Within a 24-hour period, Turkey’s ruling party and its supporters managed to, first, admit they botched a deadly raid in northern Iraq, blamed “terrorists” for killing people harmed in the raid, and then moved the target to attack domestic political opponents. Turkey’s AK Party, which has been in power almost two decades and has recently pushed invasions of Syria, Libya and Armenia and hosts Hamas terrorists, is now pushing for a new war in Iraq, Syria and at home.
How did all this begin? Turkey claims it is fighting Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) “terrorists.” In 2015, a ceasefire between the government and the PKK broke down and Turkey launched a massive war of scorched earth across Kurdish cities, eventually defeating what remained of the PKK in Turkey. At the same time, the government sought to isolate and radicalize the opposition HDP Party. It called new elections twice in 2015 and used a coup attempt in 2016 to push through new presidential powers, a purse of civil society, and removal of parliamentary immunity. The government threw out 60 of 65 elected HDP mayors and imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the party.
Then Turkey set upon invasions of Syria and increased operations in northern Iraq. Turkey’s ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his associates claimed that the HDP is linked to the PKK and that the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria are another manifestation of the PKK. The US has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria, who are fighting ISIS. The SDF includes elements of the YPG, giving Ankara’s media the talking point that “the US supports terrorists.” There is no evidence of any “terrorist” attacks by the YPG or HDP and the PKK has stopped attacks on Turkey for years. Turkey often says the PKK has killed “40,000” people in wars with Turkey, but most of those casualties were caused by Ankara’s heavy-handed bombing of Kurdish areas, not by PKK attacks. In January 2018, Turkey invaded and illegally occupied the Kurdish area of Afrin in Syria, ethnically cleansing it of Kurds, Yazidis and other minorities. Turkish-backed extremists in Syria often shell Kurdish refugees and Christian communities and kidnap minorities.
Turkey launches a new war or operation against the PKK every time the AK Party appears to be losing in the polls. For instance, Operation Euphrates Shield was launched after the coup attempt in 2016 and the June 2018 elections came after the war in Afrin. Now polls show Erdogan’s party suffering from some protests at universities and so a new war may be imminent.
The current battles in northern Iraq began in the spring of 2019 and were called “Operation Claw.” They had a second round called Claw-Eagle 2 in the spring of 2020 and now a third iteration over the past week. These raids consisted of helicopter assaults and three Turkish soldiers were reported killed on February 11. Turkey presented no evidence of any threat or reason for its new military operation. It claims there are PKK bases in Iraq and it has to keep attacking them, even if the PKK isn’t attacking Turkey. Turkey claims it has a “right” to attack forever because the “international community,” including the United States, have labelled the PKK as terrorists. It was unclear the circumstances that led to the deaths of the three Turkish soldiers, but Turkey encouraged the US to condemn the deaths and was able to elicit a response from the US Embassy in Ankara, in which the US said it was “saddened by the killing of Turkish soldiers by PKK terrorists. Our condolences to the families of the fallen. We stand by our NATO ally Turkey.” The US Embassy in Turkey has a track record of being more pro-Turkey than Turkey’s Embassy in the US. For instance, Turkey does not express sympathy when US soldiers are killed or support its “NATO ally,” the United States. The US statement made it appear that Turkish soldiers had been attacked, when the reality was that Turkey had launched a raid into northern Iraq. Previous US envoys to Turkey and Syria, including Ambassador James Jeffrey, were seen as being very pro-Turkey and critical of US policy in Syria. Turkey’s goal since 2016 has been to get the US to withdraw from Syria, often using the pretext of “fighting the PKK” to get the US to leave.
ON FEBRUARY 14, Turkish media claimed that the PKK had “executed” 13 Turkish citizens in northern Iraq on Gare mountain during a Turkish military raid on a cave where the Turks were being held. Turkey claimed it had killed 48 PKK members in the battle. This appeared to be the same battle or part of a series of battles, where three Turkish soldiers were killed.
Now begins the war of words by Ankara. Turkey claims “13 Turkish civilians” were killed, a claim it fed to Al-Jazeera and other sympathetic journalists who form part of the Turkish government’s media propaganda arm. Turkey is the largest jailor of journalists in the world, so its media is primarily linked to the AK Party today, including national broadcasters like TRT and Anadolu. Turkey is an ally of Qatar, where Al-Jazeera is based. The US State department has deplored the deaths of the 13 Turkish citizens. It says that if reports of the deaths “of Turkish civilians at the hands of the PKK are confirmed, we condemn the action in the strongest possible terms.” The word “if” here and “civilians” is key, because it’s not clear if they were killed by the “terrorists” or by Turkey’s reckless operation. It’s not clear they were civilians.
Amberin Zaman, a journalist, notes that the headlines about the incident have been misleading. She tweeted that of the 13, several are “servicemen” and they include a policeman. Thus, they were apparently not “civilians.”
The real story of the raid may be that Turkey was attempting to create an excuse for a new war, internally and externally. Turkey’s interior minister immediately followed up on the news of the killings by claiming that Turkey must catch Murat Karayilan, a head of the PKK and “cut him into a thousand pieces.” Turkey’s government communications director used the failed operation by Turkey as an excuse to attack domestic political opponents in the HDP. “The terrorist organization PKK carried out deadly attacks, including suicide bombings, for four decades. HDP, its political wing in Turkey, praises and condones PKK violence. Not all terrorists shoot people or blow things up. PKK and HDP are one and the same,” he tweeted. He included a video with HDP co-leader Demirtas with a target on Demirtas. Demirtas has been in prison for years and there is no evidence of recent PKK “terror” attacks or HDP “terror,” but Ankara has manufactured this connection and crisis to excuse a new targeting of domestic political opposition.
On cue from Ankara, the rest of the AK Party leaders began a crescendo of claims to justify a new war. Vice-President Fuat Oktay said “until we eradicate terrorism, we will continue our struggle both within and outside our borders.” There is no evidence of any terror attacks in Turkey, Ankara has simply invented a claim that it is threatened by “terrorism” after it launched a raid in Iraq, in which its soldiers were killed. The target clearly is not the “PKK” in Iraq, but local opposition parties. “Which is worse? Is it not to mention the name of the betrayal nest openly, or to keep a business with its extensions even knowing that the PKK is at the end,” wrote Oktay on Twitter. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted “the West's double standards regarding terrorism and the understanding that ‘my terrorist is bad, your terrorist is good’ continues.” His tweet is apparently aimed at the US, as Turkey tries to get the US on board for a new “war on terror” and to excuse attacks on opposition parties in Turkey under the guise of a war on terror. Turkey’s government has put forward a new hashtag “#KahrolsunPKK.”
AS PART of its new plan, Turkey has not only sought to make the HDP illegal at home, creating a military operation to justify banning it when most of its politicians are already in prison on largely mythical “terrorism” charges, but Ankara is also pushing to get the US to leave Syria and threatening an invasion of Sinjar, home to the Yazidi minority. Six days ago, before the operation on the mountain in Iraq, VOA in the US already had reported that the AK Party wanted to ban the HDP. Conveniently, the military operation now created a “crisis” to then blame the HDP for the killings in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s ruling party also wants to rewrite the constitution. It claims this is to create “rule of law” and a “civilian” constitution, when it has been using the military more than any previous Turkish government and imprisoned more journalists and politicians than any government in decades. It is now illegal to even critique the government on Twitter and people are handed prosecutions not only or tweets, but just calling a politician “bald.” Journalists get multi-decade prison sentences for reporting the news. People are jailed for paintings. It appears convenient that just when the AK Party wants to rewrite the constitution, to keep itself in power the way it did through a presidential referendum, that it would create a new military crisis to justify attacking its political opponents.
It is not clear if Ankara will get its new invasion of northern Iraq, or be able to ban its domestic political opponents, or if the current crisis will merely lead to more tweets and airstrikes. Already Ankara has been pushing Syrian rebels that it supports to attack Kurds in Tel Rifaat and Ain Issa. Turkey may even consider using Syrian rebels it has recruited to fight Kurds in Afrin, and to fight in Libya and against Armenians, to be sent to fight in northern Iraq, according to rumors.
Questions remain about exactly what happened on the mountain and in the cave where the Turkish raid took place. If Turkey were actually a transparent democracy and behaved like a member of NATO, it would have a transparent inquiry into how 13 people it claimed to be trying to “rescue” ended up killed in the course of the operation. Ankara’s pro-government media wants to assert that they were “executed.” Ankara has a sophisticated army with excellent special forces and drones and intelligence, the idea that it botched the raid and all the people it was trying to find were killed appears unlikely. Usually in such raids, some hostages are injured or killed, but all 13 leads to questions about what went wrong. If Ankara believed its own propaganda, that it was dealing with a deadly “terrorist” group, then it was unclear why its raid went so wrong and why it did such a raid in the first place, knowing the odds. If, in reality, the PKK is not as deadly as Ankara claims, then it is unclear how the men died and whether Ankara made mistakes and is now using the deaths to deflect from the mistakes. Since there is no critical media in Turkey and Turkey is prosecuting people who suggest on Twitter that Ankara bombed its own hostages by mistake, it appears impossible to get a full explanation. The immediate decision by the AKP to target the HDP, which had nothing to do with Turkey’s failed raid, indicates a larger question about what the actual goal of the operation was.