For a man whose supposed rescue mission had left all thirteen hostages dead, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looked awfully happy.
It is unusual to undertake a rescue mission with dozens of bombs and more than 40 fighter jets. One might be forgiven for concluding that hostage rescue was not the ultimate aim of Turkey’s recent incursion into Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)-controlled region of Garê mountains in Southern Kurdistan/Northern Iraq.
The hostages in question were Turkish soldiers and police officers captured by the PKK in 2015–16. If the Turkish government had wanted to see them released, there was no shortage of people offering to help negotiate their freedom, including from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which had been approached for help by the men’s families and regarded this as an important part of conflict resolution. But the Turkish government was not interested.
As Fayik Yagizay, HDP representative in Strasbourg, explained to me: when Mosul was taken by ISIS and the staff of the Turkish consulate were kidnapped in 2014, the Turkish state negotiated with ISIS for their release. And when, just recently, pirates captured the crew of a Turkish vessel, Turkey paid the ransom. On previous occasions, they have also negotiated successfully with the PKK, but for these men they refused to answer any requests for negotiation.
Erdoğan told the people of Turkey on February 8 to expect some good news. Good news for Erdoğan is more war on Kurds and, two days later, people awoke to hear that the Turkish military was attacking Garê, where airstrikes were followed by troops lowered from helicopters.
Despite their hugely superior equipment, the Turkish army did not find things as easy as they had anticipated. The PKK guerrillas know the mountains like the backs of their hands, and there were no captured PKK leaders for Turkey to boast about. However, the hostages were satisfactorily dispatched.
Despite the bombing, the Turkish government, followed by a compliant media, put out a story that the hostages had been shot by their PKK captors. They are using this to justify further attacks on the PKK and on opposition politicians and activists, whom they declare to have PKK links.
On February 15, more than 700 people were detained across Turkey, including HDP provincial and district chairs and many HDP members.
To those familiar with Turkish politics — and not swayed by government propaganda that would confidently declare day as night if that suited their political narrative — none of this is a surprise.
More than a year ago, Peoples Defence Forces (HPG, the PKK’s armed forces) Commander Mahir Deniz, told Firat News Agency: "The Turkish state, which takes no action to take back its security personnel in HPG captivity, has even tried to locate these Turkish personnel and kill them in air raids … They will kill the captives in air raids and accuse us by announcing the incident to the public opinion as 'PKK killed our policemen and soldiers'."
Despite this evidence that the PKK were fully aware Turkey wanted the hostages dead, and the fact that the PKK could have killed them at any time if that had been their intention, the Turkish government is expecting the world to believe their senseless version of events.
When it looked as though the United States might be less than convinced of the story, they were pulled into line by Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
The first US statement read: "If reports of the death of Turkish civilians at the hands of the PKK, a designated terrorist organisation, are confirmed, we condemn this action in the strongest possible terms." The next day, the US put out another statement that, this time, recorded that Secretary of State Antony Blinken "affirmed our view that PKK terrorists bear responsibility".
Erdoğan claimed at a party rally after the first US statement was released that, if NATO members didn’t give Turkey their unquestioned support, they would be partners to murder. And he made it clear he intended to use the dead hostages as a reason to defy all criticism of Turkish incursions into Syria and Iraq.
Every time Erdoğan commits an outrage and the world says nothing — and does even less — it becomes easier for him to commit another. The silence that has greeted the mass roundup of members of the HDP — the third largest party in the Turkish parliament and often its only real opposition — speaks volumes.
A statement put out by the HDP's media office, before the mass detentions, observed: "Ultimately having handed the captives in coffins to their families, the government now seeks to wash its hands out of this disaster and attribute all the responsibility of the losses inflicted by the military operation to our party who has always stood with the families throughout these times.’" The HDP are critical of the PKK, and call on them to release the rest of their captives, as well as calling for an international investigation into the deaths.
The Turkish government likes the symbolism of anniversaries, so it is no coincidence that this is happening on the anniversary of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan’s kidnapping, 22 years ago, when an international conspiracy led by the CIA prevented him from getting political asylum and handed him over to the Turkish state. That international conspiracy against Öcalan and the PKK appears to be almost as strong as ever.
Erdoğan’s falling popularity has only made him more dependent on the openly far-right Nationalist Movement Party, more ready to exploit ethnic and religious prejudices, more determined to use foreign wars to detract from troubles at home and to demand patriotic backing.
Even as Erdoğan doubles down on his aggressive ethnic nationalism, other countries hesitate to upset their NATO ally and trading partner. But our "leaders" will never act unless they are pushed from below, and that, dear reader, is where you come in.