On Monday, February 8, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the general public, calling on the Turkish nation to watch him on Wednesday, when he will deliver an important “good news”.
Then, on Tuesday evening, he went on air again to say “God willing, we are going to the moon!”, unveiling a 10-year space program that includes a mission by currently nonexistent Turkish astronauts to the Moon in 2023, on the occasion of the centennial anniversary of the foundation of the Turkish republic.
On Wednesday, as all the wings of the pro-Erdoğan media prepared to air discussion panels consisting of suddenly emerged “Turkish space experts” on the prospective lunar expedition, bad news began to arrive not from outer space but from Gare region of northern Iraq, that two ranked officers were killed in action and another three were wounded during clashes with the PKK forces. Later, a third army officer who was among the wounded, was also reported dead.
The lunar campaign and the promised “good news” were thus instantly shelved, and the public began to be informed that yet another military campaign was under way in northern Iraq.
On Sunday, February 14, the Turkish Defence Ministry issued a statement announcing the return of Turkish troops after the successful completion of the Gare operation. The statement also read that thirteen Turkish citizens consisting of soldiers, policemen and secret service officers, detained by the PKK for five to six years were shot dead in a cave in Gare.
This last detail has the potential to cause heated debate. The question not only of the identity of the perpetrator, whether it is the PKK guerrillas or Turkish soldiers who executed these detainees, but whether it was in any way a hostage rescue operation, seems like questions that will be increasingly being asked and debated in the near future.
The government’s initial strategy has been to suppress any expression of doubt about the official account and to derive a political victory out of this fiasco. Part of this strategy was to eliminate the conditions for such queries. A wave of arrests of around 700 Kurdish politicians and human rights activists across the country followed the Gare withdrawal. The interior and defence ministers threatened the opposition in the parliament warning that questioning the government’s account of the course of events would be considered treason.
Erdoğan’s staunch ally, Devlet Bahçeli, demanded the immediate closure of the pro-Kurdish HDP, which has more seats in the parliament than his MHP, and the lifting of the immunity of HDP deputies on charges of collaboration with terrorism.
The first question mark, however, came from “above”. If the reports of the deaths “of Turkish civilians at the hands of the PKK are confirmed, we condemn the action in the strongest possible term,” the US State Department said. The word “if” here implies that it’s not clear if they were killed by the “terrorists” or by Turkey’s reckless operation.
Probably encouraged by this “divine intervention” from outer Turkish space, the opposition decided not to back the governmental efforts to present the Gare operation as a glorious victory and refused to accept the official account about the circumstances of the deaths of Turkish captives. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu stated that Erdoğan was responsible for these deaths and pointed out that there was no official attempt regarding the fate of these detainees during the six years of their captivity. On the contrary, the Turkish authorities systematically refused to negotiate their release, despite all the calls from their families, human rights organisations and opposition MPs.
Although his ministers try hard to propagate a victory, Erdoğan conceded that the Gare operation had failed in terms of rescuing the prisoners. Apparently the only “successful” outcome of this venture, the original aims and real consequences of which are still hidden from the public, was the Defence Minister’s claim that 48 “terrorists” were killed.
The unveiling of this mystery can begin by asking the original question: If not the fictional lunar expedition, then what was the “good news” that the President promised to give the nation on Wednesday, February 10?
Kurdish sources emphasise that the timing of the operation is in line with Turkish secret service reports that a senior PKK commander was to arrive in Gare guerrilla headquarters on Tuesday night. The real aim of the operation, or the true content of Erdoğan’s “good news”, was therefore to eliminate this commander. Turkish jets began heavily bombarding the area early Wednesday, followed by helicopter attacks and the landing of helicopter-borne troops. The initial ground attack was obviously repulsed by guerrilla forces causing the deaths of Turkish officers.
Pro-PKK sources reported during this time that a camp where Turkish prisoners were held was heavily bombarded by Turkish jets. Turkish air strikes, helicopter assaults and clashes continued for three consecutive days until the Turkish Defence Minister announced the conclusion of the operation. Official Turkish accounts for the casualties is the alleged executions of thirteen prisoners in addition to three dead and two wounded soldiers. However, Kurdish sources cite a large number of Turkish casualties, referring to their observations of hospitals in the Dohuk region of South Kurdistan. No confirmation has been received regarding the claim of the Turkish Ministry of Defence regarding PKK casualties.
A PKK leader, Duran Kalkan, derives from the scale and format of the Turkish military operation that this was a comprehensive invasion attempt repelled by the guerrilla forces. In Kalkan’s account, Turkish airstrikes and helicopter-borne troop landings were carried out on an area 75 kilometres in long and 25 kilometres wide. He estimates that about three thousand soldiers were deployed in the operation.
As if vindicating the hidden objective, Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu made an oath in his parliamentary speech after the operation that he would “chop into pieces” the body of Murat Karayılan, a Kurdish commander. It was also reported that he said, “If the operation were carried out by the forces of my ministry, it would have achieved its goals”.
Psychoanalytically speaking, these utterances are apt to be seen as a true expression of Soylu’s frustrated desire and the hindered objective of the Gare operation.
This is a summary of the facts, signs, claims and possibilities that could be derived from Erdoğan’s Gare expedition. What is clear is that the format of the Turkish action, consisting of air strikes, helicopter attack, troop fire and the subsequent use of some kind of gas as stated by the Defence Minister, hardly allowed unarmed prisoners to survive. Therefore, whichever of the above accounts may be the closest to the truth, one thing is clear: this was not by any criteria a hostage rescue operation.
While the Turkish people are still kept in the dark by the bombardment of disinformation and official manipulation about what really happened in Gare, opposition parties’ reluctance to jump on Erdoğan’s nationalist bandwagon brings a glimmer of hope for the near future of Turkish politics and society.
Much more hope than Erdoğan’s impeding “good news” or his imaginary expedition to the moon.