Turkey’s Generals and Government Deny U.S. Interference in Operation Gunes

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 10

The Turkish General Staff launched Operation Gunes (Sun) on February 21 against a number of locations in northern Iraq occupied by the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Infantry, artillery, and air force units took primary roles in the operation. International reaction to the Turkish incursion was generally mild and tinged with what appeared to be an implicit understanding of what Turkey has endured for a quarter of a century in one of the longest-lasting conflicts still ongoing (New Anatolian, February 23). Internally, however, officials from Turkey’s opposition political parties raised a number of issues in response to their perception that Operation Gunes had been ended prematurely, perhaps because of pressure from Turkey’s allies (New Anatolian, March 5). Even Turkish media outlets said that the exchange “revealed a deep mistrust between the politicians and the head of the army” (Today’s Zaman, March 6).

Inside Turkey, the response on the civilian side to the end of Operation Gunes was immediate. Opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli, for example, was quoted as saying that the unexpected way the operation in northern Iraq ended created “confusion and disappointment.” Bahceli added: “As far as coordination and exchange of information is concerned, a serious problem exists between the state organs. Chaotic conditions existed in the highest levels of the state. The prime minister’s statement that the operation was carried out in consultation with Iraq and that the cooperation between the two sides was commendable is a sign of unawareness and blindness” (Milliyet, March 5). Bahceli’s sentiments were echoed by similar statements from Deniz Baykal, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Baykal was quoted as saying that he believed “the army left the work partially undone… [leaving] pieces within the body after the operation” (Milliyet, March 5).

Emblematic of the deep division between the government of Turkey and opposition voices, the rebuke from the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Turkish General Staff was immediate. The official government reply was delivered by no less than Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek, an indication of how strongly the administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan apparently felt. Deputy Prime Minister Cicek focused on the issue of trust during an address on Turkish national television on March 5, warning viewers of the consequences of the mistrust that had been expressed by the opposition parties. Cicek stated: “You don’t trust the president; you don’t trust the prime minister; you don’t trust the chief of the staff. Can a state and public life be based on mistrust?” (Today’s Zaman, March 6).

It should be noted that even in the early hours of the operation, Prime Minister Erdogan had said that the offensive was limited in scale, stating: “The target, purpose, size and parameters of this operation are limited” and that Turkish troops would return in “the shortest time possible” (BBC, February 22). Just days later, Deputy Prime Minister Cicek stated that Turkish troops would not stay too long because of the weather conditions in northern Iraq at the time of the incursion, which included sub-zero temperatures and deep snow (Today’s Zaman, February 28).

It was the lengthy and detailed response by the chief of the Turkish General Staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, however, that garnered the greatest share of media attention and resulted in softened words from the opposition political parties. After stating categorically that there had been “no influence on the operation from either inside or outside” Turkey, General Buyukanit provided a point-by-point refutation to a media audience. Insofar as the weather conditions were concerned, the general invited those who questioned the decision to not leave units of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in northern Iraq to spend “two days there in a cave.” Further, he said that the TSK’s biggest losses of life in recent years came from the PKK’s use of explosive devices and that those devices “could not be detonated in this season,” referring to the deep snow. “Not a single casualty was suffered as a result of explosives,” according to Buyukanit. In terms of weather, Turkey had turned its former disadvantage into an advantage, declaring Operation Gunes a military success as the first Turkish regimental-sized operation carried out at night and with troops completely on foot. But, he continued, “to keep troops there unnecessarily could have caused administrative casualties,” a reference to frostbite and similar climate-related problems (Anadolu Agency, March 3).

As for concentrating Turkish forces in the Zap Valley area as opposed to the better-known PKK headquarters in the Qandil Mountains, the Chief of Staff characterized Zap as the “nerve center” of the PKK in terms of planning attacks in Turkey, making it a logical choice as the top target. Regarding the length of Operation Gunes, General Buyukanit stated that, while the commencement of an operation can be determined in advance, “its ending is only determined in an approximate way. The date of launching an operation is under your initiative, but ending the operation is not always in your hands.” “Causing the maximal casualties to the PKK,” along with weather and terrain, were the major considerations in determining the length of the operation. Asking rhetorically: “Why did we come back on the eighth day?” the Chief of Staff answered: “We planned it that way” (Anadolu Agency, March 3). In response to the questions and criticism of opposition party leaders, General Buyukanit said that he did not want to enter into a polemic with politicians, but said that it was the military that determines what its task is, not politicians. To underscore his anger, the Chief of Staff promised to “take off this uniform” if charges of outside influence on the length of Operation Gunes were proven (Today’s Zaman, March 6).

General Buyukanit’s strong response forced both of the major opposition parties to clarify their positions, saying that their criticism was meant for the government and not the military. Even afterwards, however, the deep division between the opposition parties and the Turkish military clearly had not been expunged. MHP leader Devlet Bahceli said he did not find the explanations of the chief of general staff “convincing” and CHP leader Deniz Baykal expressed similar sentiments (Today’s Zaman, March 6). The continued criticism incensed Prime Minister Erdogan, who also offered to resign if the accusations of foreign interference proved correct: “If our Chief of General Staff says ‘I will take my uniform off’ and if the Prime Minister says ‘I will take the political clothing off,’ you should either show evidence and prove your criticisms right or you shut up… If you do not shut up, the nation will make you shut up at ballot boxes one day… I do not see any national interest in insisting on this discussion” (NTV, March 10).

The U.S. reaction to Operation Gunes, both public and private, was particularly pertinent to the arguments in Turkey that followed the withdrawal, given the military equipment and training provided to Washington’s NATO ally over many decades. That cooperation was further enhanced in late 2007 with the addition of real-time intelligence data on the PKK’s presence and movements in an area that is all but unreachable even in summer. Within a brief time following the incursion, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: “We continue to express our absolute solidarity with Turkey about the PKK. This is a common enemy of the United States and Turkey… It is also an enemy of the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government because the Iraqi territory cannot be used for terror [and] should not be used for terrorist attacks against Turkey” (Today’s Zaman, February 24).

It was statements by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, however, subsequently echoed by President Bush, which led some observers to conclude that it was U.S. pressure that led to the conclusion of Operation Gunes. Even before reaching Turkey on a planned visit, Secretary Gates said in Australia that the military operation would not solve the problem with the PKK and called for Ankara to begin political and economic measures as well. Secretary Gates pointed to the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan as showing that military operations on their own would not win the loyalty of Turkish Kurds (Today’s Zaman, February 25). Yet, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Ross Wilson, also sought to clarify Washington’s role, pointing out that the United States “had no influence on the [Turkish] military’s decision. The withdrawal was Turkey’s own decision” (Turkish Daily News, March 7).

The press conference conducted by the Turkish General Staff and its chairman, General Buyukanit, laid out in abundant detail the reasoning of the Turkish military in planning Operation Gunes beforehand, its tactical approach while the operation was underway and the considerations involved in making the choice to conclude the operation. General Buyukanit not only provided his side of the discussion but supported each of his answers in a point-by-point manner. While it is indisputable that some nations expressed their concern over the length of the Turkish operation, there is no indication that Turkey’s official plans or positions were changed by those criticisms, including those of the United States. As General Buyukanit stated, Operation Gunes was but one military operation in a series of such forays that began last December after authorization was received from Parliament. According to the general, there will be more such forays in the future on an as-needed basis. It is safe to say that the PKK will not congregate in the Zap area again, either for planning its operations or for last-minute logistics. General Buyukanit’s description of the TSK’s ability to put a 2000-pound bomb into a cave opening will demonstrate conclusively to the PKK that they are up against a qualitatively different TSK from now on and, more importantly, one that can operate at any time of the year.