Metin Gurcan:  What happened in the Gara cave where 13 Turkish hostages were executed?

Political tensions in Turkey are inching up by the day, as the governing AKP-MHP duo is trying to divert the national debate away from the epidemic and poverty.  The sudden announcement of a Space Program and provoking Bosporus University students into demonstrations by appointing a university president who is clearly not acceptable in the venerable traditions of the university can be viewed in his context.  The war against PKK, on the other hand, is real, and is executed with determination and above average military acumen.


The winter campaign to the impenetrable PKK bases on Gara or Gare Mountains the week before is the zenith of Turkey’s growing military capabilities, as the target is 60 km away from the Turkish border and difficult to reach by land.  The military did manage to score heavy damages on terror organization PKK, but failed in two other objectives.  The first is to set up a permanent base in the region to prevent renewed PKK encroachment, the second is the rescue of 13 Turkish hostages, who were executed by PKK.



The executions drove MHP leader Bahceli into visible desperation, who now demands the pro Kurdish Rights Party HDP be closed and the main opposition party CHP be punished somewhat for supporting HDP.


Turkey’s opposition believes the botched operation marks the beginning of the second round of infamous Ditch Wars of 2015, which had transpired between two elections, handing a victory to AKP in the second.  To put it differently, whether PKK incited to Ditch Wars riots, or AKP provoked them, is not important. An imminent PKK terror threat immediately consolidates the Islamic conservative-nationalist base, and motivates them to vote.


Thus, it is important to understand what happened in that lonely cave in Gara where 13 Turkish hostages met their death. Turkey’s premier military affairs expert Metin Gurcan explains in an article for al Monitor:


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.


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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.


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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?

Interested readers are encouraged to read Yetkin Blog for an article struggling with the same questions, link is here



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Published By: Atilla Yeşilada

GlobalSource Partners’ Turkey Country Analyst Atilla Yesilada is the country’s leading political analyst and commentator. He is known throughout the finance and political science world for his thorough and outspoken coverage of Turkey’s political and financial developments. In addition to his extensive writing schedule, he is often called upon to provide his political expertise on major radio and television channels. Based in Istanbul, Atilla is co-founder of the information platform Istanbul Analytics and is one of GlobalSource’s local partners in Turkey. In addition to his consulting work and speaking engagements throughout the US, Europe and the Middle East, he writes regular columns for Turkey’s leading financial websites VATAN and and has contributed to the financial daily Referans and the liberal daily Radikal.