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Analysis: Motives behind Kurdish activists’ triple assassination | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A Kurdish demonstration in Paris

A Kurdish demonstration in Paris

A Kurdish demonstration in Paris

London, Asharq Al-Awsat – In detective literature the most exciting story is often built around murders that have taken place in a locked room. This is what happened sometime between Wednesday night and Thursday morning when three Kurdish woman activists were shot dead, two in the head and one in the stomach, in a shabby office building on Rue Lafayette in the heart of Paris.

According to the French police the murders were carried out by people known to the victims.

The building bears no identification. So the killers must have known what it was. The entrance door was not forced. It opens with a code known only to those using the building regularly. So, someone must have opened it for the hit squad. The would-be killers then moved into a room used as the office of the main victim. Here, too, there was no sign of a door being forced or a struggle having taken place. Thus, the victims, or at least one of them, must have known the killers.

It is not clear how long the killers waited before firing their guns, fitted with silencers. But it is clear that the killing did not take place immediately. Did the would-be victims believe that the would-be killers were carrying a message from friends?

Having carried out the killing the hit-squad – consisting perhaps of only two individuals – simply walked out of the building, locking the doors behind them. In other words, they must have had at least the key to the front entrance.

This was a professional job, done by people with experience in assassinations.

Rue Lafayette is at the center of an area where immigrants with a Muslim background are numerous. Apart from ethnic Kurds, there are large numbers of Turks, Bosnian and Albanian Muslims, Kosovars and Afghans. The neighbourhood to the northwest of Rue Lafayette has a large ethnic Armenian community and the one to the northeast is a stronghold of Arabs from North Africa.

The killers, presumably of a Middle Eastern background, would have had no difficulty in melting away in a part of Paris full of cafes, restaurants and shops owned and frequented by Muslims from the Middle East and the Balkans.

Although known as “the embassy” in the neighbourhood, the nondescript building where the Kurdish” information office” is located in the 10th arrondissement in Paris has none of the trappings of a diplomatic mission. For years it has been used as a place of assembly for Kurdish activists and a venue for occasional art exhibitions and conferences on Kurdish culture. Behind the facade, the building has been a clearing house for the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK], a mainly Turkish group with a Marxist-Leninist ideological background.

Because the PKK is banned in France after being declared a terrorist organization by the European Union, there is no mention of it anywhere in the building However, journalists know it as the party’s information Centre.

On Thursday, the building was transformed into a crime scene visited by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls who had come to witness the grisly scene created by the execution-style killing of three Kurdish women by an unidentified hit-squad.

Among the victims was Sakine Cansiz, a well-known campaigner for Kurdish causes. A redhead with a fading though still seductive beauty, Ms, Cansiz was one of the founders of the PKK and, according to rumors, a former lover of the party’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan.

The other two victims were Fidan Dogan and Leyla Soylemez who worked as aides to Ms. Cansiz.

So, who was behind the triple executions?

The French police say they have several “working hypothesis” without offering details.

One theory is that the murders resulted from factional feuds within the PKK.

Throughout 2011 and in the first half of last year the PKK was torn by a debate over what to do about the conflict in Syria. And since last autumn it has also faced splits over a new strategy of peace with Turkey.

President Bashar al-Assad tried to prevent Syria’s Kurds from joining the popular uprising against his regime by granting citizenship to over 300,000 of them left in a juridical limbo since the 1960s. Kurds claim the number represents less than a third of ethnic Kurds who had their Syrian nationality cancelled by the ruling Ba’ath Party.

Al-Assad also ordered the release of over 600 Kurdish political prisoners, some of them after more than 30 years in captivity.

In exchange for Al-Assad’s “magnanimous gesture”, the PKK agreed to forget grievances against the Ba’ath and prevent anti-regime rebels from entering Kurdish areas. (One grievance was Syria’s decision in 1999 to expel PKK’s founder and leader Abdullah Ocalan. Worse still, in a bid to please Ankara, the al-Assad regime had informed the Turks of Ocalan’s new hiding place in Sudan, enabling the Turkish secret service MIT to capture and transfer him to a Turkish prison.)

Thus, the PKK and smaller Kurdish parties allied with it, seized control of key locations including in Darbasiyah, Amudah, Qamishli, Perik, Ayn al-Arab and Efrin. Hundreds of PKK fighters who had fled to Iraq returned to help the party impose its rule on sizeable chunks of Syrian territory.

By last summer, PKK and its allies were manning more than 250 checkpoints in the mainly Kurdish areas of Syria.

Then in July, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani convened a special conference in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, and convinced Syrian Kurdish parties, including the PKK, that throwing their lot with a moribund al-Assad regime was a bad bet.

At the Erbil conference, 22 Syrian Kurdish parties and groups decided to switch sides.

However, we know that a number of small groups, linked to Syrian and Iranian intelligence services, were opposed to the Erbil accord. They continued to regard Turkey as the principal enemy of the Kurds and saw the Syrian conflict as a diversion. Despite its own fight against the Khomeinist regime in Tehran, the Iranian wing of the PKK, Pjak (Kurdistan’s Free Life Party) was also opposed to the Erbil accord.

In autumn the Kurds’ decision to move against al-Assad was boosted by another event. A 68-day hunger strike organized by Kurdish political prisoners in Turkey ended with an offer of negotiations from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The jailed Ocalan, known to his followers as “The Uncle” reinforced the mood of reconciliation by offering to mediate a long-term settlement. The war that the PKK had started against the Turkish Republic in 1984 looked as if it was heading for an end.

PKK and Ankara are anxious to prevent sensitive areas in Syria from falling into the hands of Arab Jiahdists.

Reflecting the PKK’s new strategy, the Kurdish lobby in Paris had become an important voice in support of France’s tough position against Bashar al-Assad.

Thus, whoever killed Sakine Cansiz and her two colleagues must have been delivering a double warning: to the 150,000-strong Kurdish community in France and to President Hollande’s government. France was the first country to recognize the opposition as Syria’s sole legitimate government and to unroll the red carpet for its leaders. Behind the scenes, France has also lobbied European Union partners to prepare for possible military intervention.

According to French terrorism experts the Paris executions could have been conducted by any one of three groups: A Syrian hit-squad dispatched from Lebanon, a Lebanese Hezbollah gang working for Iran, and a splinter PKK faction opposed to reconciliation with Ankara and hoping to forge an alliance with the remnants of the al-Assad regime.

What about involvement by Turkish security services? That seems unlikely for two reasons.

First, Turkish security has always had an unwritten understanding with the PKK not to go into killing each other’s officials abroad. In contrast, Turkish security had no qualms about assassinating members of the Armenian Secret Army known as ASALA in several European capitals, including Paris. Next, Turkish security chiefs have been in secret talks with Ocalan for weeks and would have no interest in such killings.

The killings, so close to the heart of Paris, should remind everyone of the threat that a prolongation of the Syrian conflict poses to peace and security far beyond the borders of that unhappy land.