It seems that the Turkish state, which has incessantly attempted to annex South Kurdistan since 1983, must accept another defeat.
Perwer Yaş, Journalist
Translated from German by Laura Altinsoy
Since the early 1980s, when the Kurdish liberation struggle decided to “return to the land,” the region of South Kurdistan has been subject to many large and small invasion campaigns. Despite its failures, the Turkish state has not given up its 38 years of “border crossing operations”.
‘Hot Hunt’, ‘Broomstick’, ‘Steel’, ‘Forge Hammer’, ‘Hammer’, ‘Intention’, ‘Falcon’, ‘Sandwich’, ‘Sun’ and ‘Claw’ were the most famous ones. Those in the Turkish state that are responsible for the preparation of these plans for the annexation of regions where Kurdish liberation fighters were present have always favoured such bombastic names, and they send thousands or even tens of thousands of soldiers over the border with the help of combat aircraft and helicopter support, expecting great results.
Corresponding photos and headlines were meant to appear in newspapers and as breaking news on television channels. Propaganda and psychological superiority should have been the main pillars of the front of the Turkish state. The administration of the regime, which often receives foreign support, wanted to change public opinion with these extensive military expeditions, as well as break the strength of the Kurdish guerrilla and invade other parts of Kurdistan step by step. The attacks on South Kurdistan, where often estimations did not pay off, began in 1983, became intensified in the early 90s, expanded in 1995 to one of Turkey’s ‘greatest expeditions’ involving 50,000 soldiers, and came to a halt like in 2008 in the Zap region. In recent years, for instance, Heftanîn and Gare have witnessed air and land operations of the Turkish army meeting the relentless resistance of the guerrilla. This article will discuss various critical phases of different extents of the last 38 years that have been captured historically under different names. We will thus look at a panorama of invasion attacks in three phases; concepts of destruction pre-1990, after 2000 and since 2015.
The process that started with the 1983 accord
After the second congress of the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) in 1982 and the decision to ‘return to the homeland’ made there, coupled with initiating the armed struggle, allowed the Kurdish liberation struggle to make strategically important gains in Iraq at the time of Saddam Hussein. While this region bordering North, East and South Kurdistan developed into an important base for the freedom fighters, Turkey launched its first counterattacks in 1983.
In February 1983, during the time of the military dictatorship of the 12th of September, Turkey’s then prime minister Bülent Ulusu and Iraq’s first vice prime minister Taha Yasin met in Ankara and signed an accord that proved significant for the future of both parts of Kurdistan. This ‘border security and cooperation accord’ endowed the Turkish state with the necessary international legitimation for its ‘border crossing military operations’.
When an armed confrontation between PKK fighters and Turkish soldiers on 10 May 1983 in the area of Qilaban (Uludere) led to the death of three soldiers, the Turkish military responded with a protocol called ‘primary solidarity’. This historic alliance between Kurdish forces was again met with continuous annexation attempts by the Turkish state throughout the whole year of 1983.
Mobilising before and after the 15th of August
Before and after 15 August 1984, which is an important date for Kurdish people, is when Turkish security forces launched a critical attack into southern Kurdistan. The goal of the mobilization of five thousand Turkish soldiers on 27 May 1984 under the name ‘Operation Hot Hunt’ was preventing Kurdish freedom fighters from crossing the border and engaging in subsequent actions. The second offensive named ‘Operation Sun’ began on 11 October 1984 and was meant to encircle the HRK fighters (Kurdistan’s Liberation Forces), who marked the beginning of the armed struggle with their attacks on August 15th in Dih (Eruh) and Şemzînan (Şendinli).
The operation in autumn 1984 was unsuccessful and the Kurdish freedom fighters were able to secure a base from Behdînan to Botan and Garzan until Amed. The Turkish state panicked given the expansion of the guerrilla into these regions and viewed the solution as attacking southern Kurdistan, which had been seen as PKK back country. For the first large-scale annexation offensive of that time from air and land, the Turkish state chose the second anniversary of the attacks of August 15th. Interestingly, the operation launched on 12 August 1986 not only bombed PKK camps but also those of the Peshmerga of the YNK (Patriotic Union Kurdistan) and PDK.
The attacks of summer 1986 were continued in February 1987. On 22 February, thousands of Turkish soldiers again entered southern Kurdistan’s territory; on 3 March thirty combat aircraft bombed guerrilla territory of the ARGK (Kurdistan’s People’s Liberation Movement). This up to that point largest ‘border crossing air operation’ undoubtedly was not only aimed at exterminating the guerrilla, but also to weaken South Kurdistan’s other forces and to annex this region while Iraq was tied up in a war with Iran. Even Western media called it ‘Turkey’s attempt to annex Mosul and Kirkuk’.
Between 1988 and 1991, these ‘border crossing operations’, namely invasion attacks into southern Kurdistan, did not take place, as the Iraq government did not license the Turkish state to do so. However, the latter used the unexpected events at the beginning of 1991 and the subsequent Gulf war on 5 August 1991 to push the start button on the first invasion campaign of the 1990s. Special forces of the Turkish military crossed the border in ‘Operation Broomstick’ in the direction of Xakurke and began their attacks. However, they could only hold out for two weeks in South Kurdish territory.
The 1992 ‘Southern war’
At the first session of the parliament of South Kurdistan in Hewlêr on 4 October 1992, two points on the agenda concerned the relationship to the centralized regime in Bagdad and the war with the PKK forces. With a majority of votes the parliament decided on ‘fraternal war’, which became a dark era in Kurdish history. Shortly thereafter, on 12 October the Turkish military and the forces of the PDK and YNK launched an attack which became known as the ‘Great Southern War’ and were met with historic resistance. The Turkish state called these attacks ‘Operation Tank’ as the military relied heavily on tanks this time. Equipped with every technology imaginable and with thousands of soldiers this annexation war was meant to expel Kurdish guerrilla primarily from the regions of Heftanîn, Zap and Xakurke. The tides tuned with the sacrifice of the fallen guerrilla Gülnaz Karataş (Bêrîtan) on 24 October 1992, who fought to the last bullet and did not surrender to the Peshmerga. This again shows parallels from the Kurdish history of betrayal and resistance. After a 45-day war, the PKK agreed on an accord with southern Kurdistan’s forces that led to a withdrawal of Turkish forces back to their border and spurred the subsequent ambitions of the then-president Turgut Özal’s ‘1993 ceasefire’.
Conflict regarding the southern territory
Shortly after the entrance of the team Demirel/ Çiller/ Güreş into the political arena in 1993, the mountains of Kurdistan became the site of heavy fighting in 1994 and relentless resistance from the guerrilla. The Turkish military began with air strikes on South Kurdistan on 28 January 1994. This time the operation was called ‘attack on Zelê’, as Zelê was at that time the most well-known guerrilla stronghold amongst the Kurdish public.
After the attack involving almost ten thousand soldiers amounted to no result, the Turkish army made preparations once again in winter 1995. This time the invasion attempt was set for 21 March, or Newroz, and called ‘Operation Steel’. Following an official estimation by Turkey, 35,000 soldiers were involved and 13 generals were to command this annexation war from four directions. Southern Kurdistan experienced the most extensive attack yet and Kurdistan’s guerrilla responded with iron resistance. According to ARGK war casualty reports, 60 guerrilla fighters and at least 800 Turkish soldiers died before the end of the PDK-supported attack on 2 May 1995. 43 days of fighting cost approximately 200 civilians from southern Kurdistan their lives.
The failed ‘falcon’ of the invasion forces
Despite its defeat in the optimistically launched ‘Operation Steel’, the Turkish military embarked on yet another annexation attempt in Spring 1996 with ‘Operation Falcon’. Since 6 March 1996 the regions Zap and Heftanîn had been relentlessly bombed by combat aircraft. This attack that advanced up until inner northern Kurdistan and to Botan was aimed at the invasion of the Zap region.
The Turkish military attempted an annexation of regions of Southern Kurdistan every year in spring since the middle of the 90s. 1997, however, was the year of two main attacks. The first operation was called ‘Forge Hammer’ and began on 14 May 1997 and 50,000 Turkish soldiers were involved.
In the beginning phase of this war – which was made possible through the active participation of PDK-led forces – wounded and treated PKK guerrillas, journalists, artists and doctors were brutally murdered in Hewlêr on 16 May 1997. The downing of a Turkish military helicopter on 4th July by ARGK guerrilla represented a turning of the tides in this war.
The downing of the helicopter with 11 high ranking military personnel was like an earthquake in Ankara. Two and a half months after the defeat in ‘Operation Forge Hammer’ on 7th July, the Turkish army launched yet another ground offensive in southern Kurdistan, ‘Operation Hammer’. This one lasted from 25 September until 15 October 1997, with 10,000 soldiers involved. This again was a PDK Peshmerga-supported invasion that was aimed at the invasion of Xakurke, and was as its predecessors without success.
Besides ‘border crossing’ invasion attempts of southern Kurdistan’s territory, the Turkish military also launched extensive ‘operations’ in northern Kurdistan against guerrilla strongholds. In 1998 it was against the guerrilla of the Amed region at the borders of the provinces Amed, Çewlîg (Bingöl), Mûş (Muş) and Bedlîs (Bîtlîs). ‘Operation Murat’ on 23 April 1998 with 40,000 Turkish soldiers was led by 24 generals.
At the time of the international conspiracy against Kurdish representative Abdullah Öcallan between 9 October 1998 and his incarceration on 15 February 1999, the Turkish military carried out ‘Operation Sandwich’ from North to South, with the goal of exterminating the guerrilla.
Despite its far-reaching attempts, Turkey has been nationally and internationally largely unsuccessful, which led to a change in their war strategy. The ‘killing from the air’ frequently employed in recent years is rooted in the most intensive phase of the war and was tried for the first time in 1998.
Bush-Erdoğan talks on 5th November
In the 2000s, during a strategic transition of the Kurdish liberation movement, no border crossing operations took place in the course of seven years in the southern Kurdistan territory. On 5 November 2007 Erdoğan visited the White House and was promised assistance against the PKK on multiple fronts by US President George Bush. From the exchange of secret service information to technological support the US offered any help imaginable to the Turkish state and with that gave the green light for an attack on South Kurdistan.
On 2 December 2007 the Turkish army opened artillery fire from its stronghold at the border region of Colemêrg/ Çele (Hakkari/ Cukurca) onto the Zap region and the Çemço region nearby and launched with that a new operation. On 16 December at one o’clock at night the attacks that were meant for Qendîl until Zap were accompanied by fifty combat aircraft.
The main wave of attacks began on 20 February 2008 between 9.30 and 10.00 with the bombardment of the Zap region, which was a main base for the HPG (People’s Defence Forces), by Turkish combat aircraft. According to official Turkish estimates, army forces invaded into southern Kurdistan within the first hour. These ‘mountain commandos’ and ‘special forces’ with more than 10,000 soldiers were flanked by M60-Patton tanks endowed with thermal imaging cameras and 20 F-16 fighter jets.
The Turkish military had to accept defeats at multiple fronts and was stuck deep in the Kurdish region. At a summit in Anakara on 29 February 2008, an urgent withdrawal was decided upon. Büyünkanıt (chief of staff) announced the withdrawal, ‘so carefully as to pull a hair out of the soup’, but at the press briefing of the ministry of defense on 3 March, it was said that, ‘not a single soldier was lost’, however it was basically admitted that the only success of the operation was achieved not during the attack but during the withdrawal. Meanwhile Kurdish media described the Zap epic of the guerrilla with the headline ‘They came on horse and left on foot’.
On 5 October 2011 parliament agreed to proposed legislation regarding further military invasions into southern Kurdistan. Kurdistan’s freedom guerrilla was encircled not only by the Turkish military in the South but also on Turkish soil. While the Turkish forces withdrew 19 days later, on 24 October, the ‘revolutionary people’s war’ in Elkê (Beytüşşebap), Çele (Çukurca), Şemzînan (Şemdinli) and Gever (Yüksekova) lasted until December 2012.
The air attack on 24 July 2015
During the so-called ‘solutions and peace process’, where dialogue and negotiations with the Kurdish representative Abdullah Öcallan took place until the summer months of 2015, there were no attacks on the Medya defense regions. The first air attack after 2012 was on 30 June 2015 and represented the end of the one-sided ceasefire, which had lasted since 2013. The most intense air attack of the Turkish state on southern Kurdistan until that point took place on 24 July 2015.
Almost the entire Medya defense regions of Qendîl, Metîna, Heftanîn, Avaşîn, Xakurke, Xinêre until Gare were bombed by 50 fighter jets. Almost every night there were air attacks, also on many civilian areas. They were part of a new concept of war since summer 2015 directed at the Kurdish people. In northern Kurdistan raids were the main form of political persecution, accompanied by war in the cities, though the extent of invasion attacks changed after 2016. In the South, the Turkish military aims at anyone; civilians, Peshmerga, and the people. In the attacks by the Turkish state in the years 2017 and 2018 more than thirty civilians were killed. This casualty rate was undoubtedly not the end of it. The Peshmerga ministry of southern Kurdistan reported for the period of 1 January 2015 until 31 December 2018 398 air strikes, 425 artillery strikes and 288 attacks on villages. During the invasion attempt of the Turkish military on 27 May 2019, called ‘Operation Claw’ and accompanied by fighter jets, many civilians lost their lives.
Heftanîn, Gare and the attacks of 24th April
With the beginning of the year 2020 the Turkish military had new invasion plans as part of its new concepts of war and destruction. In the night from 14 to 15 June it began with an extensive attack on Heftanîn. After the historic resistance of the Kurdish population, remembered as ‘Cenga Heftanîn’ and which lasted the entire summer, the military attacked on the morning of 10 February 2021 with 41 fighter jets, countless fighter drones and helicopters over the mountain Gare, where there were guerrilla strongholds. According to reports, these attacks, which ended on the night of 13 February, cost 15 guerrillas of the People’s Protection Units (HPG) and 37 Turkish soldiers their lives.
The imperialistic Turkish state began in the night of 24 April 2021, the 106th Anniversary of the genocide of the Armenian people, again with air strikes and land attacks on the Medya defense regions in Metîna, Zap and Avaşîn. It was notable that the attacks were launched directly after phone calls between Erdoğan and US President Biden and the foreign ministers Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Antony Blinken.
After heavy bombing the Turkish military tried to shoot forces from the most important mountain tops with the help of helicopters, but it was met with relentless resistance from the People’s Protection Units (HPG) and the female guerrilla force YJA-Star. It seems as if the Turkish state, which has incessantly attempted to annex southern Kurdistan since 1983, must face yet another defeat.
This article was first published in the July/August 2021 edition of the Kurdistan Report.
For an alternative translation, see here: http://www.kurdistan-report.de/index.php/english/1153-they-came-on-horseback-and-left-on-foot-a-history-of-turkish-attacks-on-south-kurdistan-since-1983-perwer-yas-journalist-august-14-2021