It was with a mixture of dismay and relief that the Turkish high command received its orders to quit Northern Iraq on Feb. 29, a week after embarking on a major offensive to crush Kurdish rebel sanctuaries.
Ankara’s decision was triggered by heavy arm-twisting by US defense secretary Robert Gates who arrived in Turkey for that very purpose after President George W. Bush had made his wishes very clear.
As the respected Turkish columnist Yilmaz Ozdil put it: “Bush asked us to get out. We got out.”
But there was more to the decision, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report:
1. Turkish special forces failed in their first cross-border engagement on Feb. 25 against the PKK’s forward camps at Hakurk and Zap in Iraqi Kurdistan. They lost 25 to 30 dead in places only 30 km as the crow flies from the Turkish border when they were still some 70 km from the enemy’s main havens in the Qandil Mountains.
2. From that point on, as the offensive continued, it became clear to Turkish chief of staff Gen. Yasar Buyukanit that the army’s main advantage, the element of surprise against the Kurdish rebels – who did not expect an attack during the heaviest snow storms of the year in the Kurdish Mountains of Iraq – had become a two-edged sword. Kurdish generals saw the soldiers held up by snowdrifts 2 meters deep. Even the commandos trained to fight in these conditions were slowed down. The Turkish advance was therefore stalled before it really started.
3. The politicians and the generals in Ankara were deeply divided over the operation’s objectives. The former objected to the latter’s drive to wipe out as many PKK bases and kill as many men as possible.
Withdrawal after a single battle
They agreed only on the presentation of the operation as a major incursion into Iraq for an offensive that would continue without a time limit until the PKK’s bases were rooted out or its forces surrendered.
In actual fact, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources describe the scale of the operation as fairly small, with no more than 100 soldiers assigned to any single engagement – and sometimes less.
The operation ended not only humiliatingly for the Turkish army, but under scathing criticism from the main opposition Nationalist Movement Party in parliament.
On March 4, its leader, Devlet Bahceli, remarked sarcastically that the troop withdrawal had been “rather abrupt.” He went on to accuse the General Staff of giving the enemy inordinate recognition as a legitimate guerrilla organization, rather than treating them as a bunch of terrorists.
In official communiques, he said, the Turkish military spoke of the PKK’s “command and control units” and “manned anti-aircraft weapons locations.” These terms are used in reference to an orderly army, said Bahceli, and when used in relation to the PKK, lent it the significance “it neither possesses nor deserves.”
More than one member of the Turkish high command nodded assent to these remarks.
As seen by the PKK, the purportedly fearsome Turkish troops withdrew after a single battle, cowed by a combination of US pressure and their own misjudgments. The Kurdish rebels came out on top of an engagement initiated by a pro-American army and dedicated to fighting terror.
According to the principles of Moqawamah, they did not need to prevail against the pro-US Turkish army on the battlefield, only stick to the course of constant, persistent and perpetual combat – including in their case, more hit-and-run terrorist attacks inside Turkey – until they grind their enemy down.