After Garê: Why Turkey's war on terror is misunderstood

According to Ankara's narrative, the West (the U.S and EU) is duplicitous and hypocrite when it is faced with different kinds of terrorist actions or depending on where those actions emanate from. There are numerous reasons in explaining that misunderstanding. Some are of political, others are of historical/social, others are of technical and even others are of legal nature.

There is great difficulty in discussing “counter-terrorism” in Turkey. Even that, in itself, is quite a timid statement, least to say. At the same time, among the “ruling elite” in general or for the present Islamist-nationalist AKP-MHP government, there exists a rampant feeling of exasperation or frustration caused by the perceived lack of understanding and alleged bias when it comes Turkey’s efforts in curbing PKK’s terrorist activities. According to this narrative, the West (the U.S and EU) is duplicitous and hypocrite when it is faced with different kinds of terrorist actions or depending on where those actions emanate from. 

There are numerous reasons in explaining that misunderstanding. Some are of political, others are of historical/social, others are of technical and even others are of legal nature. All the more so, the political lexicon in Turkey too does not translate well into the global lingua franca -English. As in key terms like, state, government, power, nation etc. or in drawing a line between to rule and to govern Freedom of expression meets the “sui generis” sensitivities argument, secular republic is tested each and every time when the president himself or one of the ministers or the spokespersons talks publicly about “our religion”.

By the same token, the “no holds barred” approach to PKK terror, based (again) on the “uniqueness” of Turkey’s geopolitical and historical position argument turns into a “take it or leave it” proposal towards its’ NATO allies. Even there though and through a NATO prism, the activity in Turkey and across its borders in Iraq and Syria, does not fall into “counter-terrorism” sphere but is “counter-insurgency”. “Clear & hold”, “holding terrain”, armed combat UAVs, area denial etc. are all terms belonging in the counter-insurgency tool box. With a quick glance, let’s remember what the then US Secretary of Defence Gen. Mattis had said: “Turkey has legitimate security concerns, it is the only NATO ally with an active insurgency inside its borders.”

So, even when that ever elusive legitimacy or understanding comes, it is provided for the “wrong” kind of activity. And true, counter-terrorism is a multidimensional and complicated field necessitating professional expertise. It is also true that not all the terror networks are the same, both historically and geographically. From Hassan Sabbah’s assassins, to Haganah (1945-48), from anti-colonialist liberation movements to Cold War’s “left-right” extremisms, there is a great variety of terrorisms. It may not be too off the mark to claim that “counterterrorism” actually started with 9/11 and “the global war on terror”. In our day, the West still equals terrorism with AQ/ISIS derived salafi jihadism. 

Whereas in Turkey the story is deemed to be different. In its early decades (and even today according to some), since PKK was founded in 1978 and claimed its first attack in 1984, PKK movement was classified as fourth Kurdish rebellion after Sheikh Said in 1925, Ağrı 1926-30 and Dersim in 1938. It was also customary to establish ideological and organizational affinities between the PKK and the LTTE and the Sendero Luminoso. The latter’s activity in Peru declined significantly with the capture of Abimael Guzman in 1992 and the former was fully and radically defated by the Sri Lankan army in 2009 –which inspires some in Turkey today. In PKK’s case, Öcalan was handed over to Turkey in 1999 and since then is a prisoner. PKK went through organizational, tactical and ideological evolutions. Yet, although cornered or pushed beyond Turkey’s frontiers, PKK is not extinct.

Looking back the years, there are many twists in PKK’s history: Öcalan years in Hafez Al Assad’s Damascus. Initial training camp in Bekaa Vallay (Lebanon) and the move to Qandil (Iraq’s Kurdistan Region). Problematic co-existence with the KDP and the PUK since early 1990s. 2004 schism in command echelons. Öcalan’s ideologic evolution from Marxism-Leninism towards Bookchinite ecological anarchism. And perhaps (to some, enigmatic) additional facts: Monolithic leadership cadre remaining unchanged and including ethnic Turks as well as Kurds. Being listed by both the EU and the US as a terror organization. Secular and gender equality approach among its’ ranks. Failed dialogue and peace processes with Ankara conducted both with the military and the intelligence. To cite a few…

If instead we now look up close, the most dramatic change occurred in Syria. For the first time in its history PKK effectively controlled not only mountain hide-outs but population centres on the plains of Rojava (in Kurdish “the West” or what the US calls the “AANES”). When Kobane was about to be overrun by ISIL that laid a siege to it, Ankara missed a historic and strategic opportunity and, instead of intervening on Kurds’ behalf, looked the other way first, only to grudgingly allow a US presence later. To avoid a second grey area like the IKR just beyond its Syrian borders, Turkey then established itself militarily in the three pockets of Al Bab, Afrin and the East of Euphrates (while Idleb is another matter).

In the background there is the blatant situation of Turkey’s democracy. A muzzled media. Governors appointed as caretaker mayors in provinces won by the HDP. Jailed politicians and civil rights activists exemplified by Demirtaş and Kavala cases. Courts rejecting to abide with not only with ECHR but also even Constitutional Court decisions. Clampdown on HDP members at every level. Ham-fisted policing of even the tiniest public protest. Constant inflammatory, polarizing and discriminatory rhetoric by the government members and ruling coalition’s leaders. A society deeply divided and with very restricted access to real news and clear-eyed analysis. In other words, “war on terror” remains the magic term to suspend the functioning of democracy.     

In this setting happens the Garê Mountain operation, 35km away from Turkish borders with an air-dropped commando unit. Details are scarce. Apparently, the intended targets would be three-fold: Saving the 12+1 hostages. Capturing or killing some high level PKK commanders –who, according to intelligence would be there. Destructing a PKK communication and training rear-base, at the same time, intersecting (again) the Qandil-Shengal-Rojava route. Surprise element was in the timing as winter conditions are harsh and the topography unforgiving. The result is that all the hostages are executed by the PKK and high casualty rate among the commando unit. Officially 52 PKK members are killed and others surrendered. The intelligence proved to be false or late. A cave system and the communication centre are, again officially, destroyed. By default Garê is, at best, partly cleared and not definitely not held.

Under laboratory conditions, a balance sheet like this would have shaken any government anywhere in the “developed” world. There would have been public upheaval as well. Yet in 2021 in Turkey, according to recent trustworthy polls, 47% of the population supports the closing of the HDP which is the third largest in the parliament with 56 members. At the same time, over 60% believes such a move will not contribute to the war on terror. Yet for once, the main government block’s two parties, CHP and İYİP did choose not to play along with the bombastic rhetoric of “national unity moment” and showed political backbone to question the responsibility of the decision-makers in the atrocious outcome that emerged from the Garê Mountain operation. Even if the Democles’ sword is still hanging on top of the HDP and its six million voters strong public support, it is a start. The next episode remains to be written and seen.         

Ergo, just to even start an intelligent conversation with a single paragraph on a particular incident like the ill-fated Garê Mountain operation, not diminished to the mimicry of a cardboard cut-out fake Turkish-Kurdish animosity, one has to re-visit the above sketched short history and facts. As if to talk about a particular quantum physics experiment one has to go all the way back to the apple that fell on Newton’s head each and every single time around. One last fact though is that if there exists a global population of 35 to 40 million Kurds living spread in four neighbouring states half of those are Republic of Turkey’s citizens. As the HDP gets six million votes and if at least half (or probably more) of the Syrian Kurds support the PYD, then that public base is bigger than the entire population of the IKR. Which in turn would mean that a possible clean break of the new Biden administration from Ambassador Jeffrey’s cold war mentality will be timely and most welcome, both for the stability of the region and U.S. national interests.

*Note for the avid reader and a much better and comprehensive study: see venerable Cengiz Çandar’s “Turkey’s Mission Impossible: War and Peace with the Kurds” (2020), Lexington Books.

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