Monthly Archives: October 2012

Kurdish ‘freedom’ in Afrin

A tailor in Afrin, northern Syria, makes flags in the Kurdish national colours.

Earlier this month I made a short trip inside Syria to visit Afrin, a Kurdish town northwest of Aleppo. Since the summer Afrin and other Kurdish majority towns and cities along the Turkish border have been under the control of the PYD, a Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, the Turkish-Kurdish rebel group.

My visit was closely supervised and planned by PYD minders, but it was nonetheless an interesting insight into how southeastern Turkey/Kurdistan might run under PKK auspices. The PYD had set about building Kurdish national consciousness in Afrin with gusto. They had set up 20 centres that were teaching people to read and write in Kurdish. The old headquarters of the Baath Party were transformed as a martyrs’ memorial centre, with plaques for the 400-odd local Kurds who had died for the dream of nationhood.

The PYD and the PKK have been quite coy about their links, but in Afrin the connections were pretty evident. Pictures of Abdullah Ocalan decorated every government office I visited. In the martyrs’ memorial centre, the majority of the dead had lost their lives not in Syria, but in Turkey, fighting with the PKK. Also, the teachers I met who were giving local people courses in written Kurdish were both Turkish Kurds.

The martyr’s memorial centre at Afrin, a collage of pictures has PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan at its centre.

After decades of harsh repression, people here are obviously happy  to fly their own national colours. According to people from Afrin I spoke to later, however, freedom under the PYD isn’t all it seems. One local told me that the rebels had become frustrated that more people were flying the Iraqi-Kurdish flag more than the various PKK flags, and began ordering them to take them down (in the picture above, the northern Iraq flag is the one with the stripes and sun).

They also said the PYD has behaved threateningly towards anyone vocally or actively supporting the uprising against Assad rule. In fact, the PYD so far remains determined to sit on the fence in the Syrian civil war, a stance that is likely to leave it with few friends in the long run. The aim is no doubt to achieve something similar to Iraqi Kurdistan during the second Gulf War, but you only need to look at a map of Syria to see how fragmented the Kurdish territory there is. Afrin, for example, is a Kurdish enclave bounded on two sides by Turkey, and on the other two sides by Arab-populated regions.

Ultimately, the PYD’s national consciousness-building efforts seem a bit feverish and premature in the middle of a civil war. Many people I interviewed believe that at some point fighting will erupt between the PYD and the Free Syrian Army, or else between the PYD and Turkey.

Here’s my story that appeared in Saturday’s Times, and a link to another I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor:

With a customer waiting, Khalil, a 50-year-old tailor, fixes a bright red star on to a green and yellow background. “In the past it was impossible to do this,” he says, as he sews together a flag displaying the national colours of Kurdistan.

In recent weeks, the tailors in Afrin have been busy. The Kurdish-populated town in northwest Syria, a pocket of calm in the brutal civil war, is festooned with these flags. For Syria’s two million Kurds, the country’s most harshly oppressed minority, the uprising has spurred an outpouring of nationalist feeling and dreams of self-rule.

Government forces all but abandoned Afrin and other Kurdish regions early in the summer to divert men to battles in Damascus and Aleppo. A month ago, Kurdish guerrillas drove out the last agents of the regime and assumed complete control of the town.

“This makes people feel they are free,” Khalil says of the flag. “They feel they have dignity and can express their own identity.” Beneath the elation, however, there is tension and the threat of an open conflict among the Kurdish factions and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main rebel grouping fighting the regime of President Assad.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Kurdish militia controlling Afrin, is maintaining neutrality in Syria’s civil war, a position that other rebels claim amounts to collaboration with the regime. In addition, the presence of the Kurdish militants and their close ties to Kurdish rebels fighting in Turkey have caused unease in Ankara.

When The Times passed through the rebel checkpoint that marks the boundary of Kurdish-run Afrin, signs of Syria’s 19-month-old uprising vanished. The preceding miles of rebel-held territory had been littered with burnt-out tanks and shattered buildings — evidence of the FSA’s fight for every inch of land that it controls. The FSA has agreed, however, not to enter the Kurdish regions, which remain untouched by the fighting.

“We don’t want them here because the regime will bomb us and we don’t want Kurds to die,” said Mohammad Jernas, of Afrin’s new governing council.

So far, the FSA and its political counterparts have offered little support to Kurdish demands for greater autonomy and cultural recognition. “Why should we fight for them?” said Mr Jernas, referring to the FSA. “We are not ready to send our people to die for nothing.”

In Afrin, accompanied by a PYD minder, The Times was shown a cultural centre and language school set up by the party, as well as a memorial centre for Kurdish guerrillas and activists who have died either in combat in Turkey or in prison in Syria. “We are creating all the institutions of a civil, democratic society,” Mr Jernas said.

Others, however, claim there is a darker side to PYD rule. “If you put up the flag of the revolution, they would arrest you,” said Runi, a leader of Selahattin al-Ayyubi, a mainly Kurdish brigade fighting with the FSA in Aleppo. Speaking in the Turkish city of Antakya, he claimed that members of his brigade had been arrested and tortured by the PYD when returning to see their families in Afrin. Two who defected from the PYD had been killed, he added. “Probably in the future there will be fighting.”

Kawa, a 25-year-old resident contacted by telephone, said that support for the PYD was waning, particularly since they started levying taxes. “There is growing tension in Afrin,” he said. “People are separated between those who support the revolution and those who support the PYD. Many people think they are indirectly supporting the regime.”

Turkey has threatened to strike against the Kurdish militants and has accused the Assad regime of arming them to destabilise Turkey. Last month, after a Syrian mortar strike, the Turkish parliament authorised cross-border raids into Syria.

The Kurds, who number about 30 million throughout the region, have long faced persecution in the four countries where they form minorities: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

“Turkey doesn’t want Kurds to have their rights, in Turkey, or in Syria or anywhere else,” Mr Jernas said. “We are prepared for anything.”

While a tense peace reigns, many are embracing Kurdish cultural markers long suppressed during decades of the Assad family’s Baathist rule. Centres have opened across the district offering previously banned Kurdish reading and writing courses.

“It’s my native language and I want to learn it,” Rima, a housewife aged 31, said. “I don’t feel afraid. I don’t think the regime will be able to control this area again and anyway, I’m not doing anything wrong.”

Beset by enemies, however, many others in Afrin are fearful. “We don’t know what will happen,” a man at a bus station café said. “I don’t think either the regime or the opposition will accept our rights.”

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Fear and hardship on the Turkey-Syria border

7,250 refugees are camped at the Bab al-Salam border complex in Syria. As winter approaches, the humanitarian situation there is worsening.

I’ve been terrible at posting any of my stories about Syria, which is what I’ve mainly been writing about recently. The main reason is that I’m humbled by the extraordinary quality of some of the work other journalists are doing on the crisis, particularly those risking their lives inside the country. I think especially of Time correspondent Rania Abouzeid, whose articles must be required reading for anyone wanting an in-depth look at the conflict. Her piece earlier this month on the Farouk Brigades – one of the largest and best funded rebel fighting groups – is typical of her brilliantly reported and executed stories. Equally fascinating was her piece last month dissecting Saudi and Qatari support for the rebels. Also memorable was another article, beautifully written, from September: ‘The Making of a Syrian Rebel’. To quote from it: 

War is dehumanizing, and civil wars in particular can brutalize a society in ways that fundamentally alter its very nature. Neighbors become enemies; differences — social, economic, religious — become magnified as a means to confirm the otherness of the enemy. Local accents and surnames can reveal sectarian identities and, by extension, presumed political views. There is little room for nuance or civility in a civil war.

Anyway, it was not my purpose in this post to sing the praises of Rania Abouzeid – though it’s a worthwhile one for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t read her stuff.

I’m finally getting it together to post some of my stories. Yesterday I visited the Bab al-Salam border complex inside Syria to report on the looming humanitarian crisis refugees face with the onset of winter. I had visited Bab al-Salam before a month earlier and was shocked both at how the number of refugees has increased and their situation has worsened.

Here is my story for the Times:

On a patch of rubbish-strewn ground, Mustafa Albas rested his broken leg in the fading warmth of the afternoon sun. It was a moment of peace for the farmer, 49, who is sharing a thin nylon tent measuring nine square metres with his two wives and 15 children. They have three narrow mattresses between them.

The family is among several thousand people camped just inside Syria at the Bab al-Salam border complex, dreading the hardships to come as winter approaches. “Just a day ago there was rain and there was water in our tent. Soon it will be so cold we don’t know what we will do,” said Mr Albas.

There are fears that winter, when temperatures can regularly drop to freezing, will bring a vast humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been displaced by the country’s civil war and they now lack basic shelter, clean water, clothes, bedding, medicine, and baby milk.

“We need everything,” said Sabiha Omar, Mr Albas’s wife. Two months earlier a bomb from a regime jet hit their home in the town of Maraa, near Aleppo, injuring four of her children. Her 15-year-old son, Mohammad, was rushed to Turkey, his belly torn open by shrapnel. The same day, her husband broke his leg when he crashed his motorbike as he rushed home to check on his family.

They moved to Bab al-Salam 20 days ago after Mohammad had to leave the Turkish hospital where he had been convalescing. “He should have stayed but they said there wasn’t space for him because they had more urgent cases,” said Mr Albas. Now Mohammad wears a colostomy bag as he awaits a further operation on his intestines. “We want to go back to Turkey to get a new one but they will not let us in,” he said.

Most people are camped inside what were custom inspection hangars for lorries in the days when Bab al-Salam was a bustling border gate.

Two days ago a storm blew through, knocking over many tents and leaving the rest soaked inside. Water poured through the roofs of the hangars. Out-of-date food, a lack of medicine, and dirty water is bringing illness, particularly among the children, many refugees said.“They are cold and they have diarrhoea and they are throwing up,” said one mother.

Of the 7,250 people at Bab al-Salam, 4,000 are children, and 1,750 are aged two or under, according to Abd al-Kader Kaptur, the camp’s aid manager. “Every day more and more people arrive,” he said. “Just now about five buses have come with maybe 200 people.” Other than food sent from the Turkish charity IHH, the refugees are receiving almost no organised assistance, he said.

Turkey, which is struggling to open new refugee camps, is admitting at most 400 people a week — far fewer than the number arriving. “This is just the beginning,” said Mr Kaptur. “It’s getting worse and worse . . . We do not expect anybody to help us. We are at the mercy of God.”

Important figures and context were provided in an accompanying piece written by defence correspondent Tom Coghlan: 

Conditions are already grim in the camps that have sprung up on Syria’s borders but a far more serious crisis threatens.

Aid agencies expect 710,000 Syrians to reach neighbouring countries by January, almost three times the 246,000 there as refugees at present. An estimated 1.2 million are also displaced within Syria’s borders, according to the United Nations.

Winter is near. Between December and March in Syria the average temperature is 2C (36F) in inland areas. Rains have arrived, snow will follow, and hundreds of thousands of refugees are living under canvas.

By one estimate the country’s economy shrank by 15 per cent last year and will further contract by up to 35 per cent this year — driven by the conflict and sanctions. Regime officials have encouraged families to start keeping chickens as the food supply becomes strained.The UN estimates that $348 million will be needed to the end of the year for the refugee crisis. Only about 40 per cent of that figure has been pledged so far by the international community.

I will continue reporting on the refugee situation on the border over the next few days.

Last week, I was reporting from Akçakale on the rising military tensions between Turkey and Syria. I think talk of all out war is overblown.

Syria is in no position to retaliate in any serious way to Turkish aggression. Once Turkey, or the Syrian rebels, have taken out regime positions that are close enough to the border to hit Turkey, these tensions will likely drop. Achieving this, however, may yet involve cross-border commando operations, or even air strikes. Of course it’s possible that the Syrians will then resort to long range rocket attacks on rebel held positions close to Turkey, introducing yet more scope for accidental strikes inside Turkish territory.

Of course, Turkey’s artillery response to Syria has once again upped the ante for Ankara, investing it more deeply in Assad’s defeat. While the possibility seems remote, if Assad were to re-establish control of Northern Syria it would put the Turks in an extremely difficult position, and in my opinion it would more or less force deeper military involvement on their part.

It’s also worth remembering that the regime has threatened to use its chemical weapons against foreign aggressors. This may not be a bluff Turkey wishes to call, but knowing how Turkish public opinion works, any direct attack by Assad on Turkey would radically shift public opinion – currently lukewarm – in favour of direct military intervention. for this reason, I think it’s unlikely that the regime would use their chemical weapons against Turkey.

Here are links to my reports from Akçakale, for the Times, Spiegel, and the Christian Science Monitor. Below is the piece I wrote for the Times:

Standing lost and bleary-eyed amid a stream of mourners yesterday, Ismail Özer struggled to comprehend a day in which his wife, sister, and three nieces had been laid in the earth.

“I cannot talk now. The ones who have died … What can I say?” said Mr Özer, 42, at a community centre in the border town of Akçakale, following the funeral of his family members, killed by a stray Syrian mortar round on Wednesday. “I was looking at them when it happened,” he said.

The family’s tragedy has put it centre-stage in a community — and a country – gripped by foreboding at the prospect of being dragged into its neighbour’s civil war.

Nato member Turkey’s parliament yesterday gave the government a green light to launch military operations inside Syria, after it shelled Assad regime positions in retaliation for Wednesday’s deadly strike.

The motion, adopted by an overwhelming majority, gives the government a one-year mandate for operations beyond its borders if they are deemed necessary for national defence.

“Turkey has no intention to go to war,” said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday, adding that the mandate for cross border operations was meant as an ‘effective deterrent’.

For its part, Syria formally apologised for the deaths. Several Syrian soldiers were also killed when Turkey fired back for the first time against its southern neighbour. The exchange of fire between two well-armed regional powers prompted calls for restraint from around the world.

These fears were shared by residents in Akçakale. “We do not want war,” said Mustafa Taka, a 58-year-old civil servant. “But if they push us we will have no choice.” Yesterday, for the first time in two weeks, the thump of Syrian mortar fire could not be felt in the border town.

The shelling had begun 16 days ago when rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime seized the Tal al-Abyad border complex just 200 metres inside the Syrian frontier, making it a target for regime artillery.

Since then several Syrian mortar rounds have fallen on Turkish soil, causing no injuries. But about 100 schools in the region have remained closed, and many people have left to stay with relatives elsewhere.

“If we didn’t have animals we would have left a long time ago,” said Ahmet Çildan, a farmer whose home on the fringe of the town lies close to the border. “Now we come here in the day to work and we leave at night.” The Syrians stopped shelling after the Turks began their own artillery bombardment at around 6pm Monday, residents said.

Outside the house where the Özer family had been visiting their cousins the Timuçins on Monday afternoon, the wall was flecked with dried blood and pocked with shrapnel.

The dead included Mr Özer’s wife Gülsen, 40, his sister Zeliha Timuçin, 39, and her three daughters Fatos, 14, Aysegul, 12, Zeynep, 8. Mr Özer’s daughter Özlem, 8, is in hospital, among 11 people wounded by the two mortar shells that struck the town mid-afternoon on Monday. A third hit a grain depot.

“She has left four children,” said Mrs Özer’s brother Ali Sonis, 37. “One is in the hospital and another is only one-and-a-half years old. The baby is in shock, it does not even cry.” Like many in the town, he was angry that the Turkish government has reacted only after lives have been lost.

“The government is being very passive about this situation,” he said. “They wait for someone to die, and then they act… They have a good relationship with the rebels, they could have asked them to move away from the border.”

Turkey is already shouldering the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis, sheltering 90,000 people in camps along the border.
Theoretically under Nato’s charter, an attack on a member state can allow collective retaliation, but the clause specifying such action was not invoked by Nato, which is wary of being dragged into yet an Iraq-style quagmire.

Syria’s key ally Russia blocked a UN draft resolution condemning the attack, watering down the text to call for “restraint” on the border. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on a visit to Pakistan said he was worried at the dramatic turn of evenst. “It is of great concern for us. This situation is deteriorating with every coming day,” said Mr Lavrov, who said Damascus had assured him such an event would not happen again.

Last night Russia signed up to a watered-down UN Security Council statement condemning the Syrian mortar attack, describing it as a “violation of international law”.

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Sledgehammer: the end or the beginning?

A demonstrators’ camp outside Silivri, the courthouse where the Sledgehammer trial ended last month.

I have meant to post about the Sledgehammer trial for a while, but have been away in Rize and Artvin for the past week – more about that later.

The trial ended on September 21 with the conviction, predictably, of most of the 365 defendants. But despite the triumphalism in the pro-government press there is little sense that things are over. My story for the Times is here.

When it began back in December 2010, some observers expressed doubts about the authenticity of the Sledgehammer evidence. 21 months later, nothing whatsoever has emerged to answer those doubts. On the contrary, the number of skeptics – among foreign commentators and media in particular – has only grown.

Even in Today’s Zaman, a newspaper that has often pumped out crude propaganda in support of the trial, there are signs of misgivings over its conduct. Columnist Yavuz Baydar wrote:

“The judges may have made a major mistake by disallowing the presentation of some evidence, a key part of universal court procedures. The accusations of forgery of some documents in the trial must also be investigated and brought to a fair conclusion. This may lead the Supreme Court of Appeals to order a retrial.”

Hürriyet’s Sedat Ergin summed up things when he spoke to Time: “From here on there is a process of appeals that could go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. Far from closing a chapter, the Sledgehammer case has just become an even bigger issue on Turkey’s plate.”

Here is a summary of some, but not all of the inconsistencies in the evidence identified by journalists, defendants, and their lawyers:

-Scores of references to institutions not in existence at the time the coup plan was drawn up, or references to them by names they only acquired later.

-Crucial evidence contained on unsigned, digitally-stored documents made using Microsoft Word software only available years after coup plans were created.

-Suspects accused of working on coup plans on computers owned by the Turkish military at a time when they were not in the country.

-Alleged forgery of a suspect’s handwriting on a CD containing important evidence.

-Admirals who died in 1998 and 1999 named in the evidence as participators in coup plans.

As I have pointed out before, at least one of these anachronisms is embedded in the text of the indictment itself, can be verified independently, and so cannot be dismissed as ‘coup-lovers’ propaganda’.

The other inconsistencies are found in prosecution evidence handed to the defense under normal legal procedures. The prosecution at no point disputed that the ‘dodgy’ files formed part of the evidence, so I assume at this stage that they did.

Over the course of the trial, both the prosecutors, and Sledgehammer’s supporters in the Turkish press, have done an extraordinarily bad job of defending it, mainly because they have largely refused to look these allegations in the face.

At times, they have resembled art scholars debating the authenticity of a newfound work by Leonardo, while ignoring that the Florentine noblewoman in the painting is driving a convertible.

Not that there isn’t some strong evidence suggesting that a coup was being planned. The voice recording of the highly detailed ‘hypothetical’ wargame scenario is particularly damning – though it only involved 50 of the 365 defendants.

By ignoring the alleged forgeries, however, the prosecution may have compromised the validity of the whole legal process. When I visited the trial last year, lawyer after lawyer stood up on behalf of the defense, some with detailed presentations attempting to demonstrate various forms of digital manipulation in the evidence. The prosecution wholly ignored these.

(Incidentally, the claims that the defendants’ lawyers did not raise the anachronisms in the court, but only in the media, are wildly inaccurate.)

Similarly, when confronted with the Sledgehammer anachronisms, the trial’s defenders in the media generally shrieked ‘propaganda’. One of the most brainless of these attacks was by Today’s Zaman’s Etyen Mahçupyan, referring to an article I had written for the Times.

Others just change the subject. Orhan Kemal Cengiz for a long time cited the fact that the defendants had not approached the ECHR as a sign that the forgery allegations were not serious. When they did approach the ECHR, he cited the court’s decision that Cetin Doğan’s detention was legal as further evidence.

In fact, the court did not address the question of the forged evidence, though you wouldn’t know it to see the pro-government coverage. The ECHR considered the question of whether Turkey had reasonable grounds to arrest him, noting that the “facts giving rise to a suspicion need not be of the same level as those necessary to justify conviction or bring a charge”. The ECHR process is still ongoing.

The point is this: as the case continues to work its way through the Turkish and international court system these inconsistencies – studiously ignored in the first trial – will receive more intense scrutiny.

They cannot prove that there was no coup plan – there is other evidence that suggests there was, and many well-informed commentators with no axe to grind share this belief. (Yavuz Baydar’s article cited earlier gives a good rundown.)

The anachronisms, however, suggest that the Sledgehammer evidence contains traces of not one, but two crimes. The first, ostensible crime is the alleged plot to overthrow the government. The second is the manufacturing of fake evidence in order to frame suspects in the case, a crime that would require extensive complicity within the courts and police.

Ending the military’s dominance of Turkey’s political life will likely go down as the AKP’s greatest and most impressive achievement. In this context, many people will view any foul play in the Sledgehammer case merely as a sour footnote.

To brush it under the carpet however, is to acquiesce in a situation in which the police and courts are acting with impunity to purge the government’s political enemies. This is of particular importance in the context of Turkey’s most intractable and potentially damaging political and social problem: the Kurdish issue. Huge number of Kurds are currently behind bars on similarly questionable grounds.

As the legal process continues, Sledgehammer could yet turn out to be a major embarrassment for Turkey. One can only hope it will shame the government into carrying out real judicial and police reform.

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