Death of 13 Turkish hostages sparks debate about military operation

The killing of 13 Turkish hostages in Iraq by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has caused anger, and also a debate about the possibility of a wide-scale operation by Turkey. The hostages were executed in the Gara region, inside a special PKK cave “prison.”

It has been claimed they were former soldiers and police officers, although Turkey has said they were civilians.

Turkey lost three of its troops during the cross-border operation, which began on Wednesday, while 48 PKK fighters were killed.

The PKK is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and EU. It has been fighting against the Turkish state since 1984, with more than 40,000 people killed so far.

Turkey said the hostages, who were held captive for years, were killed by the PKK. But the People’s Defense Center, which is the party’s military wing, said that Turkish forces shelled the cave, leading to the hostages’ death.

A military expert, who requested anonymity, said that those captured were automatically considered as civilians in Turkish military procedures.

“However, I don’t expect a bigger operation in the region for now,” the expert told Arab News. “The winter conditions are so hard there to sustain any military move.”

Similar operations — to free captives from the hands of the PKK — have been mediated by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
But such mediation has become unlikely given the HDP’s alleged ties to the PKK.

“Turkish forces are now occupying a couple of villages lower down from the Gara mountain hideout, through which PKK fighters and their supplies have to move,” analyst Bill Park, a visiting research fellow at King’s College London, told Arab News.

“The Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) seems to be going along with it, because they are dependent on Turkey in many ways and because they also don’t welcome the PKK presence. But it is evident that they are also embarrassed, as local Iraqi Kurds don’t welcome Turkey’s presence and often suffer from its bombing and other raids.”

He added that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which has been always closer to the PKK and less trusting of Turkey, had been more critical of this intensified Turkish action.

Last year, following its Operation Claw-Tiger against PKK insurgents along the Qandil mountains that host PKK headquarters, Turkey was leaving its military footprint deeper into northern Iraq with plans to set up temporary bases in the region in order to better target the party’s hideouts, routes and logistic capabilities.

BACKGROUND

• The PKK is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and EU. It has been fighting against the Turkish state since 1984, with more than 40,000 people killed so far.

• Turkey said the hostages, who were held captive for years, were killed by the PKK. But the People’s Defense Center, which is the party’s military wing, said that Turkish forces shelled the cave, leading to the hostages’ death.

• A military expert, who requested anonymity, said that those captured were automatically considered as civilians in Turkish military procedures.

Iraqi Kurds feared that this expanded presence meant a longer and maybe permanent presence in their territory, he added.

“It does indeed look like Turkey is digging in for a long stay, as in northern Syria too.”

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party and its ally the Nationalist Movement Party keep calling for the closure of the HDP. The latest PKK attack is likely to trigger more political actors to repeat such demands by blaming the HDP.

Park said that the policy line from the new US administration would also be a factor in terms of Turkey’s Iraq moves, as President Joe Biden’s team is expected to focus on fighting the remnants of Daesh in Syria with the help of local allies the Syrian Kurds.

“The Turkish approach is also complicated by the presence of the Syrian Kurdish PYD/YPG forces in Syria, and the anger of a growing number of increasingly radicalized young Iraqi Kurds. Indeed, Turkish actions in northern Iraq are partly driven by developments in northern Syria,” Park said.

Turkey has been pressing the US to end its policy of arming the Syrian Kurds, who are in close contact with their offshoots in Iraq.

“There is far more sympathy in Washington for the general Kurdish causes now, both in Congress and in the Biden administration. So, Turkey’s diplomatic relations will be made more difficult by this attempt at a military crackdown,” Park said.

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