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Rojavan crisis: A big threat to women’s rights future

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A war crime:  The murder of Hevrin Khalaf is a slap in the face for those who believed in the Rojava dream.

On October 12, the Kurdish human rights activist was ambushed, tortured and shot dead on the road to the city of Qamishli. According to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the 35-year-old women was “taken out of her car during a Turkish-backed attack and executed by Turkish-backed mercenary factions” and the killing shows that“the Turkish invasion does not differentiate between a soldier, a civilian or a politician.

The spokesman for the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) — which groups Syrian rebel factions — said they had not made it as far as the highway known as the M4.“I confirm to you that our forces have not reached the M4,” Youssef Hammoud said to Reuters, denying their responsability for the ambush.

What we certainly know is that the Ahrar al-Sharqiya group entered Syria from Turkey and took control over the area of the M4 highwaywhere other murders took place. Founded in 2016 by some members — including Iraqi commander Abu Maria Al-Qahtani — of the Al-Nusra Front, re-branded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and described as the official Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, the group was originally active in the province of Deir ez-Zor but temporarily managed to seize the territory between Mambij and Qamishli.

The rebels managed to do so due to the vacuum caused by US’ troops withdrawal from northern Syria, that president Donald Trump had announced on October 7.

On September 24, in a controversial speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had declared his intention to create a “safe zone” in the border area. His goal was to establish a huge peace corridor in order to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees that, despite the seemingly humanitarian purposes, would surely put the local minorities at risk of genocide. Trump’s betrayal — as Kurdish people describe it — might be a gift to a deep-rooted process of ethnic cleansing or, at the very least, it would lead to a new exodus.

Future Syria party: an attempt to multi-ethnic democracy

Hevrin Khalaf was the secretarygeneral of the Future Syria Party (FSP), a political group born with the aim of overcoming the sectarian divisions that have ravaged Syria during the civil war and unify Arab, Kurdish and Syrian Christiancommunities.

The FSP was established after the capture of Raqqa from the Islamic State and it was created as an ideological partner to the SDF — the Syrian Democratic Forces. Its aim was to build a democratic state that represented all components of Syrian society and to replace Bashar al-Assad’s regime withmulti-ethnic democracy.

Nobody except the Kurds wants the project of a “Kurdistan state” to succeed: they are, in fact, still split up among four countries — Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey — , where they have been sufferingbrutal harassment and repression for the past 100 years.

Taking advantage of the chaos caused by the civil war, in January 2014 they managed to carve out a self-controlled area ruled by the PYD — the Democratic Union Party — , which is now known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) or Rojava.

Rojava’s territorial expansionhas alarmed Turkey, which firmly opposes the PYD and regards it as an alleged extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK),  currently listed as a terroristic group.

The Kurdish-Turkish conflict progressively worsened and in June 2017 tensions flared up on the border with the Afrin Canton — one of the self-governed Rojavan cantons — unitil it became part of the Turkish occupation.

On October 5, Khalaf made some declarations and expressed her concern about Turkey’s imminent intention to invade Rojava again, which would cause in her opinion a potential demographic earthquake.

“During the time (ISIS) held power near the border, Turkey didn’t view it as a threat for its people. But now that there is democratic constitution in northeastern Syria, they threat us with occupation,” Khalaf said referring to the Rojava region.

Women’s rights in peril:

Syrian Women’s Council recently condemned Khalaf’s murder — alongside with the aggressions against unarmed civilians — and called for international action: “We at the Council of Women in Northern and Eastern Syria condemn and denounce this cowardly act against the martyr Hevrin Khalaf.”

Turkey’s Islamic-rooted government has long been accused of limiting women’s rights and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s views on feminism go exactly in that direction. Co-founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) he has combined liberal economic policies with religious conservatism. Although he denies to lead an Islamic party, he has often stated that the AKPhad become a role model for all Muslim countries.

Women’s freedom in Turkey has often collided with the above-mentioned Islamic agenda. On March 8 2019, riot police intervened to block Turkish feminists’ march in central Istanbul, when they were celebrating International Women’s Day. The police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, as they were accused of chanting and whistling during the call to prayer.

Although they said that those acts were not aimed at the mosque,“They disrepected the Azan (call to prayer) by slogans, booing and whistling,”Erdoğan claimed.

During his administration the AKP leader made numerous controversial comments: on various occasions he advocated for increasing population in Turkey and called on Turkish women to give birth at least to three children.

On November 24 2014, he attended a summit in Istanbul on justice for women where hebasically declared that women are not equal to men and addressed them exclusively as mothers.

“Our religion (Islam) has defined a position for women: motherhood”he claimed to the audience, sparking furious debates in the media. “The fact that a woman is attached to her professional life should not prevent her from being a mother”he added, emphasizing that work should not represent an obstacle to maternity.

He went even further calling women without children “incomplete” and made his position about family planning very clear: contraception was not for Muslim families and birth control was described as a form of “treason”.

In line with these ideas, in 2012 Health Minister Recep Akdag put forward an anti-abortion law plan so that the procedure could belegally restricted or banned, prompting fury among women’s activists.

In terms of gender-based violence, things are not better: according to the Turkey’s Human Rights Association (IHD), in the last six years there has been an increase in the reported case of violence against women. The number of women murdered by a partner or relative is constantly growing as Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz Platformu (“We Will Stop Femicide” Platform)reports and its General Secretary Gülsüm Kav is struggling to ask for better protection by the law.

Rojavan utopia: Jin, Jîyan, Azadî

“Jin, Jîyan, Azadî” a Kurdish slogan reads: Women, Life, Freedom.

It does not come as a surprise that the revolution in Rojava— where women arelegally considered equal to men — sounds like a dangerous threat to honor-shame societies. In this regard, de-facto autonomous region — which name literally means “the land where the sun sets” — is a one and only model in the whole Middle East area.

RojavanConstitution, in fact, is characterized by the implementation of direct democracy and confederalism and it “ (…) does not accept the concept of state nationalism, military and religious.

Inspired by the beliefs of American anarchist Murray Bookchin it stresses the importance of “social ecology”, as a fundamental aspect of the revolution: in this regard, the exploitation of natural resources is comparable to the domination of men over women.

Thisutopian political system is established by the so-called Charter of the Social Contract, which promotes — along with ecology and gender equality — self-determination, secularism, cooperative economy and multi-ethnic coexistence.

The emancipation of women is seen as such a key point that one of Rojava’s governing ideologies is the “Science of Women” — or Jineology.

Based on PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s statement“A country can’t be free unless the women are free,” this innovative concept represents a step forward for the women’s liberation movement and it stands in opposition to the sexist paradigm which reflects the subject-object dichotomy “men act, women are.”

The social experiment is the brave response to centuries of oppressive tradition, such as underage marriage, poligamy and patriarchal mentality: these massive changes regard social, cultural and political structures are bright example of authentic modern feminism.

Although the region’s autonomy is not officially recognized by any international state, the PYD entertained some foreign relations; Hevrin Khalaf was often referred to  as “Rojavan Minister of Foreign Affairs” and she was very appreciated for her diplomatic skills.

Women and jihad

Gender equality is behind Rojavan political, social and military upheaval.

In Syria, the armed wing of the PYD is thePeople’s Protection Units (YPG) along with the all-female militia called Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).

YPJ combatants have subverted traditional gender roles and stereotypes, fighting sexism and promoting female emancipation; jineology, in fact, is a multi-disciplinary philosophy which permeates every aspect of society, including the military sphere.

Furthermore, in Kurdish community centres they stress the importance of self-defence,in order to practically teach women how to stand against patriarchy-induced abusesand help victims of domestic violence.

Kurdish fighters —  now world-wide famous — have proved that women can be effective soldiers just as much as their male counterparts. The advocacy of women’s rights, in fact, was severely put in danger during ISIL occupation, which represented the greatest possible form of female subjugation.

The armed forces of YPJ played a central role in the liberation process and they stood up against terrorism in very many ways.

Kobanê was the city that involvedthe largestfemale participation: the area, in fact, soon became symbol of the revolution, especially with regard to patriarchal traditions. Some of the fighters were married at a young ageor their husbands were much older than them, they served as nothing more than bodies used for sex and considered just as a vehicle for making children.

“I wanted women to have agency and will, and to build a free identity for themselves”commander Meryem Kobanê said in an interview. The women of the YPJ has tasted freedom and the more they were oppressed the more they developed a strong warrior spirit, to the point that they shared the frontlines with their male comrades.

It seems hard to understand, but while ISIL militants treat women as inferior beings, they also fear them on battlefields. According to jihadist doctrine, in fact, those who die in the name of Allah will be rewarded with 72 virgins, but they will not be admitted to heaven if they are killed by a woman.

Female emancipation in Middle Eastern countries clashes with this contrasting and misogynistic concept also; therefore, jihad represented a crucial chance to women’s liberation.

“Isis would like to reduce women to slaves and body parts. We show them they’re wrong. We can do anything.” Asya Abdullah — Movement for a Democratic Society’s coalition co-chair — said to the The Independent in the middle of the civil war in 2017.

Women’s rights future in Syria:

Kurdish fighters seeked vengeance for those victimized by the Islamic State, but women’s oppression still represents an ongoing problem in Syria.

On International Women’s Day, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR)documented the deaths of at least 27,464 females from March 2011 until March 2019at the hands of the main perpetrator parties to the civil war; 11.402 of them were children.

The rate of gender-based violence increased during the years of the conflict, especially in rural territories andin rebel-held areas, where women were particularly targeted, becoming victims of war rape and honor killings. Syrian security forces have been accused of torturing female inmates that — according to human rights lawyerAnwar al-Bunni — were often imprisoned without charges.

Although the condition of women in Syria has improved in many fields, there still is a lot to do in terms of gender equality and experts rate the country badly concerning human rights agenda.

For instance, Syrian Constitution — which is partially based on Sharia laws — does not recognize women as active subjects in marriage contracts, which have to be signed by the groom and the male guardian of the bride, but not by the bride herself.

Hevrin Khalaf was the voice for these women also and her death is now a symbol of the world’s hypocrisy, which is turning its back on her people once again. Today’s crisis is frustrating the efforts ofRojavan revolutionaries and it represents the umpteenth threat to Middle Eastern women’s rights future.

If Rojava’s dream dies, it will be a slap in the face for many of us, but Kurdish activists has long proved the world that turning the other cheek would never be an option.

Silvia Fornaroli has an active interest in human rights and environmental issues. Inspired by the story of Italian Anti-Fascist Internationalist Battalion commander Karim Franceschi, she felt the need to express her support to the Kurdish people and share independent opinions about today’s Middle East crisis.

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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