Did Turkey lose intelligence operatives in botched northern Iraq operation?

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Cevheri Güven

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) on Wednesday carried out a hostage rescue mission in northern Iraq that resulted in the death of all 13 hostages held by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in a cave complex in the mountainous Gara region close to the Turkish border. Although it has been speculated that two of the hostages were Erhan Pekçetin and Aydın Günel, National Intelligence Organization (MİT) officials captured by the outlawed militant group in 2017, the issue remains unclear as the claims have not been confirmed.

While Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced that the hostages were shot in the head by the PKK, the group maintained that the deaths were caused by the TSK’s airstrikes. Turkey’s authorities revealed the identities of 11 of the victims, while the names of the remaining two were not disclosed. Some have claimed that they were MİT officials Pekçetin and Günel.

Hostages of the PKK for four years

In August 2017 Pekçetin, the head of a department responsible for overseas ethnic separatist movements, and Günel, a human resources manager, were in the town of Dokan near Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan region of Iraq as part of a mission ordered by MİT chief Hakan Fidan to seize high-level PKK members and bring them to Turkey. Instead, they were captured in a PKK counter-operation. A few months later, video footage of Pekçetin and Günel being interrogated were released on YouTube. The video was removed by YouTube at Turkey’s request. The intelligence operatives have not been heard from since.

The Defense Ministry first announced that the 13 hostages were civilians. However, the 11 whose names were released all turned out to be soldiers and police officers. A statement by the PKK sparked the debate over the identity of the remaining two victims.

“Heavy bombardments that took place over the course of three days as well as intense fighting in and around the camp have led to the death of some of the MİT operatives, soldiers and police officers whom we have been keeping as prisoners of war,” the group said, claiming that the attack was aimed not at rescuing the hostages but rather at annihilating them since it was obvious that such a heavy assault would never facilitate the safe rescue of anyone.

“It is clear that the main and only person responsible for the killing of these people is the one who ordered the attack, Hulusi Akar, who is completely devoid of human feelings.”

Controversy caused by the failure

After the operation, Defense Minister Akar and Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler held a press briefing in a room into which only cameras of the state-run Anadolu news agency were allowed. Without taking any questions, Güler and Akar talked about the operation’s “success,” announcing the killing of 42 PKK militants and the capturing of the cave complex that the group was using as a prison.

Yet, the death of all the hostages sparked a controversy, with the opposition claiming that the government had not undertaken any initiatives thus far to save them and only aimed for a “political show” that ended in failure. Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a deputy from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), said the government could have rescued the hostages by negotiating with the PKK via civil society organizations and that it had refrained from doing so for years. Gergerlioğlu’s remarks echoed the content of a letter sent by one of the victims.

Mevlüt Kahveci, a special sergeant held by the PKK since September 2016, had sent a letter to his family in April 2019 in which he said the government could rescue them by contacting the PKK through civil society. In his letter Kahveci had also said that there were 13 of them where he was being held. Kahveci was 31 years old at the time of the operation that claimed his life.

Government’s response targets HDP and Washington

Authorities launched investigations into HDP deputies Gergerlioğlu and Hüda Kaya a few hours after their statements. The two are also known as Turkey’s foremost human rights defenders.

Operations against the pro-Kurdish party followed. The Interior Ministry announced that as of Monday 718 people, including HDP provincial and district executives, had been detained in raids carried out across 40 provinces.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lashed out at a US statement that condemned the death of the Turkish civilians at the hands of the PKK but also said it was awaiting confirmation of the reports, accusing Washington of siding with the PKK.

“If we are to continue our association with you around the world and in the framework of NATO, then you will not side with terrorists,” Erdoğan said. “From now on, no country, institution, network or person can question Turkey’s operations in Iraq and Syria.”

Erdoğan also announced that Defense Minister Akar and Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu would inform parliament about the operation on Tuesday.

Another sign of a further intensification of the crackdown on the HDP came from Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun who on Twitter posted a video with the message “HDP means PKK,” which was followed by calls from ruling party members to shut down the HDP.

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