Will botched airstrike lead to regional policy changes?
by Christian Sinclair
In late December 2011 Turkish military forces bombed a group of Kurdish civilians along the Iraq-Turkey border, killing 34 of the 38 in the group. Eighteen of the 34 who died in the attack were teenagers. The group came from the villages of Gülyazı (Bujeh) and Ortasu (Roboski) in the Uludere district of Sirnak and the attack has now been dubbed the “Roboski massacre” or the “Uludere massacre.” Ankara said it mistook the group for PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) fighters.
Suddenly, five months after the airstrike against these Kurdish civilians, there is intense media coverage of the Roboski massacre. Previously, there had been precious little coverage outside of Kurdish media circles of what is the largest civilian death toll in Turkey’s decades old campaign against the PKK. So why now? Why the coverage?
The 38-person caravan was en route back to Turkey after a trip across the border for fuel, cigarettes, sugar, and other items typically smuggled over the desolate, rugged mountain terrain in this region. As the group came within 50 meters of the border, the sky lit up with bombs dropped from F-16s in a raid lasting 40 minutes. When it was over, 34 charred bodies were left on the snowy mountain trails. The tragic loss of life sparked protests across Turkey but prompted only half-hearted, inconclusive investigations. Amnesty International says it has “doubts about whether [the investigation] is thorough and impartial and will be effective in identifying what happened and those responsible.” Even with international agencies investigating and protests across Europe, there was still very little coverage of the attack in the mainstream Western press.
Last Wednesday, however, the Wall Street Journal injected new life into the story by reporting that a U.S. drone was involved in passing along the intel to the Turkish military about suspicious activity along its border that night in December. Now many Turkish and Western media outlets are covering the story, albeit with competing narratives about who saw what first. It seems that the media interest now comes from the drones, Washington-Ankara relations, and who saw the caravan first, rather than the fact that Turkey, a member of NATO, killed almost three dozen of its own citizens in a questionable air raid.
In Ankara there is what is called a Combined Intelligence Fusion Cell where U.S. and Turkish personnel sit side by side to watch drone feeds in real time. That night, according to U.S. military officials, a predator “was on an eight-hour patrol along the Iraqi-Turkish border when its American controllers spotted the convoy walking toward the Turkish border.” That information was then passed along to the Turkish military, who then directed the Americans to move the drone out of the area.
But Turkey is insisting that there was no U.S. intelligence provided or that the action taken was based on Turkish intelligence. Turkish President Abdullah Gül said before flying to the U.S. for the NATO Summit in Chicago, that “[i]f the [Turkish] government, concerned authorities, the General Staff make a statement, we all should trust that.” He added that he does not “think it is not right to make such useless polemics.” Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan said the Uludere operation was “action from footage provided by our aircraft not by U.S. predators” and that particular region “was an area of terrorism.” It seems then with this blanket pronouncement that since Ankara had deemed it “an area of terrorism” then it should not be held responsible for what they have called an “administrative accident.”
This is troubling and the U.S. and other NATO partners need to understand the lens through which Turkey views any shared intelligence. A former senior U.S. military official told WSJ he and fellow officers were sometimes troubled by Turkish standards for selecting targets in their long-running battle with the PKK.
There are other, perhaps more troubling, theories about the WSJ report. In a very “creative” spin on the report, Turkish PM Erdoğan said late last week that he thought it “may be part of a project to undermine the Barack Obama administration as the U.S. presidential election approaches” and his take on this report is that it “is meant to make life difficult for the current [U.S.] government.”
The political opposition in Turkey has been quick to criticize Erdoğan and his party. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party), says he has “difficulty understanding this government’s mentality. This government failed in the Uludere case. It murdered 34 citizens.” Deputy CHP Chair, Sezgin Tanrikulu, says that the “reason why the government is keeping quiet now is that it wants to avoid political responsibility.”
Mayor Fehmi Yaman in Uludere charged that the attack was part of a series of government efforts to intimidate the local population and called it deliberate. “The orders for this attack came from the very top level and they will do everything to protect themselves,” said Yaman. Families of the victims said that the “Turkish army knew very well that the villagers, who are poor and uneducated, have used the route to smuggle for generations” and they could not have mistaken them for PKK militants.
Etyen Mahçupyan, columnist for Today’s Zaman, wrote in January that soldiers knew the caravan was coming, stopped them to gather them all in one spot, and then the soldiers “lit a flare to illuminate the region and allow warplanes to savagely shell the region and tear the smugglers’ bodies to pieces.” In fact, says Mahçupyan, it is “very hard to justify the argument that this incident was really an accident; there are a whole host of signs that suggest the massacre was deliberate.”
The questions surrounding this attack on innocent civilians should be raising alarm bells in Washington and elsewhere. U.S.-Turkish military cooperation is in need of review to better control how Ankara uses the information is receives from its American counterparts. There should also be a review of military aid to Ankara and strict controls on its use. Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said he wouldn’t “comment on intelligence-sharing with our Turkish allies” and instead remarked that the U.S. has “an enduring relationship with Turkey.” Perhaps someone at the NATO Summit in Chicago should take the opportunity to raise the issue with President Gül and lay out plans of how this relationship will endure.
In the end, we can only hope that the coverage continues, for whatever the reasons, and that the 34 Kurdish victims of this botched airstrike become a catalyst for policy change in the region. If that happens, their unfortunate deaths won’t be for naught.
(follow Christian Sinclair on Twitter: @sinclair_c)