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Inside Turkey’s raid on Iraqi cave where 13 captives were killed

The aftershocks of Turkey’s controversial raid on a PKK base inside Iraq are likely to pose the first test to the Biden administration in its complex relations with Turkey and Iraq.

Ankara has many questions to answer over the deaths of 13 captives at the hands of Turkish Kurdish militants in a mountainous cave in northern Iraq, but information obtained by Al-Monitor suggests that a potentially momentous Turkish operation might have gone awry at the last minute.

On Feb. 12, Turkey woke up to the news that three officers from the Turkish special forces had been killed and several wounded in the Gara region of northern Iraq, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Turkish border. For more than three decades, the mountainous area has served as a major logistical and training base for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought Ankara since 1984 and is considered a terrorist group by much of the international community.

On Feb. 14, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced that the PKK executed 13 unarmed Turkish citizens held captive in a cave in Gara. Officials identified the victims as soldiers, policemen and civilians, whom the PKK had abducted from 2015 through 2017. Two operatives of the National Intelligence Organization were allegedly among the slain captives. All but one were shot in the head as a Turkish military operation was underway in the area, Akar said, adding that 53 PKK militants were killed.

The southern outskirts of Gara Mountain were already the scene of armed tensions between the PKK and Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) peshmerga forces. Peshmerga forces have struggled to control the area because of the rough terrain, and Turkey’s frequent cross-border incursions in pursuit of the PKK have rarely extended to Gara due to limited means of supply by land. For Turkey, the cleansing and long-term control of the area would require a big military buildup, the support of local peshmerga and strong supply capabilities.

Following Akar’s statement, reports emerged that the PKK executed the captives while Turkish warplanes were heavily bombing the area Feb. 10-11, fueling myriad questions about what Ankara’s original plans were. Early last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said he would give the nation some good news Feb. 10. His expected address to the nation did not happen, leading many to wonder whether Erdogan had hoped to announce the rescue of the captives but instead things went awry on the ground.

Indeed, Al-Monitor has learned that Ankara hoped to hit two birds with one stone: rescue the captives, and kill or capture top PKK commanders Murat Karayilan and Duran Kalkan, who were supposed to travel to Gara for a meeting in the same cave, according to human intelligence Ankara had obtained. The PKK, however, appeared to have gotten wind of the plan and the meeting was canceled at the last minute, well-placed sources told Al-Monitor. Still, the PKK in the area had no time to escape as the first stage of the operation began around 3 a.m. Feb. 10 with about 40 Turkish F-16 jets bombing the area, backed by armed and surveillance drones. It was at this point that the local PKK leader is believed to have executed the 13 captives, believing there was no way out.

After several hours of bombing raids, S-70 Sikorsky helicopters dropped off three special forces battalions to the area. The soldiers lost three men while storming and securing the cave, where they discovered the slain captives. Helicopters flew the bodies to Turkey’s eastern city of Malatya, where forensic examinations took place.

According to local reports, all Turkish soldiers left the area as the operation ended Feb. 14 — an indication that Turkey is not planning a lasting military presence to control Gara, unlike the military outposts it has set up to contain the PKK in areas along the border.

The outcome of the operation has fueled heated debates in Turkey, with opposition parties urging the government to explain why the captives had to meet such a tragic end. The following questions by the opposition are still awaiting official answers: What were the political and military objectives of the operation? Was the raid originally planned as a rescue operation? If so, why did the operation involve air raids that weakened the element of surprise and collaboration with local Kurdish peshmerga that heightened the risk of leakage? Why did some media outlets trumpet a looming operation on Gara days before the raid? Was there any risk assessment concluding that such an operation was the last resort to save the captives? Were there not other options to rescue them?

Meanwhile, pro-government media suggest the Gara raid could be the harbinger of a Turkish military campaign in Sinjar, the Yazidi-populated region of Iraq, where the PKK has gained a foothold since coming to the help of the Yazidis against the Islamic State in 2014. The region, which borders Syria, is about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the Turkish border. Gara is the bridge between Sinjar to the west and the Qandil Mountains — the PKK’s most prominent base — to the east.

In the past two years, Erbil has grown increasingly uneasy with the PKK presence on its soil amid deadly confrontations and the PKK’s sabotaging of an oil pipeline that has cost the KRG millions of dollars. Yet Erbil is unwilling to confront the PKK in Sinjar and Baghdad appears even more reluctant. Under the Sinjar deal that Erbil and Baghdad signed in October, only federal forces should operate in Sinjar, with all other armed groups leaving. Media reports suggest that both the PKK and pro-Iranian Iraqi militias are seeking to undermine the deal and stay in the region. Still, Baghdad is unlikely to join or openly support a Turkish military move in Sinjar.

Two scenarios are being floated in Ankara regarding a possible operation in Sinjar. The first suggests that Turkey would use land and air forces to drive the PKK out unilaterally, even if it fails to enlist the support of Baghdad and Erbil. Such a move, however, is likely to unleash negative reactions not only from Iraq but also the United States, Iran, Russia and the European Union. Moreover, a land campaign to cleanse and then secure the region would require the deployment of at least 5,000 to 6,000 troops for a rather long period, which is a tall order logistically, given Sinjar’s distance to the Turkish border.

The second scenario rests on a possible understanding between Ankara, Baghdad and Erbil, whereby Turkish warplanes would provide air support to a land operation conducted jointly by Iraqi and KRG forces. Ankara has already made such a proposal to Baghdad and Erbil, but both have yet to accept it, Turkish diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

In any case, the PKK’s movement ability in northern Iraq has been notably curbed as a result of Turkey’s military pressure and the toughening stance of the KRG. The struggle for political and military leverage between Ankara and the PKK is likely to intensify in the coming days, affecting Sinjar as well as northern Syria, where affiliates of the PKK hold sway over Kurdish areas. How the Joe Biden administration engages in the issue — the most delicate aspect of Turkish-US relations — will be a key factor in who makes gains on the ground.

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