Turkish Defence Minister Akar on his way out, barring miracle - Salih Zeki Tombak

Turkey’s recent military operation in northern Iraq’s Gara region failed and 13 men held prisoner by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were killed as a result. It may be Defence Minister Hulusi Akar who will end up footing the bill for the failure, as state tradition is for commanders to take the blame if a significant incursion ends in failure, researcher Salih Zeki Tombak told Ahval in a podcast.

“For Akar, signs had been gathering for a while that he might have been the one to be stuck with the bill. Barring a miracle, Akar is going to lose his head,” Tombak said.

Tombak, who was expelled from the Turkish Military Academy for his left-wing views, believes that this much hyped operation went further out of control for Akar than originally expected. 

Before Operation Claw Eagle 2 began, Akar met with the Iraqi central government and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. The visits were seen as a sign of the significance of the operation, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he would give "good news" on the day the operation launched.

The operation grounds were rocky with many cliffs and deep valleys, making it difficult for a conventional army to hold. As such, the PKK had a relatively easier time maintaining control over the area for a long time, using it as a safe path for logistics.

On Feb. 11, during a visit to Azerbaijan, Akar cited the reason for the operation as intelligence services picking up PKK preparations for an attack on Turkey, and stockpiling for the attack in the area. It was later revealed, after the death of the 13 men, that the operation had originally aimed to rescue them.

During the operation, Turkey conducted an intense airstrike, followed by a helicopter dispatch of Special Forces units. “We know that it was Combat Search and Rescue (MAK) and Underwater Offence units with bomb training that were dispatched at the time, from who Akar thanked later on,” said Tombak.

The PKK’s armed wing, People’s Defence Forces (HPG), retaliated and clashes continued alongside another airstrike later on. Turkey said there were three casualties from the army’s side, and around 50 HPG fighters.

Akar’s original statement on Feb. 11, which didn’t mention any hostages at all, didn’t make sense, as special forces can’t handle such an operation to hold ground and would need supporting forces, according to Tombak.

After the deaths were discovered, the pro-government media’s coverage focused on the men almost entirely, he added. Chief of Staff Yaşar Güler gave a presentation to parliament afterwards, which showed detailed planning and terrain modelling. “It can be said that there probably are other operation plans being drafted right now in northern Iraq and Syria,” he said. “Such plans don’t start being made when there already is a need for them.”

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and its far-right ally Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), haven’t ever put “that much importance” on rescuing captured personnel, Tombak said. “Especially those who spend a long time under PKK’s rule are considered missing in action. As such, nobody starts negotiations or hostage exchanges.”

“Not one soldier was brought back from the PKK via an operation,” Tombak said. “All soldiers, policemen and other hostages were brought back upon the initiative of civil society and individuals.”

The U.S. State Department condemned the deaths while saying, “if reports of the death of Turkish civilians at the hands of the PKK, a designated terrorist organization, are confirmed”, due to the Turkish authorities’ “bad rep” regarding black propaganda and loss of life situations.

Turkey says the men were executed at point blank range, while the PKK says they were killed due to the airstrikes.

“It’s impossible to know the exact truth of the matter, but if the state actually wanted to rescue the 13 men, this is not how they would go about doing that,” Tombak said. “If that was the real aim, it would be ridiculous for both Akar and Güler to say the operation had been ‘a resounding success’, as they died.”

Was this a rescue operation? Tombak doesn’t think so. “With its diplomacy, military preparation, size of on-the-ground forces, media planning, domestic politics effects, this can’t be a small scale operation,” he said.

According to Tombak, Turkey wants to continue its operations up to Iraq’s Shingal (Sinjar) region, home to the Kurdish religious minority the Yazidis, and remain in the area after pushing the PKK out.

If the Turkish army can manage what it wishes to do and do it before the new U.S. government is settled in its regional policies, Ankara will have a very strong hand at negotiations, Tombak said.

Critics say such a move would continue the Yazidi massacres that the Islamic State (ISIS) carried out between 2014 and 2017. But the United States, although it has condemned the attacks against Yazidis strongly, isn’t too happy with the presence of the PKK in northern Iraq either, Tombak said, adding that Washington was likely to continue a policy of PKK-free Iraq, while both the central and Kurdistan regional governments in Iraq would prefer the PKK to have less influence among Kurds.

Baghdad and Erbil often don’t object to Turkey’s operations against the PKK due to this very discontent, he said.

The United States’ approach is more complicated: While Washington designates PKK a terrorist organisation, as does Turkey, it supports the Syrian group People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers to be the Syrian offshoot of the PKK.

Washington tends to favour a continued partnership with the YPG in the areas of northern Syria that are to the east of the river Euphrates, Tombak said.

Meanwhile Russia doesn’t consider either of these organisations to be terrorists, and wants them to collaborate with the Syrian central government, he added, and hand over control in territories with oil fields and other important assets.

“Of course this demand comes with a promise for legal status for Syrian Kurds,” he said.

According to the researcher, Soviet-era tradition of granting autonomy to a region still continues as an ordinary thing. The alternative to Russia’s plan, which Kurds could reject based on their historic mistrust of Baathist regimes, would be “to just allow Turkey to conduct its operations against Kurds”, resulting in massive losses.

If the operation had been successful, if Turkey managed to capture one or several high-ranking PKK members like second-in-command Murat Karayılan, who was confirmed to be in the area by intelligence reports, Erdoğan “could have ridden that high to any polls”, Tombak said. “In the meantime, nobody actually cared too much about whether the hostages were rescued, or at least alive.”

All that the Turkish government has to show for the operation is more than a dozen dead bodies, he said. Such failure despite the large scale of forces deployed may have paved the way for long-term reputation loss.

“However, the government sits on a very strong propaganda machine,” he added. The media campaign has focused on demonising Kurdish political opposition, while pulling the rest of the opposition back into line with the AKP.

“The pro-government media will almost make it look like the students of Boğaziçi University were responsible for the death of 13 people, as they tried to enjoy their winter break,” Tombak said. This is a level of fantastical evil that accompanies a scene reminiscent of mornings after military coups, with hundreds of people being taken into custody from their homes in midnight raids over social media posts.”

“Courtesy of Communications Director Fahrettin Altun and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu,” he concluded.

Salih Zeki Tombak, born in 1955, is a writer and poet, and was a left-wing politician in the years leading up to Turkey's military coup of 1980. He is a senior participant in the Unity for Democracy (DIB) platform, established in 2016 to oppose emergency rule in Turkey and to promote human rights, secularism and a return to a parliamentary system of government.