum. After attending a recent commemoration of the 2014 Yazidi massacres, he described it as having been “hijacked by pro-referendum propaganda”.

    The motto of the event was: “Yesterday was genocide, today is the referendum, and tomorrow will be an independent state”. It also included an elaborate dance performance that appeared to show peshmerga saving the Yazidis from IS.

    The attendee said that given the fact that the peshmerga are alleged to have actually withdrawn from Sinjar in the face of IS advances, “the performance was quite embarrassing to watch and the whole event seemed far more focused on referendum propaganda than on the Yazidi genocide it was supposed to be commemorating”.

    “The legacy of August 2014 is still in the memory of the Yazidis,” said Chatham House’s Mansour.

    He explained that various sides were using the issue – with pro-PKK forces claiming the peshmerga abandoned the Yazidis to IS as a tactical move, and the KDP finding loyal Yazidi allies, funding them, and effectively causing splits in the community.

    “You see this with various minorities [in the KRG],” Mansour said. “What happens is they become divided politically, and those who are not receiving funds [from the government or KDP] become overtly critical of those who are.”

    KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has emphasised that “the voice of Shingal (Kurdish for Sinjar) in this referendum is very important because it is the voice of the Anfal genocide and the voice of the pains of our people,” referring to Saddam Hussein’s anti-Kurdish campaign in the late 1980s that killed thousands of civillians, including Yazidis.
    “It will be a call for freedom from subjugation and slavery,” he said.

    Not all Yazidis agree with this sentiment.

    (TOP PHOTO: A Yazidi shrine in Niveneh Province, northern Iraq. Martyn Aim/IRIN)


    Related Articles

    What do Yazidis make of Kurdish independence?
    Part of an in-depth IRIN series exploring the challenges facing Kurdish people throughout the Middle East as Iraqi Kurds vote on independence
  • The Kurdish struggle in northern Syria

    While Iraq’s Kurds may vote to become independent in 10 days time, officials in the neighbouring Kurdish-run Democratic Federation of Northern Syria promise they have no intention to secede, even if they could.


    Change is nonetheless afoot. The expanding Kurdish enclave, controlled mainly by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has been operating for some time as an autonomous quasi-state in the middle of a country at war.


    The PYD is inspired by the writings of Abdullah “Apo” Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been fighting for greater autonomy and/or a Kurdish state in Turkey for almost four decades.

    Syria Kurds 5

    Andrea DiCenzo/IRIN
    Families and fighters gather in Kobani to honour Syrian Arabs and Kurds who died fighting IS


    The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the PYD’s multi-ethnic military umbrella organisation – which includes the mainly Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) – are moving deeper into Arab-majority areas of Syria, not to mention launching an assault on so-called Islamic State-controlled Raqqa with US support. 


    But Kurds in northern Syria are not only at odds with Turkey, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, and much of the Syrian opposition: They themselves are divided.


    The roots of division


    Northern Syria (known as “Rojava” by Kurdish nationalists) declared a federal system in 2016 in three cantons – Afrin and Kobani in northern Aleppo province, and Jazira in Hassakeh.


    Decision-making is largely in the hands of the PYD leadership, which enjoys a huge grassroots following. Many anti-PYD dissidents have been arrested or forced to leave the country – particularly members of the Kurdish National Council (ENKS), a collection of Kurdish political parties that oppose the PYD.


    “PYD is imprisoning politicians, burning offices of opposition parties, assaulting journalists, and preventing civil society organisations from working freely,” Şiyar Îsa, a political scientist working in the area, told IRIN.


    Parliamentarians have been appointed, not elected, while local elections were announced at such short notice that any serious contestation of PYD rule would have been impossible, especially given an ENKS boycott. A new round of elections for both local councils and seats in the highest law-making bodies are scheduled for the next few months.


    The enmity between the two rivals has deepened over time, partly because of PYD conflicts with ENKS’s main allies, namely the Syrian opposition, KRG President Masoud Barzani, and his Kurdistan Democratic Party.


    Brain drain

    Rather than striving for utopia in the economic sphere as PYD ideology dictates, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria has a struggle on its hand just to survive.


    The lack of jobs, as well as forced conscription into local self-defence forces, has prompted many Kurds to flee the country, particularly young men and those with a higher education.


    “Most of the young people, including myself, left Rojava for several reasons. One of these reasons was to avoid belonging to any military faction fighting on Syrian soil,” Xandî Cengo, a university graduate in his mid twenties from Qamishli near Syria’s northern border with Turkey, told IRIN.


    Cengo made his way to the KRG last year, but has since followed the refugee trail to Europe.


    Christians are also leaving en masse, in part because Muslims have been purchasing property from anyone leaving, turning previously all-Christian neighbourhoods into mixed ones.


    There has also been an influx of people from other parts of Syria, and even Iraq. While some have come by choice, the majority are rural poor displaced by conflict who add to the region’s economic burden.

    Syria Kurds 3

    Andrea DiCenzo/IRIN
    Syrians displaced from the fight against IS in Ain Issa camp, north of Raqqa

    The UN estimates that more than 301,000 people have left their homes in the province of Raqqa alone, with many fleeing to Kurdish-controlled areas. Some 8,000 people have taken shelter at Ain Issa Camp, some 40 kilometres north of Raqqa in SDF-controlled territory.


    Médecins Sans Frontières said earlier this week that in Ain Issa, “there are new arrivals every day”.


    While the UN and other humanitarian organisations are active in these areas, the PYD says it’s not enough.


    “Until now, the support we get from the side of the humanitarian organisations is very, very weak,” Sînam Mohamad, the PYD’s foreign representative for the federation, told IRIN. “We have thousands of people now in the camps and we are not able to give them what they need.”


    Economic isolation


    Before the war, northern Syria was a major producer of wheat and cotton, and a significant extractor of oil and gas. These industries are plodding on, but getting both spare parts for the oil industry and enough water for irrigation has become problematic.


    Finding routes to import goods, since north Syria produces very little, is a real challenge. The situation in the Afrin enclave is different, since some industries moved there from Aleppo city to escape fighting and looting.


    Turkey keeps its border completely shut, while the KRG border is more or less closed as well, with some exceptions. Compounding this, both IS and Syrian rebels have long blocked PYD-controlled areas, although land links to areas controlled by the government of Bashar al-Assad have been established fairly recently with his army’s advances in the Aleppo countryside.


    That said, northern Syria has never been hermetically sealed off from the rest of the country or its neighbours. Even before a proper land route existed, you could still find Afrin’s famous cold-pressed olive oil in the KRG capital of Erbil.


    But the prices of non-local goods traded between warring parts of the country have skyrocketed in northern Syria, at the same time as salaries shrink and jobs vanish.


    “When they buy something from our people, it will be at very low prices, and when they sell it in another place, the prices will be very high,” Mohamad explained. “They will be crossing a lot of checkpoints for different groups, and each group will get their taxes from them, until they reach the final destination.”


    The PYD now faces a dilemma: Although the federation relies on US military protection for its continued existence, this relationship could at the same time prevent the development of a stable trade link with the Syrian government and its allies.


    Relations with Iraqi Kurdistan


    A seemingly clear outlet for trade would be via the borders with Iraqi Kurdistan. But Barzani’s KDP and the PYD have differences that stretch back decades, fuelled by both power rivalry and ideological divergences.


    Iraqi Kurdistan has largely kept its border crossing with northern Syria at Semalka shut in past years. The PYD’s refusal to share power with ENKS is certainly one reason, but another is Barzani’s desire to remain on good terms with Turkey.

    See: A country called Kurdistan?

    “(The Turkish authorities) are doing their best to put pressure on Mr Masoud Barzani of the KDP, to make them close the border and create obstacles for us,” said Mohamad. “It has been going on for many years.”


    Weapons for the PYD did arrive directly from the KDP during a thaw in relations in 2014. And northern Syria has in the past exported crude oil to Iraqi Kurdistan – in turn importing refined oil products – but this trade appears, at least for now, to have been halted.


    It’s not unthinkable that the two parties might work together again. Currently, the KRG economy relies on exporting oil via Turkey, from where it in turn imports pretty much everything. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has spoken out strongly against the upcoming independence referendum. An end to the KRG-Turkey alliance, however unlikely, would be a game changer.


    The future of Raqqa


    Despite historically troubled relations and land disputes among all the communities residing in the area, the PYD has managed to prevent large-scale communal conflict in the federation: no minor achievement in the midst of a civil war.

    Federation officials rarely miss an opportunity to state that their project is not only for Kurds, but for all ethnicities, although human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have accused the PYD of forced displacement and home demolitions targeted at mostly Arab and Turkmen residents accused of supporting IS. While the targeting does not appear to have been ethnically motivated, collective punishment has sometimes been utilised.*

    “The system we are depending on, which is based on the co-existence of all the people living there, it is a very successful one,” insisted Mohamad.

    Syria Kurds 4

    Andrea DiCenzo/IRIN
    YPG fighters on the western front of the battle for Raqqa


    Until now, there have been enough local PYD supporters to establish and maintain control of Kurdish-majority areas, but as the territory under its control expands this may not always be the case – among the challenges the PYD will face is rebuilding cities, towns, and villages nearly demolished by war.


    So what is the plan for Raqqa after it is liberated? “Just the same as what happened in Manbij,” replied Mohamad, referring to another Arab-majority town liberated by the SDF a year ago. “Now, the civilian council of Manbij is administrating their city by themselves, without interference from anybody else,” she said. “Raqqa also will be the same.”


    One unexpected twist is that the PYD’s democratic ideals might stand a better chance of successful implementation in places where Kurds form a minority of the population.


    “Because of the sensitivity of those mixed areas, civilians have more room to participate in government,” Îsa believes.


    In Raqqa, which unlike Manbij is not needed for Kurdish territorial contiguity with Afrin, the real worry might not be the imposition of PYD rule, but rather the opposite: PYD disengagement.


    After the battles end (whenever that is), local political conflicts and a power vacuum could leave a real danger of fresh violence spiralling out of control.

    The case of Afrin


    The most vulnerable part of northern Syria is undoubtedly the Afrin enclave, located in the far northwestern corner of the country.


    Having survived most of the war without major fighting, the SDF then expanded from Afrin into IS- and rebel-held areas to the east in an attempt to link up with Kobani via Manbij. This bid was eventually thwarted by Turkey and allied Syrian rebels, who have recently stepped up attacks on the enclave – with frequent reports of cross-border shelling.


    In contrast to other parts of northern Syria, there’s no US military present in Afrin, and the enclave has instead relied on Russia for support.


    For a long time, federation officials pleaded with Russia to stop the Turkish attacks, and eventually Russian troops did move in to create a buffer zone. The immediate danger may have subsided, but Afrin remains one of the pieces that can be traded in the geopolitical chess game, and has little power to decide its own destiny in the longer term. The US has so far not been keen to get involved, and Afrin may at some point have to accept some level of Syrian government control – or lose its Russian protection.

    But Afrin is just one (albeit high-profile) part of the Kurdish, and Syrian puzzle. Whether, or for how long, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria can outlast the tumultous end to the Syrian conflict remains to be seen.


    *This paragraph has been edited to clarify that targeting does not appear to have been ethnically motivated.

    Related Articles

    The Kurdish struggle in northern Syria
    Part of an in-depth IRIN series exploring the challenges facing Kurdish people throughout the Middle East as Iraqi Kurds vote on independence
  • A country called Kurdistan?

    In northern Iraq’s main city of Erbil, the green, white, and red striped flag of Kurdistan, with its cheerful yellow sun emblem, is everywhere. It hangs on food stalls, homes, public and government buildings; it even hangs from taxi rear-view mirrors. But nearly a century after early Kurdish nationalists introduced the tricolor at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, it still belongs to no state.


    Kurdish leaders hope to change this on 25 September, when the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) puts independence to a vote in a referendum that could create the world’s 194th country (196 if you include Palestine and the Holy See).


    Although a ‘yes’ is the expected outcome of the referendum, with most Iraqi Kurds in favour of the idea of independence, if not the timing of the vote, it remains contentious. Iraq, the United States, Iran, and Turkey have all come out against the referendum, and it is not clear how much popular support the idea of holding the poll this month has amongst ordinary Kurds.


    For years following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan enjoyed a trade, business, and construction boom, but this is now a fading memory and disillusionment with local politicians has grown. Many may be ideologically pro-independence, but whether they trust a political elite accused of cronyism, nepotism, and corruption to carry out a fair vote or run a state is another matter entirely.


    But nationalism is still strong here. There are ties that bind: The Kurds speak the same languages and have a shared history and culture. There is also a feeling among some that given the vital role Kurdish fighters (peshmerga) have played in vanquishing so-called Islamic State, they’ve earned the right to a nation. 


    But will nationalism be enough to pull all this off?


    Statesman, skyscrapers, and shepherds


    Not so long ago, Erbil’s expansive horizon of modern malls, office buildings, and designer apartment blocks saw Iraqi Kurdistan proudly dubbed the new Dubai.


    Then came a shock fall in oil prices and deteriorating relations with Iraq’s central government. The budget went unpaid by Baghdad, leaving the KRG struggling to pay salaries, while business deals turned sour. Then came IS. Many international companies fled and construction projects were abandoned. 


    KRG officials hope to regain this golden decade of Iraqi Kurdistan via September’s referendum, and in the capital they are adamant independence is the only way forward. But what appears to be driving this as much as any growing desire for self-rule is the notion that proceeding as a unified Iraq is completely untenable.

    Sitting behind an enormous desk in Erbil, decorated with Kurdish memorabilia and awards, his uniform emblazoned with the Kurdish flag, Brigadier-General Halgwrd Hikmat, head of the peshmerga media ministry, told IRIN that Iraqi Kurds have given union a fair shot, without much in return. 


    “Before 2004, when Saddam was still in power, we had partial independence and little contact with Iraq. But after Saddam was finished, we decided to try to build a country [together] because Saddam was a dictator,” he said. “We’ve been working with the Baghdad government since then and, to be honest, we’ve got absolutely nothing.” 


    That nothing is political as well as financial: Hikmat complained that Kurdish votes in parliament have been ignored, and their proposals overlooked.


    “We’ve been together with Iraq for a long time, but it’s reached the point when we can’t be with them anymore. We can’t work with them anymore,” he said. “We only want to be neighbours with them now.” 


    This sense of finality may be relatively new – KRG President Masoud Barzani, who leads the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), only announced the referendum and its date in June – but the rumblings of discontent have long been felt among senior figures in Iraqi Kurdistan, even if the three-year battle against IS obscured some of the underlying differences.


    The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back seems to have been as much financial as political and top at the list of complaints from Kurdish officials is the central government’s failure to give Kurdistan its 17 percent share of the national budget for more than three years.


    Budget anomalies have not been helped by Iraqi Kurdistan selling oil sale independently, particularly through a pipeline to Turkey. Pocketing profits for the KRG instead of pouring them into the central government coffers only made Baghdad more intransigent about the budget. “The equation is simple: you take 17 percent of the wealth, you hand over the oil you have,” former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told France-24 in early 2014.


    Jutyar Mahmoud, a member of the region’s Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, told IRIN that the KRG has had to cut public workers’ salaries by 75 percent and that even the peshmerga – on the front lines of deadly battles including Mosul – have received almost no payments for two years. 


    “Iraq cut the money. They cut medicines being sent to the KRG. They cut everything and left us unable to pay peshmerga salaries at a time when we were fighting Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.


    “We tried everything to work with Baghdad and we didn’t get anything,” Mahmoud said. “Independence is a last resort, but Kurdish people believe that an independent state is the only guarantee for us, not just for financial stability but also our safety and security.”


    Times may be relatively tough in Erbil, but it is elsewhere that the financial hardship and insecurity are felt most keenly.

    Some three million people across the whole of Iraq have been displaced by the fight against IS, and far from the modernity of Erbil, rural poverty is the reality for many.


    On the road to Zakho, a main border crossing with Turkey, lorries hurtle dangerously fast down a battered road, while shepherds herd sheep home at dusk along its dusty edges. In Iraqi Kurdistan, modernity and tradition run, often uncomfortably, side by side. Opinions, too, are divided.


    Preparing pickles in a roadside shop just outside Dohuk, teacher Mohamed enthused that the referendum was exactly what the people in Iraqi Kurdistan wanted, needed, and deserved.


    But, at the opposite end of the country, outside the town of Choman, two young famers making evening tea on a makeshift fire beside the road had a different take.


    “We will be voting ‘no’ to the referendum. There is not the suitable basis for conducting a referendum now,” said 22-year-old Safir, pointing out that the KRG’s parliament hadn’t met in two years due to internal disputes.


    Safir also anticipated, in worried tones, that any salaries still paid by the central government in Baghdad would be cut completely if independence was declared. From his roadside perspective, the vote could make things much worse.


    Blame Sykes-Picot? 


    Beyond the recent financial complaints – and they are real – Kurdish people’s distrust of a unified Iraq has deeper roots.


    In his office near the Hawija front line against IS, softly-spoken peshmerga commander Kemal Kerkuki told IRIN late last year that his forces were purely fighting to protect Kurdish territories.


    “We are working for an independent Kurdistan not for Iraqi unity,” Kerkuri said, flanked by a large Kurdish flag and an IS drone shot down by his forces a few days earlier. “If I thought for a moment I was working for a unified Iraq, I would not stay here for one second.”


    “We don’t trust the Iraqis,” he continued. “In the last 30 years we have faced five genocides, including with chemical weapons. It is actually shameful for us to stay in this country.” 


    There’s no question the Kurds have suffered at the hands of the central Iraqi government, most infamously when Saddam’s forces released mustard gas and nerve agents on the town of Halabja in 1988, killing an estimated 5,000 people.


    This was not an isolated attack, but rather part of a longer campaign, known as Anfal (chemical), during the end of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, when Iraqi forces slaughtered tens of thousands of people in an attempt to quell the restive Kurds.


    But Kerkuki went even further back, to 1916, when Britain and France carved up the Middle East: “When they drew a map for this region with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, they ignored the Kurdish people and Kurdistan,” he said. “So, for 100 years we have been in difficulties.”

    For Kerkuki, the differences that make unity with Iraq unviable run deep.


    “Everything about the Kurds and the Iraqis is different – our history, our tradition, our culture, our people, our lifestyles, our faces, our genetics – everything,” he said. “We can be good neighbours and friends, but not brothers. When anyone claims we are brothers, it is a big lie.”


    Disputed territories, ineligible voters


    Central to concerns about the Kurdish referendum are the so-called disputed territories of northern Iraq, including parts (or all) of the provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala. Historical ownership is disputed and the populations ethnically mixed. Under Saddam’s rule, many of these areas were settled by Arabs as part of his wider Arabisation policies.


    For the most part, the different ethnicities have lived side by side, peacefully for decades. But since the recent offensives against IS, rights groups have documented post-liberation retribution by Kurdish fighters against predominantly Sunni Arabs they see as having supported the extremists, although the peshmerga’s Kerkuki was adamant that many of these reports are inaccurate. 


    The contested territories were outlined in the Iraqi constitution, ratified in 2005. At the time, a provision – Article 140 – was made that should have enabled residents to choose whether they wanted to remain under the control of Baghdad or the KRG. 2007 was set as a cut-off date for that referendum, but it never happened. Kurdish officials claim the central government has deliberately dragged its heels, repeatedly postponing the issue.


    Officials say any segments of these disputed territories currently under Kurdish control will be allowed to vote in the referendum, but this doesn’t mean everyone will have a say. The electoral commission’s Mahmoud explained that in the hotly contested oil-rich province of Kirkuk, for example, only Arabs originally from the area will be eligible to vote, excluding anyone who has moved there since the start of Saddam’s regime in the 1970s.


    Eligible voters displaced from their homes in the KRG or disputed territories will be able to vote via ballot boxes in camps. But Kurds living in parts of the disputed territories not currently under Kurdish control will not be able to vote at all. That’s simply a question of access, said Mahmoud: “Our borders are where the peshmerga are; so areas beyond that, including some IDP camps, will be impossible for us to access.”


    Potential Kurdish voters in such areas are understandably upset at being disenfranchised.


    Fear and discontent


    At one border post between the KRG and Iraq, near Makhmour, battle-weary peshmerga expressed concerns that the vote could bring more conflict – something they’ve seen more than enough of in recent years.


    “Maybe the new Kurdish state is going to be dangerous,” said one young soldier. “Maybe we’ll have a war with Iraq, and that’s not what we want. We don’t like war.”


    The commission’s Mahmoud conceded that if independence is declared, a war based around border disputes was a real danger. 


    The official peshmerga position – one that resonates with many at home and abroad – is that Iraqi Kurds have effectively won the right of independence through their fight alongside Iraqi forces and other allies against IS. It’s clearly what Hikmat, at the peshmerga media ministry in Erbil, believes. “A lot of people have died for this cause,” he told IRIN. “We have had a lot of martyrs over the years; so of course the peshmerga answer is, ‘we have to get independence’, because that is what we have been fighting for.”


    But one former peshmerga, a woman in her sixties, told IRIN she had made massive personal sacrifices for the Kurdish cause but been left poverty-stricken. “If they really wanted the public’s opinion, they could ask us. But they don’t care about our opinion. They’re telling us what to say,” she said.


    Hitch-hiking near Sulaymaniyah and carrying a bag of onions she had walked 40 kilometres to collect, she added cynically: “Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the benefits will not be for the people, they will be for the politicians.” 

    On the outskirts of Kirkuk, two farmers selling fresh fruit and vegetables from a roadside stall were worried about the possible economic tensions ahead.


    “The bulk of our fruit and vegetables go to Baghdad and we are terrified that, if they announce independence here, Iraq will close the borders and block the roads, and our future will be ruined,” said 47-year-old Hajarr. “If there was an agreement between the KRG and Baghdad about the referendum, it might be okay, but so far there is no such agreement in place.”


    Other businessmen told IRIN that Baghdad is so reliant on the KRG and Turkish imports – Iran is a major source too – that imposing border restrictions would be out of the question.


    “The central government in Baghdad is paying our famers for essentials like wheat and barley as well as some poultry and other foodstuffs,” said agricultural engineer Ibrahim Muayad Dawood, who works with a Russian trading company headquartered in Erbil. “Also, every product from Turkey or coming from other countries has to come through KRG’s land border. We are a land bridge between Turkey and Iraq.”


    Logistical nightmare


    The leading proponents of the referendum promise that independence will bring increased stability and economic gains. However, pulling the poll off will not only mean overcoming internal scepticism but also performing a major administrative coup.


    Six million Iraqi Kurds and long-term residents of Iraqi Kurdistan are expected to register, according to Mahmoud at the electoral commission. But an Iraqi ration card, along with Kurdish identification, is required to prove eligibility, and this has reportedly proved contentious as many in the diaspora no longer have these cards to hand.


    In addition to the question of how voting in disputed territories will work, several other anomalies were still being ironed out weeks before the vote. Iraqi Kurds living abroad will apparently be able to vote electronically. Returnees who were born abroad – many came back during the oil boom – will also be able to vote if they have the necessary documents. But Kurds living in Iraq will not be eligible to vote unless their ID documents are registered in the KRG, a regulation IRIN did not find to be widely understood.


    Of greater concern, while the majority of Kurds IRIN spoke to were at least aware that a vote was on the horizon, this was not uniformly true. Word did not appear to have reached the region’s northeastern border areas, where farmers move their families to fertile mountainous pastures every summer when the snows melt.

    “Referendum? What is it?” asked one shepherd, perplexed. When it was explained to him, he shook his head and said: “I don’t understand what this is. I don’t know anything about it,” ushering his flock of several hundred sheep towards a valley.


    Six weeks prior to the referendum, little effort appeared to have been made by the Kurdish authorities to reach these remote rural communities to explain the forthcoming vote. Mahmoud’s pledges of an upcoming education campaign would seem to be a case of too little too late.


    Wider Kurdistan?


    What’s largely being ignored is that the bid for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is really a watered-down version of the overarching Kurdish state once envisioned as including Kurds from Iran, Turkey, and Syria.


    Turkey’s opposition to the referendum is born out of its reluctance to encourage Kurdish nationalism within its own borders. A nearly 40-year conflict with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has left countless civilians dead -- the UN counted 2,000 killed in 18 months after a truce broke down in 2015. 


    In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) runs the self-declared Democratic Federation of North Syria, with a presence from the opposition Kurdish National Council (ENKS). 


    Separatist movements in these countries have split (and split again), and to some extent the Iraqi Kurds are going it alone – with the help of exiled Iranian Kurds who have sought refuge in the KRG for decades, many of whom are part of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) or an associated branch of the peshmerga.


    KDPI commander Aziz Seleghi isn’t eligible to vote but he is unequivocal in his support of the referendum, seeing it as part of the larger struggle for Kurdish nationalism.


    “We support the referendum and we are ready to take any risk to defend the referendum if Iraq or Iran attacks us,” he said. “It was the same with IS three years ago. When they came, we went straight to the borders to protect Iraqi Kurdistan.”


    Seleghi said the vote would send a clear message to the world that Kurdish people want independence and are determined to get it. 


    But another KDPI commander told IRIN that the KRG was widely viewed across the larger Kurdish region as betraying the Kurdish cause, particularly for brokering deals with Iran and Turkey, two countries accused of persecuting their minority Kurdish populations.


    “We don’t like this capitalism in the KRG,” said a young KDPI soldier. “Many Kurds support this referendum, but the truth is that... [some senior political figures have] basically sold out Kurdistan. Independence like this is not what we wanted – it’s not what we have been have been fighting for and it is not good for all the Kurds.”


    At a makeshift dining table in the orchard, where KDPI soldiers hung their weapons on olive trees while they ate meals, another soldier wrote out a poem in Persian on the plastic tablecloth. It read:


    I live as a Kurd,

    I die as a Kurd.

    When they come for me,

    I will answer in the Kurdish tongue.

    In the next life, I will live as a Kurd,

    And there I will make another revolution.


    Whatever the outcome of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan in two short weeks’ time, the wider Kurdish struggle will be far from over.






    Photos by Martyn Aim and Tom Westcott

    Related Articles

    Weeks ahead of an independence referendum for Kurds in Iraq, IRIN finds the would-be nation divided and cynical
    A country called Kurdistan?
    Part of an in-depth IRIN series exploring the challenges facing Kurdish people throughout the Middle East as Iraqi Kurds vote on independence
  • Crackdown: Prison conditions worsen in post-coup Turkey

    Turkey has been packing its jails with political offenders since a failed coup nearly 14 months ago, and prisoners’ families, lawyers, and activists have told IRIN of an increase in overcrowding, poor medical care, solitary confinement, and mistreatment.

    Some 50,000 people have been jailed for suspected ties to the attempted takeover last July, including elected officials, academics, human rights workers, and journalists.

    In total, monitors estimate that at least 220,000 people are currently imprisoned in Turkey and have documented deteriorating prison conditions that are corroborated by accounts given to IRIN.

    Groups like Amnesty International say conditions are unlikely to improve in the near future, as alleged violations continue to pile up without state oversight or verifiable repercussions.

    “It’s clear there’s a systematic attempt to silence dissent and this has gone a long way in creating a climate of fear within civil society, but it’s also clear this process hasn’t been completed,” Andrew Gardner, a Turkey-based researcher for Amnesty International, an organisation with two senior officials currently in detention, told IRIN.

    “All signals are showing that problems are continuing and deepening.”

    The Turkish government accuses a movement tied to US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen of orchestrating the failed coup, and defends the scale of arrests as necessary to maintain order in the country.

    Protesters in overcrowded prisons

    To make space for the growing number of political prisoners, state officials released more than 38,000 non-political criminals last August, including some guilty of violent offenses, even murder.

    Some of those convicted of crimes against the state have no direct links to the coup attempt, but were jailed instead for protesting or expressing criticism of the increasingly authoritarian governing style of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


    A prison vehicle used to transfer inmates outside Sincan Prison, outside Ankara.

    Sevgul*, a young mother convicted of spreading terrorist propaganda after taking part in a protest, was given a multi-year sentence even though her six-month-old was still breastfeeding. As Turkish law allows children as old as six to stay with their mothers in prison, she opted to serve her sentence with her child in tow.

    Sent to a prison in the eastern province on Elazig, Sevgul found herself and her infant crammed with 23 other women into a cell built for eight.

    The crackdown on alleged opponents of the state has given rise to hunger strikes by inmates across the country as penal institutions have become increasingly overcrowded.

    Sevgul has struggled to care for her newborn, who cries through the nights and has developed a skin infection, according to Sevgul’s sister Ayten*.

    Since the conviction, Ayten has taken Sevgul’s husband and older daughter into her apartment. Ayten visits her sister regularly and, in an interview with IRIN, described her sister’s difficulties in procuring baby food and supplies while in jail, as well as the wider human rights abuses that have become commonplace in Turkey’s post-coup prison system.

    Ayten said Sevgul has been beaten at least once, when guards dragged her down a stairway by the hair for refusing orders to give a military salute.

    The impacts of Sevgul’s detention have been felt through the entire family.

    “Her older daughter cries sometimes when we are home and asks for her mother,” Ayten said. “She’s old enough to know what is going on now. I can see that she is as imprisoned as her mother and her little sister.”

    Officials from Turkey’s Ministry of Justice and the General Directorate of Prisons and Detention Houses did not respond to requests for comment before the publication of this article.

    Abdulhamit Gul, Turkey's new justice minister, admitted the existence of overcrowding in Turkish prisons in a recent interview with TRT, the Turkish state television news channel.

    "There are more prisoners and convicts than there is capacity to accommodate in our prisons." Gul said. "The prisons are approximately 110 percent full."

    To reduce the burden, Gul is considering some partial pardons for additional criminals that would allow them to be transferred to lower-security "open" prisons. He also said the state is building new prisons to expand capacity.

    Pre-trial detention, violence inside

    Political prisoners’ woes begin far before conviction: Among recorded violations of international human rights declarations, to which Turkey is a signatory, is the use of lengthy pre-trial detention periods.

    Ibrahim Bilmez, a lawyer representing political prisoners in Turkey, including Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), told IRIN that political prisoners are subjected to frequent strip searches both before and after conviction, as well as restrictions on family visits. Meetings with lawyers are recorded by video cameras or conducted in the presence of security personnel, inhibiting the right to a proper defense.

    “Everything now is arbitrary. Everything is now limited in prisons,” Bilmez told IRIN in a phone interview. “Normally, arrests are only done when they’re needed, but now they arrest first and ask questions later… We see people go to jail for crimes like propaganda and insulting the president in higher frequency than ever before.”

    Allegations of torture and mistreatment in prisons have also increased over the last year. Prisoners have reported being held in stress positions over prolonged periods, while also being subjected to sleep deprivation, beatings, sexual abuse, and threats of rape. Bilmez said his clients told him of beatings inside their prisons following the coup attempt.

    “[They] heard moaning, screaming, and groaning until the morning,” the lawyer told IRIN. “From the screams, they understood the torture was bad, but we don’t know the details of what happened.”

    Political prisoners are also regularly denied access to doctors and medical examinations, which rights groups have claimed is a deliberate effort to stop the verification of torture allegations.

    Banu Guveren, a lawyer who represents political prisoners, told IRIN that one of her female clients complained of abdominal pain following a beating. In response, the prison administration scheduled her a doctor’s appointment for two months later. The client lost consciousness within days and was rushed to the hospital, where she was found to be suffering from internal bleeding. She did eventually recover.

    ‘Exile’ and solitary confinement

    A range of interviews conducted by IRIN revealed that inmates were regularly disciplined through physical violence but that the most frequent use of force occurs during transfers between prisons.

    This was the case for Mizgin Dag, a 23-year-old university student convicted of making terrorist propaganda for participating in protests and selling political magazines. Her sister, Zelal, told IRIN that Mizgin was assaulted while being transferred from her hometown of Adiyaman in southeastern Turkey to Tarsus prison in Mersin, on the country’s southern coast.

    “I saw her 20 days after she was beaten and she still had bruises on her arms and face,” Zelal said. “It was obvious they used more than just their hands.”

    Upon arriving in Tarsus prison, Mizgin was not given water for three days and was denied access to a doctor for two weeks, according to Zelal.

    Ozturk Turkdogan, chairman of the Human Rights Association in Turkey, explained how political prisoners are often transferred to jails far from both their families and court hearings.

    The distance between inmates and their hometowns not only makes it more difficult for family members to visit, but can also be used to force inmates to attend trials through SEGBIS, the audio/video communication interface similar to Skype that is used by the Turkish government.

    Turkdogan believes this infringes defendants’ rights.

    “The transfers, which we call ‘sending people into exile’, dehumanise defendants by barring them from attending hearings in person,” he told IRIN in a phone interview. “The use of SEGBIS strips them of the ability to interact with people in the court.”


    Families wait to visit inmates in Sincan Prison.

    In addition to prison conditions and rights violations, inmates in Turkey must also pay for water and gas usage while incarcerated. Extra food, books, phone calls, trips to the hospital, and bathroom supplies are all added to inmates’ prison bills. As a result, some women with minimal financial resources cannot afford basic hygienic items such as sanitary pads (which they are not provided), Guveren said.

    Lawyers who spoke with IRIN were especially concerned about the frequent use of solitary confinement. They said guards discipline inmates by locking them in süngerli odalar or “sponge rooms”, cells named for the yellow foam mattresses that pad their interiors.

    Guveren said one of her clients was locked in such a room for 30 days. The client told her his mattress was soaked with water when he first entered and he was barred from all human contact during this period.

    Emek Abay, whose husband Umut is currently in Tekirdag prison, told IRIN she’s heard of prisoners being kept in “sponge rooms” as an additional form of discipline after being beaten by guards.

    During her visits to Tekirdag, her husband rarely shares details of events occurring in the prison, but their lawyers have informed her of systematic physical and sexual abuse in the detention centre.

    Lack of oversight

    State-run commissions responsible for monitoring prison conditions have either been dissolved following the coup attempt or remain largely ineffective. The result, Guveren said, is that prison guards and administrations operate largely without oversight.

    In addition, an emergency decree passed last year shields state officials from almost any penalisation for acts of violence or abuse perpetrated on prisoners linked to last year’s coup attempt by stating: “Individuals who make decisions and perform their duty in the context of this decree bear no legal, administrative, financial, or criminal responsibility for those duties performed.”

    Reports of torture had been steadily declining in Turkey, following years of military dictatorship in the 1980s and heavy conflicts with Kurdish militants in the 1990s. Allegations of abuse during police custody began to rise again in 2015, when military operations resumed in southeast Turkey and have since spiked with the post-coup crackdown.

    The Human Rights Association’s Turkdogan blames the regression not only on Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), but also on what he claims to be continued silence from the international community and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which has jurisdiction over Turkey because it is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.

    “What’s happening in Turkey and its prisons is the result of negligence by the Council of Europe and the ECHR,” Turkdogan told IRIN.

    The ECHR has said Turkish nationals filed more than 5,000 cases in 2016 related to the post-coup purges.

    When asked for a response to such accusations, a press officer with ECHR said the court was “not in a position to make any comment” on the matter aside from what has already been published in its press releases.

    Meanwhile, a state of emergency continues in Turkey, and new arrests are announced weekly. Rights groups say the credibility of an impartial justice system has also been undermined with the April referendum, which will allow Erdogan to appoint a larger portion of judges and high ranking officials in the Justice Ministry.

    Regarding the ongoing purges, some believe the use of heavy-handed punishments are part of Erdogan’s presidential campaign strategy for 2019, while others, like Guveren, have come to accept the crackdown on dissent as the new foundation of Turkey’s judicial system.

    “Sadly, and I say this as a lawyer, we do not expect any justice from this country,” Guveren told IRIN. “We will continue to fight, but we also have to face the facts.”

    *The source was given an alias to protect his/her identity.

    (TOP PHOTO: A watchtower overlooking the Sincan Prison complex outside the Turkish capital of Ankara.)


    Crackdown: Prison conditions worsen in post-coup Turkey
    50,000 now jailed for suspected ties to attempted coup
    Overcrowding, mistreatment rife
    An estimated 220,000 held in total in Turkish prisons
    Lawyers say solitary confinement used as form of discipline
    Political prisoners regularly denied medical check-ups
    Little accountability and EU court accused of ‘negligence’
  • New order on the border: Can foreign aid get past Syria’s jihadis?

    Radical jihadis have cemented their dominance over northwestern Syria with the victory last month of Tahrir al-Sham over its main rival, the Turkish-backed Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham. But the two million civilians in the region may pay the price for that win as aid agencies rethink their strategies.

    International donors and aid professionals in Turkey have long been worried by jihadi influence on the Syrian side of the border, where Islamist factions have been running rival governance projects and tried to influence aid distribution. Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham both operated civilian bodies that organised road repairs, electricity, food distribution, and other services.

    In March, internal conflicts saw Tahrir al-Sham clamp down on an Ahrar-aligned group channelling aid from Turkey. Soon after, Tahrir al-Sham tried to extend its influence over Idlib’s financial infrastructure and money transfer offices, which handle salary payments from donors abroad, as noted in a recent report by the American Syria expert Sam Heller.

    The fact that Tahrir al-Sham is widely listed internationally as a terrorist entity and Ahrar is not now has major repercussions. A terrorist-designated group trying to control aid distribution and salary payments in Syria is unacceptable to the international aid community. “We’re all bound by sanctions lists,” an official with a Western donor government told Heller. “We can’t work with organisations linked to a listed entity.”

    After Tahrir al-Sham’s defeat of Ahrar on 21 July, its military hegemony quickly rolled over into civilian sectors, with Tahrir-run service bodies knocking their Ahrar-backed counterparts out of business. For example, Ahrar’s organisation for electricity provision in Idlib was folded into a similar group created by Tahrir on 29 July.

    “If you work in an area controlled by a terrorist-listed group, you will be branded suspicious.”

    Most importantly, the jihadis seized Bab al-Hawa, the main border crossing between Turkey and Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province, which has been in opposition hands since mid-2012.

    While Ahrar’s control over Bab al-Hawa was not unproblematic, having a terrorist-designated group like Tahrir in control of this logistical bottleneck is a potential deal-breaker for international donors. Turkey, too, considers Tahrir al-Sham a terrorist group and has limited traffic through the crossing.

    For now, the jihadis seem willing to rule with a light touch by Syrian standards, leaving local aid and governance arrangements in place to avoid a clash with Western nations, humanitarians, and the UN system. But there is no longer any question who is ultimately in charge — in Idlib, as elsewhere, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

    Sustaining a democratic opposition or subsidising a jihadi emirate?

    Right now, foreign donors are taking stock of the situation, trying to figure out how to bypass Tahrir’s political and military dominance and whether doing so is really worth the effort.

    Emergency humanitarian assistance such as food or medicine will likely continue to flow through Bab al-Hawa, unless the jihadis make a self-destructive move. “There are some relatively clear tripwires that will panic donors and get humanitarian aid cut off, but so far Tahrir al-Sham seems to have been smart enough to avoid triggering them,” Heller told IRIN. “If Tahrir al-Sham starts openly, systematically interfering in relief distribution, donors are going to cut off support.”

    Political stabilisation assistance outside the UN framework, which has been delivered by Western and Arab nations to select opposition structures, is at greater risk of being cut.

    In Idlib, the UK has led the way on this type of support, though many other nations have contributed too. The centrepiece of this effort has been to fund and empower Idlib’s local councils, which provide villages and towns with some semblance of political representation while also functioning as service implementers and aid distributers: handing out subsidised food and fuel, paying municipal salaries, fixing potholes and collecting garbage, coordinating aid groups, running clinics and schools, and so on.

    Donors have also put money into high-visibility, opposition-branded civil society and media activism as well as emergency services like the Free Syria Police and Syria Civil Defence, better known as the White Helmets. Most of these efforts are carried out in deliberately visible collaboration with Western-friendly, anti-jihadi actors such as the Turkey-based National Coalition and its governance body, the Syrian Interim Government, in order to cultivate a constituency for them in opposition-held Syria.

    The results have been mixed at best, with some support also benefiting jihadi groups. Nevertheless, political aid from the UK and other nations has helped pro-Western and democratic strands of the opposition survive inside otherwise inhospitable Islamist-run regions of northwestern Syria.

    However, if Idlib’s foreign-backed activist groups and local councils cannot throw off the jihadi yoke, and if they also have no plausible future under the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the original logic behind supporting them is no longer there. Continued support will then come to be seen as a strategic dead end or, worse, as a subsidy for Idlib’s jihadi rulers.

    It may take some time for the situation to shake out completely, but it is highly unlikely that a Tahrir al-Sham-dominated Idlib will receive Western-funded stabilisation and governance aid indefinitely. Neither Americans nor Europeans are interested in bankrolling the civil service of a jihadi emirate, and that is increasingly what Idlib looks like to them.

    “Idlib Province is the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11,” said Brett McGurk, who heads US efforts against the so-called Islamic State, at a Middle East Institute panel last month.

    As a result, northwestern Syria is abuzz with rumours about impending aid cuts. For Syrians who live there, or whose families do, it is a deeply unnerving thought.

    “The northern region is directly dependent on foreign aid since it is more or less encircled,” an activist involved with Idlib opposition and aid operations told IRIN. “If you were to stop that aid you would expose the people to an incredible amount of brutality and horror, especially the already-exposed medical care and infrastructure.”

    Private donors fear jihadis, and being seen as jihadis

    The activist was more hopeful about the prospect for support from non-state donors. “Privately-funded aid won’t cease to work,” he told IRIN. “It is implemented by local actors on the ground who act and work in spite of the circumstances.”

    In many cases, that is probably true, but private aid groups are worried too. Even some Islamist aid groups seem deeply concerned by Tahrir al-Sham’s growing dominance, either because they fear being shut down by the jihadis or because they’re afraid that Tahrir’s terrorist designation will rub off on them.

    “Of course, it is very hard having them there,” said Karim Ben Daher, a member of the Sweden-based Islamic Charity Center, which funds a privately run hospital in Idlib Province. “Before, the other groups in that area, like the Islam Army or Ahrar al-Sham, provided a kind of security,” he told IRIN in a recent interview. “You could have them as protection when you were there. But now we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

    The hospital backed by Ben Daher’s group is located in Aqrabat, near the Turkish border. “It’s in this little village that has its own local council and the armed groups never ran things there,” Ben Daher said. “But it is close to Saraqeb and Sarmada, where they were fighting recently. It is also close to the Bab al-Hawa crossing, which was previously controlled by Ahrar al-Sham. Now I guess it is controlled by Tahrir al-Sham, even though it is a little unclear at this point.”

    See our in-depth series on the intersection between Islamic law, jihadists and humanitarian norms

    Islamic law and the rules of war 

    Jihadi jurisprudence? Militant interpretations of Islamic rules of war

    Can Islamic law be an answer for humanitarians? 

    Rough guide to Islamic law

    Ironically, although Ben Daher opposes the jihadi militants on both religious and political grounds, he fears that Western governments will lump him in with Tahrir al-Sham. “If you work in an area controlled by a terrorist-listed group, you will be branded suspicious,” he told IRIN. “We can try to wave this problem away as much as we like, but that’s unfortunately how things are.”

    How will Tahrir al-Sham manage Bab al-Hawa?

    The Bab al-Hawa crossing was shut down during the intra-rebel violence on 19 July, causing an immediate spike in prices in Idlib. After reopening on 25 July, Bab al-Hawa is nominally run by a group of neutral civilians, but the current administration is widely understood to serve Tahrir al-Sham, just as it previously obeyed Ahrar al-Sham.

    Who controls the crossing matters – a lot. Transports through Bab al-Hawa accounted for two thirds of all international cross-border aid from Turkey in 2016, according to Linda Tom, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for the UN emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. In an email to IRIN, Tom described the crossing as “extremely important”, explaining that millions of civilians have received humanitarian assistance through Bab al-Hawa in the past year alone, making it a “lifeline for civilians in northwestern Syria”.

    Until ousted from the crossing in July, Ahrar al-Sham derived both money and influence from Bab al-Hawa, where it was able to regulate the civilian trade – the Bab al-Hawa administrators even sought to weed out purportedly counter-revolutionary and un-Islamic literature. But although Ahrar al-Sham had excellent relations with Turkey and isn’t internationally sanctioned, there were limits to how much the group could interfere with traffic without provoking a backlash.

    In particular, the Ahrar al-Sham leaders are said to have been careful about causing problems for humanitarian transports, and they generally appear to have respected the red lines drawn by foreign donors. But the group reportedly siphoned off millions of dollars from commercial traffic and high-value goods like construction material.

    Tahrir al-Sham had surely hoped to maintain arrangements established by Ahrar after seizing Bab al-Hawa, but the jihadis’ hostile relationship to Turkey and the outside world makes that difficult. On 30 July, the group issued a statement pleading for aid to continue, saying it will facilitate humanitarian work and uphold a “principle of neutrality and independence”. Aid groups say they have so far not been forced to pay for passage into Idlib.

    Neither Americans nor Europeans are interested in bankrolling the civil service of a jihadi emirate, and that is increasingly what Idlib looks like to them.

    “It seems they're aware of the terms of this debate,” Heller told IRIN. “They understand humanitarian principles of neutrality and independence enough to voice their commitment to them, although who knows, they might end up violating them anyway.”

    Heller noted that despite Tahrir al-Sham’s extreme politics, the group is far from the worst offender when it comes to aid theft and exploitation in Syria. “In some respects they've been better than other armed factions – they've provided security in their areas, instead of anarchic predation. Hopefully, they keep that up.”

    The question is whether they can afford it. If Tahrir al-Sham wants to hold the Syrian army at bay while also administering a functioning regime in Idlib, it will need money. And if the jihadi takeover persuades anti-Assad governments to stop sending stabilisation funding, paying local council salaries, and feeding ammunition into the insurgency through Free Syrian Army factions, then the group will need even more money to develop and defend the area.

    Tahrir al-Sham already gets under-the-table support from private Islamist donors in the Gulf and it has made money from kidnappings and other illicit activity, and by taxing some economic activity inside Syria. But it doesn’t seem to have the sort of financial base that could sustain the entirety of insurgency and administration in Idlib if Western, Turkish, and Arab support is scaled down. Should Idlib’s front lines or internal stability begin to buckle, the jihadis may be forced to throw caution to the wind and really sink their teeth into the civilian aid sector and the traffic through Bab al-Hawa.

    But would even that raise enough funds? Siphoning resources from Bab al-Hawa is unlikely to be as profitable as it was for Ahrar al-Sham. In what seems like a deliberate strike at Tahrir’s economic base, Turkey just banned the crossing from bringing in taxable high-value construction materials like cement and steel.

    And although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says “food, medicine, and clothes” will be allowed in under Turkey’s tightened regulations, that could change. If Tahrir al-Sham tries to finance its military-political project by confiscating aid, subjugating foreign-backed local councils, or diverting salaries and cash flows, the jihadis risk sawing off the branch they’re sitting on – not to mention triggering a humanitarian disaster for the two million civilians in need.


    New order on the border: Can foreign aid get past Syria’s jihadis?
  • Turkey expels Syrians working for Danish NGO

    Turkey has expelled four Syrians working for a Danish aid agency, a new move in a crackdown on international NGOs, IRIN can now report. Their destination: Khartoum, Sudan, 3,000 kilometres away. No aid agency has previously confirmed deportations of Syrian staff from Turkey. The destination of Sudan was chosen to avoid a dangerous return to Syria, the NGO told IRIN.


    In a statement, DanChurchAid (DCA) said the staffers’ lives “would have been in imminent danger” had they been deported to Syria. The staff, one woman and three men, had been detained for two months. The DCA operation was shut down by Turkish authorities after failing to get formal registration. It’s one of several NGOs using Turkey as a base for operations in Syria that have also been closed and their staff laid off.


    The Danish NGO reported that “the four Syrians were released on the condition that they leave Turkey”. Another five DCA non-Syrian staff had already been expelled to their home countries, while another Syrian was able to travel to Germany on an existing visa.


    Lisa Henry, humanitarian director of DCA, told IRIN the Sudan option was not Turkey’s decision. It emerged from a limited range of choices, she said, but added: “anything is better than detention or being sent back to Syria.”


    Henry said DCA was fulfilling its duty of care as an employer with the provision of legal representation on behalf of the staff, payment of salaries until the end of June, and offers of counselling if requested. The NGO would be open to re-employing the staff in other countries, Henry said. However, DanChurchAid does not have an office in Sudan.

    See also: Turkey steps up crackdown on humanitarian aid groups

    Safe haven?


    Sudan may seem an unlikely safe haven. Its own internal conflicts have created some four million displaced people, and the regime is accused of widespread human rights violations and led by President Omar al-Bashir, a man wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.


    Nevertheless, according to the Khartoum authorities, by October 2016 at least 100,000 Syrians were living in Sudan. Key to its popularity: Sudan is almost unique in not requiring a visa for Syrian nationals. As previously reported by IRIN, most Syrians in Sudan are not treated as refugees and can generally study and work legally.


    Turkey hosts up to three million Syrian refugees, more than any other country. For much of the war, it kept its borders open to Syrians fleeing the conflict. It has provided protection to Syrians, and spent billions of dollars on their support. But it has also expelled some Syrians – according to Amnesty International, at a rate of 100 per day. However, until now, no expulsions of Syrian aid workers had been publicly reported and was rare. An official with US-based Mercy Corps, for example, one of the largest NGOs to be shut down, told IRIN none of its staff had been expelled.


    The deportation of these four Syrian aid workers sets  a “dangerous precedent” for other Syrians, according to a humanitarian analyst familiar with the issues. Turkey has expelled non-Syrian aid workers before, but as they could return safely to their home countries, while unfortunate, it wasn't “such a big deal”, the analyst said.


    Following the rules


    While DCA had made efforts to comply with Turkey’s regulatory regime, the organisation, like others, effectively operated in a “grey space”, the analyst said. Several international NGOs have been caught up in this year’s crackdown, and hundreds of Syrian staff have been laid off.


    Berk Baran, deputy permanent representative at the Turkish mission to the UN in Geneva, had earlier blamed the expulsions on NGOs not following the proper procedures. “If the channels are open and you are being told what you have to do, then it is very simple,” Baran said. “A government expects you to abide by its regulations.”


    DanChurchAid's programmes in Syria include supporting livestock owners

    DCA’s Henry said it had been “extremely frustrating” trying to get legally registered in Turkey – “we want to follow the rules” – and then to deal with the arrest of staff, the sealing of its office in Gaziantep, and the subsequent legal tussle.


    The $5 million DCA humanitarian operation in Syria, which includes education programmes about the risk of landmines and other unexploded weaponry as well as cash distributions to address immediate needs, will continue, Henry said, but managed from elsewhere.



    Turkey expels Syrians working for Danish NGO
  • Turkey-Kurd feud distracts from Islamic State fight in Syria

    A flare-up of Turkish-Kurdish violence in northern Syria threatens to undercut the US-backed campaign by Kurdish fighters against the so-called Islamic State in Raqqa, the extremist group’s main stronghold in the country.

    Since Turkish air strikes and shelling killed dozens of Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq on 25 April, clashes have been ongoing along Syria’s northern border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now says he may order “at any time” and without warning an intervention against Kurdish groups in Syria he considers terrorists.

    Referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition and its main constituent, the People’s Defense Units (Kurdish acronym: YPG), a new report from the International Crisis Group warns: “more extensive Turkish military action could seriously hamper a US-backed SDF offensive on Raqqa city by forcing the YPG to divert resources toward its own defence”.

    The United States has called the air strikes “unacceptable” and deployed special forces to the border region, but the violence has yet to stop.

    The beginnings of intervention?

    The 25 April air strikes targeted groups affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria and Iraq, killing a large number of fighters in both countries. The YPG has released details on what it said were the 20 dead in its own ranks, half of whom were female cadres from its women’s branch, the YPJ.

    “This was a strategic attack, since Erdogan hopes for us to abort the Raqqa operation,” SDF spokesman Jesper Söder told IRIN. “We have repeatedly tried to explain to the [US-led anti-jihadi] coalition that Turkey must be restrained,” said Söder, a Swedish volunteer with the YPG and SDF who is based in northeast Syria. “We have said that we will abort operation Raqqa if Turkey enters Rojava [the Kurdish name for Syrian Kurdistan] with an invasion force or if they are allowed to keep bombing our cities and headquarters.”

    But since last week’s initial attacks, the Syrian border region has seen escalating violence and continued bombardment. The Turkish military announced that it had responded to YPG rocket attacks on 28 April, killing 11 fighters, while the YPG claims to have killed 17 Turkish soldiers the day before in northern Syria’s Afrin. “After this, no attack of the Turkish state will be left unanswered and strong responses will be given against attacks,” the Kurdish group said in a statement released on 28 April.

    Turkey trapped

    American calls to stop the violence appear to have fallen on deaf ears. At the root of the disconnect lies Washington’s and Ankara’s irreconcilable views of what the YPG is and how it should be treated.

    The YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), are Syrian offshoots of the PKK, whose brutal, decades-long insurgency has been fuelled by the harsh anti-Kurdish policies of successive Turkish governments.

    Turkey considers the growing influence of YPG and PYD forces within the SDF in northern Syria a major national security threat, but the US refuses to acknowledge ties between the PKK, which it calls a terrorist organisation, and the YPG, its primary ally against the jihadis in Syria. "SDF confirms that it has no affiliation or ties to PKK," US Central Command said on Twitter in January.

    In Turkish eyes, the US position adds insult to injury. “The PYD was formed upon the directives of [PKK founder and leader Abdullah] Öcalan,” Bünyamin Keskin, who recently published a report on the group for the SETA Foundation, a think tank close to the Turkish government, told IRIN.

    “This is not a secret and can be observed in several writings of Öcalan himself,” he added. “With its PKK nature, the PYD/YPG can neither be a partner for Turkey, nor a neighbour or an actor controlling neighbouring regions at the border.

    Last August, Erdogan ordered his troops and Turkish-backed Syrian Arab and Turkmen fighters into northern Syria. While the intervention did secure a foothold for Turkey in northern Syria and prevented the YPG from connecting its territory to the isolated western Kurdish enclave in Afrin, Erdogan soon found that it did not provide him with the leverage he had hoped for.

    Russian and US troops embedded with the Syrian government and the SDF/YPG, respectively, blocked any further expansion. On 30 March, Turkey declared that the intervention was over, though troops would remain in the areas it captured.

    Since then, two developments seem to have been driving Turkey toward radical action, and they focus on familiar names: Sinjar and Raqqa.

    In Iraq, Turkey’s interest is focused on the Sinjar area, which is at the center of an intra-Kurdish struggle for influence between local PKK affiliates and the Ankara-friendly forces of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. Kurdish rivalry in this part of Iraq has its own dynamics, but Turkey is anxious to help the KDP oust its local rivals.

    Sinjar is also about to take on added strategic importance, since the Syrian government and the YPG are reportedly using their recent territorial gains to re-open a road connection from Aleppo to YPG-controlled northeastern Syria, for the first time in four years.

    If the PKK secures control over Sinjar and the Iraqi government eventually ousts IS from Mosul and nearby Tel Afar, the Kurds with sit astride a land link stretching all the way from the Iranian border through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, bypassing all zones of Turkish influence. The PKK will benefit both by gaining a safe land route for trade and traffic to its Syrian and Iraqi holdings, and by using its position at the center of this network as a source of political leverage.

    In Syria, Erdogan's eyes are on Raqqa. Not because he particularly covets that dusty and troubled provincial city, but because it has acquired an outsized symbolic value as the IS “capital”. To tear down the black banners now fluttering over Raqqa is to write oneself into the history books – and Erdogan has no intention of letting his Kurdish enemy become the knight in shining armour who slayed the jihadi dragon and saved the Western princess, especially not since he suspects it might come with a reward of half the Syrian kingdom.

    Yet all through spring 2017, the YPG has powered on relentlessly toward Raqqa, backed by US air power. Washington has brushed aside a long line of increasingly unrealistic Turkish proposals for how to muster an alternative, non-YPG force to take the city, and at this point Raqqa looks likely to fall into Kurdish hands almost by default; the only plausible substitute is the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

    From Ankara’s vantage point, the US has cornered Turkey in an untenable and deteriorating situation where it is forced to watch in impotent rage as the United States continues to protect, nourish, and expand a pro-PKK enclave on Turkey’s southern border. It is this strategic trap that the Turkish president hopes to break by striking PKK affiliates in Syria and Iraq and threatening another intervention in northern Syria.

    What role for the referendum?

    Internal politics seem to have played some role in determining the timing of Turkey’s escalatory gambit. Erdogan said already in early April that he was ready to order further action in Syria and Iraq, but he was clearly wary of upsetting voters before the 16 April constitutional referendum on expanding his powers as president. As it turned out, despite reportedly using emergency laws and state resources to secure a victory, Erdogan barely squeaked through with 51.4 percent support.

    Michael Sahlin, a former Swedish ambassador in Ankara who is now a fellow with the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies, told IRIN that the slim margin was “a considerable disappointment for Erdogan” and could force the president to call snap elections to shore up his hold on power, even at the cost of scaring off investors and further upsetting Turkey’s ailing economy.

    Erdogan’s Kurdish opponents also view the results with concern, albeit for different reasons. “When countries and leaders become more dictatorial, they become more dangerous for everyone,” PYD representative Sheruan Hassan told IRIN in mid-April, adding, “I think the coming period will be increasingly dangerous for us all due to this dictatorial style of gathering power that Erdogan is using.”

    “I do not think the referendum [by itself] brought a drastic change in terms of leaving Erdogan's hands free or not,” added the veteran Turkish journalist and Middle East specialist Cengiz Candar, who spoke to IRIN prior to the recent fighting. But he argued that swift Russian and US endorsement of the results, which remain controversial among Erdogan’s opponents, had likely emboldened the president to push forward in Syria. The president’s priority, Candar said, would certainly be to check Kurdish advances.

    Breaking stuff and building leverage

    Hemmed in on all sides and backsliding strategically, Turkey seems to be lashing out mostly because of the lack of other options, hoping to force a reshuffling of the deck and build leverage, rather than to realise any one, specific end-goal.

    Escalation has its own benefits: As Turkish armoured vehicles move to the Turkey-Syria border, all sides have been rudely shaken out of complacency and are recalibrating to account for Erdogan’s threats of full-scale intervention in Syria. “Unless Erdogan is restrained and stops his attacks, we will pause the Raqqa offensive to fortify our borders against Turkey,” the SDF’s Söder told IRIN. But that may be exactly what Erdogan wants to hear. By demonstrating that he could neutralise the SDF as a US partner in Raqqa, he may finally find the leverage over US policy that Turkey has hitherto been denied.

    Ultimately, the increasingly aggressive Turkish military posture in Syria and Iraq seems to be less about inflicting material damage on the Kurdish groups than it is a bid to wring political concessions from the United States. Apart from wanting to end or at least reduce US support for the PKK affiliates, Turkey is also seeking to gain Washington’s ear on a number of other issues.

    It is perhaps no accident that just as he was ramping up pressure along the border, Erdogan told an audience of US think-tankers that his “number one demand” from the United States is the extradition of the Pennsylvania-based Islamic scholar Fethüllah Gülen, whom he holds responsible for the July 2016 coup attempt.

    How far he will push the envelope is anyone’s guess, but Erdogan likely hopes to have improved his bargaining position on a range of bilateral disputes before he heads to his first meeting with US President Donald Trump on May 16.


    Turkey-Kurd feud distracts from Islamic State fight in Syria
  • Turkey steps up crackdown on humanitarian aid groups

    Turkish authorities have detained 15 staff of a US NGO working on Syria relief operations – the latest in a series of moves restricting humanitarian aid groups in the country. Observers attribute the crackdown on foreign NGOs to a resurgence in Turkish nationalism and government concerns about Kurdish empowerment inside Syria.


    Police detained the 15 employees, who were working for the International Medical Corps in the southeastern city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, on Thursday 20 April. Four of those detained – foreign nationals from Britain, India, Indonesia and Ireland – were deported five days later. The 11 others are Syrian and remain in a detention centre near Gaziantep, from where they face deportation back to Syria.


    Turkish authorities cited discrepancies in employment permits as the cause for the detentions, but Rebecca Gustafson, a senior communications adviser for the US-based NGO, said all the staff had valid work permits.


    “[IMC] is working with the Turkish government to secure the release of those staff still detained as soon as possible, and we continue to support our team members and their families during this very difficult time,” she said in a statement on Wednesday.


    Former IMC employees told IRIN the detained staff members had permits, but for districts outside Gaziantep.


    The incident follows last month’s expulsion of Mercy Corps, which had been running one of the largest aid operations in Syria from Turkey, and the detention of 10 staff from Denmark’s DanChurchAid. Other NGOs, including one from Italy have also recently been banned from operating in the country. Turkish media reports and aid workers say representatives from the UN, the United States, and the EU have been engaged in diplomatic efforts to relax the clampdown, but with little visible effect.


    An IRIN examination of documents provided by the Ministry of Interior shows that since mid-2015 a number of other international NGOs have dropped off the approved list. However, a number of NGOs have contacted IRIN to say they are permitted to work even though they are not on the list of approved "CSOs".  Those who do remain listed as permitted to work on "direct activities", including World Vision and Save the Children, have licenses requiring renewal every six to 12 months.


    Tougher working environment


    Aid groups still operating in Turkey were reluctant to comment openly on the matter for fear of their own licenses being revoked. But off-the-record interviews with IRIN suggest a shrinking operating space for international NGOs, many of which are based along the country’s southern border, providing cross-border relief to the northern Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Idlib.


    For several years, foreign NGOs have operated in Turkey under flexible mandates that waived certain bureaucratic requirements that would have slowed down the aid response to desperate Syrians. But there has been increased scrutiny of their operations since a US-led probe in 2016 into NGO involvement in corruption in the delivery of cross-border aid and since allegations, in pro-government Turkish media, of collusion between NGOs and Kurdish militants.


    The problems have been compounded by the fall of Aleppo to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the exclusion of Turkish forces in the battle to retake Raqqa from the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Largely shut out of northern Syria, Turkish officials fear that foreign aid may end up in regime-controlled or Kurdish-held areas across the border.


    “We always had problems with work permits,” a former aid worker in Turkey told IRIN. “The state always knew about it. We were always transparent about those things, and due to smooth operations and because there is a huge contribution from the international NGOs in Turkey, they always let us work like this.”


    Government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but speaking at the annual conference of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies last month, Berk Baran, deputy permanent representative at the Turkish mission to the UN in Geneva, blamed the expulsions on international NGOs not following government protocol.


    “If the channels are open and you are being told what you have to do, then it is very simple,” Baran said. “A government expects you to abide by its regulations.”


    But many foreign aid workers complain that understanding Turkish regulations has become anything but simple. Following last year’s coup attempt and subsequent purges of more than 100,000 state workers, many government ministries have been thrown into turmoil. Administrative work has piled up as new protocols have been put in place, and the operating licenses for many NGOs have been stuck in extensive review.


    “Every country we go into, we try and mitigate our risk. That’s how we work,” one aid worker said. “It should be a clear cut process where there is criteria to follow, but we still don’t know what that is.”


    Another aid official in Turkey told IRIN: “They don’t need to do anything special to stop NGOs. They only need the normal bureaucracy, which is [effective] because we can’t say anything against that. So this is done mostly by law. Even in very painful situations when Syrian staff get deported.”


    Knock-on effects


    The NGO expulsions have caused reductions in aid, particularly to northern Syria but also for the three million Syrian refugees living inside Turkey. Mercy Corps alone said it was assisting up to half a million Syrian civilians every month, with an additional 100,000 beneficiaries in Turkey. If the banned international NGOs are not allowed to restart missions in Turkey, domestic organisations may fill the gaps, although with more restrictions on working in Kurdish areas. UN reporting suggests as many as 58 international NGOs and over 469 local NGOs supply aid to Syria from Turkey, reaching about a million people per month.


    While the capacity of Turkish NGOs to take over has been questioned by international aid workers, Sema Genel Karaosmanoğlu, executive director of Support to Life, one of Turkey’s largest aid groups, said local agencies could scale up. Karaosmanoğlu added that the Turkish state itself may be seeking more involvement in relief efforts.


    “In Turkey, we have a strong state tradition and so the government has always been keen on doing everything on its own,” Karaosmanoğlu said. "I think they’re looking for domestic solutions to resolving some of these issues.”


    But the capacity of local aid groups has also been impacted by post-coup purges that have led to the closure of roughly 550 domestic NGOs for alleged links to terrorist organisations.


    An internal “read-out” from the UN’s aid coordination body, OCHA, leaked to Voice of America last month, stated that Turkey’s interior ministry plans to cancel all existing registrations of foreign NGOs and will require new registration requests to be submitted according to new rules and regulations. OCHA officials warned that the Turkish government would use such a process “to choose which organisations they want to keep in [the] country”.


    Such a move would not be unexpected, say observers familiar with Turkish politics. Soner Çağaptay, a senior fellow at the US-based Washington Institute and author of "The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern", said he was “surprised” by the amount of leeway Turkish authorities had given foreign aid groups in the early years of the Syrian war.


    Traditionally, government officials have been suspicious of foreign entities operating within Turkish borders. Following Turkey’s intervention in Syria, known as Operation Euphrates Shield, which started last August, and the securing of border areas, the recent crackdowns on aid groups may be a signal that Turkish authorities are returning to the more restrictive policies employed before the war, Cagaptay said.


    Kurdish factors


    In addition, analysts suggest the NGO crackdown may be motivated by Ankara’s concerns about the balance of power and resources available in northern Syria, where Kurdish forces receive support from the United States for anti-Islamic State operations.


    Only on Tuesday, Turkey bombed a base of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), a US-backed group, highlighting the complex alliances at play.


    The ongoing conflict between the Turkish state and the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has strong links with the YPG, may also be a contributing factor, although aid officials who spoke to IRIN denied allegations of colluding with Kurdish militants. The PKK is listed as a terrorist group by the United States and the EU.


    The general political atmosphere in Turkey has become more and more strained during a past year marked by instability, a coup attempt, several extremist attacks, and the tense run-up to this month’s tightly contested referendum. To shore up support for his bid to expand his presidential powers, and with an eye on re-election in 2019, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has adopted increasingly nationalist rhetoric.


    “Until the next elections, Erdogan will remain hardline on the PKK, which would go with the strategy of weakening the Kurdish entity, targeting it militarily, but also politically,” Çağaptay said. “This means preventing international NGO access and therefore weakening its societal fabric and its resilience.”


    In the meantime, the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and civilians who depend on aid delivered by international NGOs will be the biggest losers.


    (TOP PHOTO: Families return home after visiting an aid distribution point in eastern Aleppo's Al-Shaar neighborhood. Hameed Marouf/UNHCR)



    Turkey steps up crackdown on humanitarian aid groups

Support our work

Donate now