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The Attack on Garê – Kurdistan : A Failed Attempt to Occupy South Kurdistan, Mosul and Kirkuk (Iraq)

Guerrilla`s Victory Celebrated by the people :  An Important Step to End the Occupation, and Genocidal Policy of Turkey in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and the Mediterranean (All File in PDF) 

1. Introduction
2. Occupation and Genocide: A Dangerous Turkish Strategy
3. Post-Garê: Distortion Attempts by the Turkish State
4. Turkey Faces Widespread Criticism After Garê
5. Bringing an End to Occupation and Genocide

1. Introduction

The recent Turkish attack on the Garê region in South Kurdistan (North Iraq) has not only sent shockwaves through the country itself, but was met with huge repercussions in the Middle East and internationally. The reactions spread from ambiguous statements by close allies to open defiance by political adversaries of Turkey. After Garê, the AKP-MHP government finds itself on shaky ground as it is widely considered responsible for the failed attack. As a response, government officials and state representatives embarked on a furious series of attacks immediately after the Turkish defense minister Hulusi Akar had acknowledged the failure of the Garê operation on February 14, 2021. The Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan, his government ally Devlet Bahceli, and the Turkish interior minister Süleyman Soylu promised to carry out even more brutal attacks against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), close down the HDP (People`s Democratic Party), and attack the Ezidi Sinjar region. (All File in PDF) 

Yet, these violent reactions and the deliberately narrow depiction of the Garê operation as an alleged hostage rescue operation cannot cover up the dangerous broader goals behind the renewed Turkish invasion into South Kurdistan: As part of its plan to redraw the borders established as a result of the Lausanne Treaty 100 years ago, the Turkish AKP-MHP government has embarked on numerous occupation attacks in both Syria and Iraq in the past years. Ethnic cleansing, forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of mostly Kurdish residents, the death of thousands, and the depopulation of hundreds of villages have been the gravest of a wide range of destructive results of the Turkish Misak-i Milli policy (National Pact) in Iraq and Syria.

With its recent Garê attack, Turkey has violated international law and Iraqi national law. Unfortunately, it received the green light for its operation from the US, Iraqi and local authorities. Otherwise it would have been impossible to carry out this ruthless operation from the Turkish military base Bashiqa which is located on Iraqi territory close to Mosul. Turkish helicopters, armed drones, and soldiers were deployed from this military base for their attacks on the Garê region. This constitutes strong evidence for the complicity of the above-mentioned forces. The Iraqi airspace is only open to those who have the permission of these forces. In October 2019, a very similar scenario led to the occupation of parts of Rojava – the cities Gire Spi and Serekaniye – by Turkish forces after the Trump administration had given Erdogan the green light. Yet, in Garê the Turkish invasion was confronted with the determined resistance of the guerrilla forces of the HPG (People`s Defense Forces) which did not allow Turkey to gain a foothold in the region and thus expand its occupation to other parts of Iraq, e.g. the Ezidi Sinjar region.

Understanding the broader strategy of the AKP-MHP government behind the recent Garê attack is vital for finding a clear and decisive answer to Turkish neo-Ottoman expansionism that today threatens peace and democracy not only in the Middle East, but also in the Caucasus, the Eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa. By urgently taking a clear stance against this dangerous policy of Erdogan, Bahceli, and Soylu, the international community and societies worldwide will – together with the peoples of the region – be able to stop Turkish expansionism. Thus, the peoples in the Middle East – especially Kurds – will get the chance to build a democratic and free life in harmony with the cultural mosaic of the region. After Garê, the time has come to finally bring an end to the great threat Turkey poses to democracy and freedom.

2. Occupation and Genocide: A Dangerous Turkish Strategy

Since 2016, the AKP-MHP government has massively intensified its attempts to achieve its goal of occupying territories formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire. This has led to a major escalation of conflicts with Turkey carrying out or massively supporting seven wars in the MENA region: al-Bab in North Syria (2016), Afrin (2018), Xakurke in South Kurdistan (2018), Serekaniye and Gire Spi (2019), Libya (2020), Nagorno-Karabakh (2020), and Garê (2021). Five of these wars were directed at territories mostly inhabited by Kurds. Where the Turkish army and its Islamist proxies managed to gain a foothold, a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing, rape, and cultural assimilation has been reported leading more than a dozen major international human rights organizations to accuse Turkey of “war crimes, crimes against humanity, as well as crimes of ethnic cleansing and genocide” against the Kurdish population.

In areas occupied by Turkey and its Islamist proxies the local population – mostly Kurds – is systematically being replaced with Sunni Arabs from Syria and other countries. On December 28, 2020 – for example – a decree was issued by the council under the control of Turkey’s proxies in the North Syrian city of Serekaniye stipulating that local government will offer identification cards for Iraqi refugees living in Serekaniye. What might seem like a random escalation of war by Turkey in the MENA region essentially constitutes a clear strategy to gain control over the northern parts of Syria and Iraq – an area stretching from the former economic hub Aleppo to oil-rich regions in Mosul and Kirkuk. Not surprisingly, Erdogan has repeatedly stated that he considers the borders drawn in 1923 by the Lausanne treaty a failure and has vowed to redraw them.

South Kurdistan has been hit especially hard by these dangerous aspirations. The Turkish state carried out its first attack on South Kurdistan in 1983 and has invaded the region dozens of times ever since10. Since 2007, Turkish air attacks have become an almost daily reality in this part of Kurdistan11. Today, Turkey operates dozens of military bases and intelligence service stations in South Kurdistan which it uses to heavily destabilize the region under the pretext of so-called `anti-terror` operations. The latest attack on Garê constitutes a new step in this plan to occupy South Kurdistan. With the attack foiled by the resistance of the HPG guerrilla, the occupation and genocide policy of the AKP-MHP government has suffered a heavy blow.  Yet, the reactions of Erdogan, Bahceli, and Soylu after their defeat in Garê clearly show that they do not intend to let go of their dangerous policy and instead seek to carry out new attacks whenever given the possibility to do so.

In addition to regular military incursions and the establishment of military bases, the Turkish occupation of South Kurdistan can also clearly be observed in the economic field. After 2005, the relations between Turkey and South Kurdistan dramatically improved. The Turkish oil company `Genel Energy` started to operate in the region and signed a contract for the Taq Taq field in July 2002, even before the US led attack in 2003. In June 2009, the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government), began exporting over 90,000 barrels a day of crude oil from South Kurdistan to Turkey. After a visit by Ahmet Davutoglu, the then Turkish foreign minister, to Erbil in October 2009, Turkey opened a consulate in Erbil in 2010. By 2013, annual trade between Turkey and South Kurdistan had reached 13 billion dollars with eighty per cent of goods sold in the region produced in Turkey. By that year, more than 2000 Turkish companies and over 50,000 Turkish citizens were working in South Kurdistan. This trend has only increased ever since. Today, Turkey tries to increase its influence by expanding its economic ties with Iraq, especially through the Ovakoy-Project which connects Turkey to Baghdad via Sinjar, Mosul, and Kirkuk12.

In order to understand the massive danger this occupation policy poses to the stability of the region and the livelihoods of the local population, it is worth taking a closer look at what happened in Garê from February 10 – 14, 2021. Originally, Turkey had planned to carry out its attack on August 15, 2020 – a symbolic day for the beginning of the Kurdish uprising. But after the death of two Iraqi generals in a Turkish drone strike while they were trying to coordinate border issues with members of the Kurdish guerrilla, Turkey was forced to delay its occupation attack. As a result, it adjusted its plans and started preparations for the occupation of Garê by February 15, 2021 – the 23rd anniversary of the international conspiracy against the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. These two symbolic dates show that Turkey led by the AKP-MHP government still follows the historic and strategical goal of the Turkish state to carry out a genocide against the Kurdish people. In addition to deploying more than 2.000 members of Turkish special forces in ten different areas of Garê, more than 40 fighter jets, dozens of attack helicopters, armed drones, and refueling tankers13 were used in the 4-day-long attack. The relatively small area – about 25 km deep and 75 km wide – was bombed hundreds of times. In a statement on February 14, 2021, the HPG stated that the region had been hit by 46 airstrikes in the last 24 hours only14. One day after the start of the Turkish attack, the HPG warned that one target of the heavy bombardment was a camp where Prisoners of War (POWs) were being held15. Later, the HPG also accused the Turkish army of having used chemical weapons against the POW camp16. According to the HPG, as a result of heavy fighting in Garê at least 37 Turkish special forces were killed. 15 members of the HPG lost their lives resisting against the Turkish attack – six of them while protecting the POWs camp against the Turkish air and land attacks. It is important to note, that both the HPG and the KCK (Kurdistan Democratic Communities Union) criticized South Kurdistan`s KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) for not taking a clear stance against the Turkish occupation attack in Garê. The HPG noted that Turkish helicopters had attacked the region coming from inside Iraqi territory17.

3. Post-Garê: Distortion Attempts by the Turkish State

After announcing Turkey`s defeat in Garê on February 14, 2021, Turkish state officials and state controlled media outlets started a massive propaganda campaign which aimed at deceiving the public about the real goal of the operation while at the same time covering up the heavy defeat the Turkish army had suffered. It quickly became clear that Erdogan, Bahceli, and Soylu had decided to portray the Garê attack as a hostage rescue mission and to aggressively blame the PKK for the death of 13 POWs who had been held by the HPG in a protected camp in Garê. Drawing on the decade-old terror label attached to the PKK, Turkish state officials tried to portray the guerrillas as the murderers of the 13 POWs the HPG had held and protected for six years. Since February 14, 2021, Turkish media reports have been dominated by daily reports about the alleged brutality and ruthlessness of the PKK. Anyone who deviates from this official state propaganda – like HDP parliamentarians, e.g. Hüda Kaya and Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu – is faced with violent attacks by the Turkish interior minister Soylu and faces legal charges. Only one day after the end of the Garê attack, 718 HDP members were arrested as a result of police operations in 40 provinces of the country.18 The aggressive campaign against critical voices led the IHD (Human Rights Association) – an organization that has successfully negotiated the release of POWs by the PKK in the past – to warn that the accusations by Soylu had “endangered the safety of life and property of the directors and employees of the association”. The IHD also criticized the Turkish state for not having relied on negotiations in order to free the 13 POWs in Garê: “The method adopted in rescuing 15 Turkish sailors who were kidnapped by pirates from the ship named Mozart on January 23, 2021, about 180 miles off the city of Lagos in Nigeria, could have very well been employed in this case.”19

The HPG has repeatedly refuted Turkish accusations. On February 16, 2021, the HPG published a statement accusing the Turkish army of having used chemical weapons against the camp were the 13 POWs had been held20. One day later, in a separate statement the HPG suggested that the POWs had been shot in the head after having been killed by the impact of chemical weapons21. While the reports about the use of chemical weapons in Garê are still waiting for further investigations, the Turkish army has repeatedly been accused of using such weapons in the past. According to a report published in 2011 by the Diyarbakir branch of the IHD, the Turkish army had used chemical weapons 46 times between 1994 and 2011 killing 437 people.

A report by the University of Hamburg proved that in 2009 eight members of the HPG were killed by chemical weapons used against them by the Turkish army in Çukurca (Colemerg).22 In July 2011, the Kurdish guerrilla fighter Bedran Kaya was reportedly killed by chemical weapons used by the Turkish army in the Şemdinli district of the province Hakkari.23 During the occupation operation in the North Syrian city Serekaniye in October 2019, Turkey also used white phosphorus as reported by several international media outlets.24 In contrast, the PKK has officially signed the Geneva Convention on January 24, 1995 guaranteeing to protect all POWs25. All 335 persons whom the PKK had taken prisoner during 1990 and 2012 were later released with the help of the Turkish parliament, international human rights organizations, and civil rights organizations in Turkey.26 Currently, the need for further investigations and research in the Garê region is being obstructed by Kurdish local authorities who don`t allow journalists to visit the area. This clearly does not serve the urgent need for a transparent and comprehensive investigation into the brutal attack of Turkey on the Garê region.

4. Turkey Faces Widespread Criticism After Garê

The Garê attack did not only end in a military fiasco for the AKP-MHP government. Shortly after the end of the failed operation, opposition parties in Turkey started to criticize Erdogan, Bahceli, and Soylu for their decision to start a new war. On February 16, the HDP co-Chair Mithat Sancar criticized Erdogan for carrying out the attack: “The government has a very clear and heavy political responsibility, this responsibility is in at least two areas. The first of these is the way the operation was carried out, the second is that the options other than the operation have not been considered. What was the purpose of the operation? No information was given to the public on this issue at the beginning of the operation, but we understand from the President’s speech yesterday that the aim was to rescue these officials. If the aim was to save these officials, should the operation have been done this way? 41- 42 fighter jets dropped bombs for days. Under such conditions, was it possible to save these people?” He also demanded an independent investigation of the events in Garê: “What can be done? Of course, an independent investigation commission can be formed. One of the most effective ways to reveal the causes and forms of death of those who lost their lives is to share the autopsy reports with the public in detail. Therefore, we say that reliable, independent, and impartial mechanisms should be operated.”27 The leader of the Republican People`s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, criticized the AKP-MHP government for not seeking the help of civil society organizations in order to free the 13 POWs held by the PKK. He drew a clear conclusion from the 4-day-long attack: “Normally someone should take responsibility and resign. You go to rescue hostages and they die. The person responsible for our 13 martyrs is Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”28 The former Turkish soldier Yannis Vasilis also commented on the death of the 13 POWs. He had himself been taken prisoner by the PKK in 1994 and was later released. Regarding the latest Turkish attack on Garê he said: “The PKK announced that within the scope of the Garê war, the Turkish army hit the camp where the captive soldiers were kept. As a former captive soldier, I can say that the Turkish Army Forces followed the same method many times in the past. […] Once again it showed that it will do all kinds of games to kill its own soldiers and blame the PKK.”29

The attack on Garê was also heavily criticized by both the South Kurdish and Iraqi public. The Kurdistan Communist Party (KCP) condemned the operation calling it an “occupation by the Turkish army” and called on the UN to stop Erdogan whom the party called “the reason for chaos and instability in the region”.30 The Kurdistan Toilers Party (KTP) also condemned the Turkish attack on South Kurdistan and stated that “they won`t be able to solve the Kurdish question by waging war”. In its statement, the KTP called on the international community to quickly bring an end to the Turkish invasion.31 The Kurdistan Democratic Communities Union (KCK) criticized “the genocidal, colonialist Turkish army” for attacking Garê and warned that “the Turkish state intends to crush our Freedom Movement and carry out a genocide against the Kurdish people”. In its statement on February 11, the KCK concluded that “the Kurds need to rise up everywhere against the occupying, genocidal Turkish state and defeat the attacks in order to bring an end to the occupation”.32 On February 11, the Democratic Self-Government Council of Sinjar (MXDŞ) criticized the attack on Garê and warned that it aimed at “annihilating the Kurdish society”. The MXDŞ called on “the Iraqi government to bring an end to these attacks”.33 Mele Bextiyar, a member of the High Council of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), also publicly criticized Turkey for attacking Garê: “The Kurdish question cannot be solved through military means. Turkey needs to opt for peace.”34 Arêz Abdula, member of the PUK leadership, called on Turkey “to draw a lesson from its defeat in Garê and opt for ways of peace”.35 South Kurdistan`s veteran politician Dr. Mehmûd Osman called Turkey`s operation “an attack on South Kurdistan and Iraq” and stated it was not about the PKK, but targeted South Kurdistan as a whole which would “suffer great harm” form the attack.36 Mihemed Emîn Pênciwên, a veteran politician from South Kurdistan, also voiced strong criticism: “Those Kurdish groups who are aligned with Turkey also know that the target of Turkey`s attacks is not only the PKK, but aims at weakening the power of the other South Kurdish parties, too.”37 The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) called on “the international community and the UN to condemn the Turkish invasion”. The ICP criticized both the South Kurdish and the Iraqi governments for their silence towards the Turkish attack on Garê and called on Turkey “to stop its attacks and withdraw its troops from Iraq”.38 The head of the Defense and Security Committee of the Iraqi Parliament, Mehemed Rîda El-Heyder, warned that Turkey had begun to occupy Iraqi territory and called this a violation of treaties between the two countries.39

Criticism has also been voiced internationally. The French journalist Pierre Haski observed that Erdogan had decided to use the defeat of Garê for a renewed crackdown on critical voices in Turkey and warned that the provocative rhetoric of the Turkish president could backfire in the future.40 In the German newspaper junge Welt Nick Brauns called the events in Garê a “victory for the guerrilla” and warned about an imminent “nationalist campaign” that would “especially target the left-wing party HDP which has many Kurdish supporters”.41 In the Jerusalem Post Seth J. Frantzman concluded that “Turkey botches raid” and went as far back as 2015 to contextualize the attack on Garê as part of a broader war by the Turkish state against the Kurdish people. “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,”42 wrote Frantzman thus clearly questioning the depiction as a hostage rescue mission. He observed that “Turkey presented no evidence of any threat or reason fr its new military operation” and referred to “the circumstances that led to the deaths of the three Turkish soldiers” as “unclear”. Concerning the death of the 13 POWs Frantzman concluded that “usually in such raids, some hostages are injured or killed, but all 13 leads to questions about what went wrong” and critically observed: “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.” Gökay Akbulut, MP of the German Left Party, also criticized on February 13 that there was no justification for the Turkish war in South Kurdistan since there had not been any attacks from the region43.

5. Bringing an End to Occupation and Genocide

Although the attack on Garê should have never happened in the first place, the defeat of the Turkish army and the violent reactions of Erdogan, Bahceli, and Soylu now offer the opportunity to tackle a fundamental problem: the existence of the warmongering AKP-MHP government. The role Turkey has played in the escalation of wars in Syria, Iraq, Azerbaijan or Libya has made it clear that Erdogan and his allies are determined to pursue a ruthless policy of occupation and genocide whenever they are given the green light. Although a failure, the recent attack on the Garê region constitutes a new level of escalation in this dangerous plan. If it had succeeded, the AKP-MHP government and its military would now be carrying out new attacks on the Ezidi Sinjar region and Kandil thus throwing South Kurdistan and Iraq in a complete state of chaos. Erdogan would have used a victory in Garê to bolster his position for early elections in Turkey. The attack on Garê has also clearly shown that the debate about reforms and a new constitution in Turkey is simply a deception. With this empty discussion, Erdogan and his supporters aim at covering up their escalation of war and at keeping the opposition in Turkey busy. Due to the success of the HPG in Garê, Erdogan, Bahceli, and Soylu were forced to take a step back. Yet, this does not mean that they have given up on their occupation and genocide policy that constitutes a life-threatening danger to the Kurdish people and the cultural mosaic of the Middle East. Only by increasing the international pressure on the AKP-MHP government and clearly sanctioning any attempts to carry out occupations or genocide attacks will the international community be able to live up to its responsibility for democracy and freedom. With international support the ever-growing opposition within Turkey`s society will be able to overthrow their autocratic government and pave the way for a democratic and free future of Turkey. This will also have a huge effect on the Middle East as a whole and allow for the democratization of Turkey`s neighboring countries. With the AKP-MHP government gone, Turkey and the Middle East will get the chance they deserve to bring an end to the decade long chaos and wars. The peoples of the region – especially the Kurds – would directly benefit from the fall of Erdogan, Bahceli, and Soylu. Therefore, it is now important to seize the opportunity the Turkish defeat in Garê has offered: holding Erdogan, Bahceli, and Soylu accountable for their crimes and opening the door for a democratization of Turkey.

Once again, it is very important for the international community not to let itself be manipulated by the attempts of the AKP-MHP government to portray their occupation plan as a hostage rescue operation. It is well-known that until today the PKK has released all its POWs after negotiations made possible by international and Turkish NGOs. In Garê, Turkey could have used such peaceful means to free its citizens held by the PKK for over six years. But Turkey decided to kill them. Those responsible in the Turkish military and political leadership for the operation knew that attacking the POWs camp with over 40 fighter jets, dozens of helicopters, and armed drones for four days and using chemical weapons would only result in the death of everybody inside this camp.

On February 22, 2021, the HPG commander Murat Karayilan accused the Turkish army of using chemical weapons and called on independent international committees to visit Garê. Karayilan called for international justice and for an international committee to conduct an urgent inquiry regarding the reports of both the Turkish state and the PKK. He also stressed that 15 HPG guerrilla fighters were killed while doing everything they could to protect the Turkish POWs. This shows clearly that the POWs were deliberately killed by the Turkish army. Karayilan also offered to grant access to the corpses of the killed guerrillas in order for an independent committee to investigate what exactly led to their death.

For more information please contact: 

Kurdistan National Congress – KNK
Tel. :+32.2647 3084  Fax:+32.2647 6849