Turkey’s cross-border incursion into northern Iraq, which began late on February 21 after eight hours of air and artillery strikes, has been accompanied by an equally aggressive PR campaign. Ankara involved Washington prior to beginning operations, while the Turkish General Staff has castigated the media for inaccurate reporting.
From the outset of the operation the Turkish General Staff (TGS) has stressed that “Operation Gunes” (“Sun”) was limited in scope and directed solely against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas. In a message posted on its website, the TGS noted, “The Turkish Armed Forces, which attach great importance to Iraq’s territorial integrity and stability, will return home in the shortest time possible after its goals have been achieved” (Basin Aciklamasi at www.tsk.mil.tr, February 22).
Turkish and international media reports about the scope of the operation are contradictory, with the numbers of troops involved ranging from the low 100s to 10,000. Besides ground operations, artillery were used prior to the start of the offensive, while aerial support came from F-16s flying from a military airbase in Diyarbakir and Cobra attack helicopters (Anadolu Ajansi, February 22). Tanks and artillery have also been used. While several reports indicate that the troops have penetrated 10-20 miles into northern Iraq, one report states that ground operations are occurring in the Qandil Mountains, 60 miles from the frontier (Today’s Zaman, February 24). According to another report, a major goal of the ground operation is to eliminate PKK camps between Hakurk and Qandil (Milliyet, February 24).
As for the scope and duration of the ground offensive, one Turkish media report states that the Turkish Army’s objective is to advance 30 miles into Iraq to forestall a PKK spring offensive into Turkey in a “deterrent operation” initially lasting about 10 days. The action against Qandil is being treated separately from primary ground offensive (Cumhuriyet, February 24).
One day after the offensive began, the TGS issued a press release that complained about national and international media coverage, denying new reports about operations and the number of troops involved. It also noted that several media outlets broadcast news and archival footage that contradicted the reality on the ground and made inaccurate comments based on that footage, giving an incorrect impression about the incursion not only to the Turkish population but to the international community. It also labeled some of the press reports as “lies.” The press releases concluded by noting that only information provided by the TGS should be considered creditable, especially as the PKK was releasing propaganda statements disguised as factual news coverage (Basin Aciklamasi, February 22).
Photos released by the TGS so far indicate that the Turkish troops involved in the operation are specialist forces, not regular units. The photos show personnel entering from Sirnak province garbed in white winter camouflage, some marching at night, while a number of the troops are carrying camouflaged rifles equipped with night-vision scopes (www.tsk.mil.tr, February 22-23).
On February 24 the TGS reported that eight Turkish soldiers had been “martyred” and 33 PKK guerrillas killed in operations that day (www.tsk.mil.tr, February 24). Later reports noted that eight more Turkish soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash the same day.
By and large, the international response has been to urge restraint. On February 22 White House spokesman Scott Stanzel told a press briefing, “We were notified and we urged the Turkish government to limit their operations to precise targeting of the PKK, to limit the scope and duration of their operations” (www.whitehouse.gov, February 22).
In response Ankara has launched a concerted diplomatic effort to justify its actions. Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan has reportedly directed that a circular be sent to Turkish missions worldwide providing “talking points” for Turkish ambassadors to explain Ankara’s targets and goals for the operations (Anadolu Ajansi, February 24).
So far the operation has been notable for the seamless cooperation between the Turkish government and military. Ankara informed Washington in advance of the incursion and embarked on a diplomatic offensive to justify it. The offensive has presented Washington with a fait accompli and underlines the changing dynamic between Ankara and Washington, as Turkey reserves the right to take whatever action it considers best calculated to defend itself from terrorism emanating from Iraq that, despite months of Turkish urging, both Washington and Baghdad have been unable or unwilling decisively to rein in.
In planning the operation the TGS obviously took account of the fact that it had substantial units deployed along the border, as well as the reality that inclement weather had largely immobilized PKK guerrillas in their camps, where a combination of high-tech intelligence, air operations, and special forces could inflict larger casualties than at other times of the year. Further justifying the gamble, besides Washington both Baghdad and Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani have apparently accepted the inevitability of the Turkish offensive, even as Baghdad called for an immediate end to hostilities and Barzani attempted to limit its scope by threatening to resist if the operation expanded to include heavily populated Kurdish regions.
For Washington and the rest of the world, the only available response to the incursion is to adopt a “wait and see” attitude as to whether the Turkish government and military continue to observe their self-imposed constraints. As for Ankara, it has obviously concluded that the time for discussions is past.