"They came on horseback and left on foot"

The History of Turkish Attacks on South Kurdistan since 1983

Perwer Yaş, Journalist


Since the early 1980s, when the Kurdish liberation struggle decided to "return to the land," South Kurdistan has repeatedly been the target of numerous Turkish invasion campaigns, both large and small. Despite its many defeats, the Turkish state has not given up its 38-year-old occupation attempts. "Hot Hunt", "Broom", "Steel", "Forge Hammer", "Hammer", "Intent", "Hawk", "Sandwich", "Sun" and "Claw" were the names of the most famous of these occupation operations. Those responsible in the Turkish state for preparing occupation plans for areas where the Kurdish Freedom Guerrillas were located always preferred such bombastic names. They repeatedly sent thousands or even tens of thousands of soldiers, complete with fighter jets and helicopter support, across the border, counting firmly on their success.


Corresponding success stories were to appear as headlines in the newspapers and as top news on Turkish television channels. Propaganda and psychological superiority were the main pillars of the Turkish state's efforts. For while the various Turkish regimes, which always received foreign support, sought to change the agenda of the Turkish public with these large-scale military expeditions, they also sought to break the power of the Kurdish Freedom Guerrilla and to advance into South Kurdistan.


The attacks on South Kurdistan, in which very often the Turkish state's calculation did not add up, began in 1983, intensified in the early 1990s, expanded in 1995 into one of the largest "Turkish expeditions" with the participation of nearly 50,000 troops, and eventually faltered, as in 2008 in the South Kurdish Zap area. In recent years, for example, Turkish army airborne operations in the South Kurdish regions of Heftanîn and Gare have met relentless resistance from the guerrilla.


This article will focus on various critical phases of varying magnitude over the past 38 years, which have gone down in history under different names. We will look at an overall picture of the Turkish occupation attacks on South Kurdistan in three main periods: concepts of destruction until 1990, after 2000, and since 2015.


The Process after the 1983 Agreement

After the 2nd Congress of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] in 1982 and the decision there to "return home" and take up the armed struggle, the Kurdish liberation struggle led to strategically important successes in South Kurdistan, then occupied by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. While this region bordering the north, east and west of Kurdistan developed into an important base for the Kurdish freedom fighters, the Turkish state began its first counterattacks in 1983.

In February 1983, at the time of Turkey's September 12 military dictatorship, the Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ulusu and Iraqi First Deputy Prime Minister Taha Yasin met in Ankara and signed an important agreement that would later affect the future of North and South Kurdistan. This " Border Security and Cooperation Agreement" provided the Turkish state with the necessary international legitimacy for its so-called "cross-border military operations".


In response to an armed clash on May 10, 1983, between PKK fighters and Turkish soldiers in the outskirts of Qilaban (Uludere), in which three Turkish soldiers were killed, the Turkish military launched an invasion on May 25, 1983, with nearly 10,000 forces in the area between Zaxo and Amêdî (Amediye) and advanced five kilometers into South Kurdish territory. This in turn prompted the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein to launch a large-scale operation from the south against the camps of the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] peshmerga and PKK fighters. This joint attack by the colonial states led to the joint protocol "Primary Solidarity" between the PKK and the KDP leadership in July 1983. This historic alliance between the two Kurdish forces was in turn followed by occupation attacks by the Turkish state throughout 1983.


Mobilizations Before and After August 15, 1984

Before and after August 15, 1984, which is a historically important date for the Kurdish people, two critical attacks by the Turkish security forces on South Kurdistan took place. The aim of the first attack, which started on May 27, 1984 as "Operation Hot Hunt" with the mobilization of five thousand Turkish soldiers, was to prevent the Kurdish freedom fighters from crossing the border and carrying out attacks. The second offensive, called "Operation Sun," began on October 11, 1984, and was intended to encircle the HRK [Kurdistan Liberation Forces] fighters, who had earlier marked the beginning of armed resistance with the August 15, 1984 attacks in Dih (Eruh) and Şemzînan (Şemdinli).


However, the operations in the fall of 1984 were unsuccessful. The Kurdish Freedom Guerrilla then succeeded in spreading from the Behdînan and Botan regions via Garzan all the way to Amed. The Turkish state was terrified by the spread of the guerrilla in this large area and saw the only solution in attacks in South Kurdistan, which was considered the "hinterland of the PKK". The second anniversary of the August 15 attacks was chosen for the first major occupation offensive by land and air at that time. Interestingly, during this operation, which began on August 12, 1986, not only PKK camps were bombed but also bases of the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] and KDP peshmerga.


The attack of summer 1986 continued in February 1987. On February 22, thousands of Turkish soldiers again invaded South Kurdish territory. On March 3, thirty fighter planes bombed the territories of the ARGK [People's Liberation Army of Kurdistan] guerrilla. This so-called "cross-border air operation", the largest to that date, was undoubtedly not only aimed at destroying PKK forces, but also at weakening other forces of South Kurdistan and occupying this region of Iraq, which was at war with Iran at the time. Even Western media at that time called the attacks "Turkey's rehearsal to occupy Mosul and Kirkuk".


Between 1988 and 1991, these so-called "cross-border operations", in other words invasion attacks on South Kurdistan, did not take place because the Iraqi government did not give permission to the Turkish state to do so. However, the Turkish government took advantage of the unexpected developments in the region after the Gulf War, which broke out in early 1991, and on August 5, 1991, pressed the start button for the first invasion campaign of the 1990s. Special Turkish military commandos crossed the border into the South Kurdish region of Xakurke in this "Operation Broom" and began their attacks, but were only able to hold on to South Kurdistan's territory for two weeks.


The "Southern War" in 1992

In the first session of the South Kurdish parliament in Hewlêr [Erbil] on October 4, 1992, two items on the agenda concerned relations with the Baghdad regime and the war against PKK forces. By a majority vote, the parliament passed a resolution on the "fratricidal war," which went down as a black mark in Kurdistan's history. Shortly after this decision, on October 12, the Turkish military and forces of the KDP and PUK launched their attacks, which went down in the annals of the Liberation Movement as the "Great Southern War" and were met with a historic resistance.


The Turkish state called this attack "Operation Tank" because the military relied heavily on its tanks. Equipped with every conceivable technology and with the help of thousands of soldiers, this war of annexation was particullarly intended to drive the Kurdish guerrilla out of the South Kurdish regions of Heftanîn, Zap and Xakurke. The parallel of betrayal and resistance familiar from Kurdish history was to be demonstrated once again here, as on October 24, 1992, the tide was turned by the guerrilla Gülnaz Karataş (Bêrîtan), who had fought to the last bullet and had not surrendered to the Peshmerga. After a war that lasted 45 days, the PKK reached an agreement with the forces of South Kurdistan, after which the Turkish military withdrew behind the border again and, at the initiative of then-President Turgut Özal, the "1993 ceasefire" phase began.


Dispute Over the Territory in the South

Shortly after the Demirel/Çiller/Güreş team entered the political arena in 1993, the mountains of Kurdistan became the scene of fierce fighting and relentless guerrilla resistance in 1994. The Turkish military began air strikes on South Kurdistan on January 28, 1994. This time, the operation was called "Attack on Zelê," because Zelê was the best-known guerrilla base among the Kurdish public at the time.

After this attack with almost ten thousand soldiers had led to no result, the Turkish army made preparations for another attack in the winter of 1995. This time, the invasion attempt was set for March 21, the Newroz Festival, and was called "Operation Steel". According to official Turkish figures, 35,000 troops were involved. Thirteen generals commanded this war of annexation from four directions.


South Kurdistan experienced the most extensive attack by the Turkish state to that date, but the guerrilla of Kurdistan held out against it with iron resistance. According to the ARGK war record, 60 guerrilla fighters and at least 800 Turkish soldiers died until the end of the attack supported by KDP forces on May 2, 1995. The 43 days of fighting also cost the lives of approximately 200 civilians from South Kurdistan.


The Unsuccessful "Falcon" of the Invasion Forces

Despite the defeat during "Operation Steel" the Turkish military again attempted an annexation in the spring of 1996, "Operation Falcon". Starting on March 6, 1996, the Zap and Heftanîn regions were bombed continuously by fighter planes. This attack, which extended into inner North Kurdistan and into the Botan region, was aimed at capturing the Zap region.


The Turkish military attempted to occupy the South Kurdish areas almost every spring from the mid-1990s onward. In 1997, however, the region was subjected to two major attacks. The first operation was called "Forge Hammer." It began on May 14, 1997, and involved 50,000 Turkish troops.


In the initial phase of the war, which was fought with the active participation of KDP forces, wounded PKK guerrillas, journalists, artists who had been treated in Hewlêr, and doctors were massacred in the most brutal manner on May 16, 1997. However, the shooting down of a Turkish military helicopter by ARGK guerrillas on June 4 turned the tide of the war. The downing of the helicopter along with eleven high-ranking Turkish military personnel had the effect of an earthquake in Ankara. Two and a half months after the defeat during Operation Forge Hammer on July 7, the Turkish army conducted another ground offensive in South Kurdistan, Operation Hammer. It lasted from September 25 to October 15, 1997, with 10,000 soldiers participating. This invasion, which was supported by KDP peshmergas and aimed at capturing Xakurke, was, like the previous ones, unsuccessful.


In addition to these cross-border occupation attacks on South Kurdish territory, the Turkish military also launched extensive operations against guerrilla areas in North Kurdistan almost every spring. In 1998, attacks were directed against the provinces of Amed, Çewlîk (Bingöl), Mûş (Muş) and Bedlîs (Bitlis), which the guerrilla calls the "Amed region". This "Operation Murat" of April 23, 1998, with 40,000 Turkish soldiers, was led by 24 Turkish generals.

At the time of the international plot against Kurdish representative Abdullah Öcalan between October 9, 1998, and his capture on February 15, 1999, the Turkish army carried out "Operation Sandwich" from the south and north to annihilate the guerrilla. Despite its extensive attempts, Turkey remained unsuccessful at home and abroad until the late 1990s, when it started to consider new war tactics. The concept of "aerial assassinations", frequently used in recent years, dates back to the most intense period of the war and was tried for the first time in 1998.


The Bush-Erdoğan Meeting on November 5, 2007

In the 2000s, during the strategic transformation of the Kurdish Liberation Movement, no cross-border operations by Turkey took place on South Kurdish territory for seven years. On November 5, 2007, Erdoğan visited the White House for talks, receiving a promise from U.S. President George Bush to support the war against the PKK at various levels. From intelligence sharing to technological assistance, the U.S. provided the Turkish state with every imaginable resource and gave the green light for a renewed attack on South Kurdistan.


On December 2, 2007, the Turkish army then opened artillery fire on the Zap region and the nearby Çemço area from its bases in the Colemêrg/Çelê (Hakkari/Cukurca) border region. Thus, another operation began. At 1 a.m. on December 16, the attacks, which targeted the South Kurdish guerrilla areas from Qendîl to Zap, began with the support of fifty Turkish fighter jets.


The main wave of attacks began between 9:30 and 10:00 a.m. on February 20, 2008, with the bombing of the Zap area, where the main base of the HPG [People's Defense Forces] was located. According to official Turkish sources, the first army forces entered South Kurdistan in the early morning hours of February 21. The more than 10,000 "mountain commando and special forces" were flanked by M60 Patton tanks equipped with thermal cameras and twenty F-16 fighter jets.


The Turkish military, which had suffered heavy defeats on various fronts within a few days, was stuck in the depths of Kurdistan. At a summit in Ankara on February 29, 2008, a hasty decision was made to withdraw. Turkish Chief of Staff Büyükanıt announced the withdrawal, saying it would be carried out "as carefully as pulling a single hair out of a soup". But with the official announcement by the Ministry of Defense on March 3 that "not a single soldier was lost during the withdrawal", it was downright admitted that the real success of the operation was not achieved during the attack, but during the withdrawal. The Kurdish press, in turn, proclaimed the guerrillas' Zap epic with the headline "Siwar hatin peya çûn" ("They came on horseback and left on foot").


On October 5, 2011, the Turkish parliament approved a bill for new military invasions into South Kurdistan. Kurdistan's Freedom Guerrilla, however, surrounded the Turkish military not in the south but already on Turkish soil. While Turkish units decided to withdraw 19 days later on October 24, the Kurdish guerrillas' "revolutionary people's war" in the regions of Elkê, (Beytüşşebap), Çelê (Çukurca), Şemzînan (Şemdinli) and Gever (Yüksekova) continued until December 2012.


The Air Raids of July 24, 2015

During the Turkish state's negotiations with the Kurdish representative Abdullah Öcalan, referred to as the "solution and peace process", there were no attacks on the Medya Defense Zones until the summer months of 2015. The first airstrike after 2012 took place on June 30, 2015. It also marked the end of the unilateral ceasefire declared by the PKK that had been in place since 2013. The Turkish state's heaviest airstrike on South Kurdistan to that date was carried out on the evening of July 24, 2015. Almost the entire Medya Defense Zones from Qendîl, Metîna, Heftanîn, Avaşîn, Xakurke, Xinêre to Gare were bombed by fifty Turkish warplanes. Almost every night there were air raids, also on civilian residential areas. They were the beginning of a new war concept against the Kurdish people in the summer of 2015. In North Kurdistan, political crackdowns were started with raids, accompanied by the war in the cities. The scale of the invasion attacks also changed decisively in 2016. The Turkish military now targeted everyone in the south without distinction - civilians, peshmerga and the people.


At least thirty civilians were killed in the Turkish state's attacks in 2017 and 2018. However, it undoubtedly did not stop there. The Peshmerga Ministry of South Kurdistan reported 398 airstrikes by Turkish fighter jets, 425 artillery attacks, and a total of 288 attacks on villages between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2018. Civilians were repeatedly killed in the Turkish military's invasion attempt in South Kurdistan from May 27, 2019, which was called "Operation Claw" and was accompanied by fighter jets.


Heftanîn, Gare and the April 24 Attacks

From the beginning of 2020, the Turkish military also pursued new occupation plans as part of its new concept of war and destruction. On the night of June 14-15, it launched an extensive assault on the Heftanîn area. Following the historic resistance of the Kurdish population, which is known as "Cenga Heftanîn" and lasted throughout the summer, the military attacked Mount Gare, where guerrilla bases were located, with 41 fighter jets, countless combat drones and helicopters on the morning of Feb. 10, 2021. According to reports, these attacks, which ended on the night of February 13, cost the lives of 15 People's Defense Forces (HPG) guerrillas and 37 Turkish soldiers.


The imperialist Turkish state again launched air and ground attacks on the Medya Defense Zones - on the South Kurdish regions of Metîna, Zap and Avaşîn - on the night of April 24, 2021, the 106th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. What was striking was that they began immediately after a telephone conversation between Erdoğan and U.S. President Biden and between Foreign Ministers Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Antony Blinken.


After heavy bombardments, the Turkish military attempted to use helicopters to drop forces on important mountain peaks, but has since met the fierce resistance from the People's Defense Forces HPG and the women's guerrilla YJA-Star. Thus, it appears that the Turkish state, which has been ceaselessly attempting to occupy South Kurdistan since 1983, will suffer another defeat at the hands of the guerrilla of Kurdistan.


This article was first published in the July/August 2021 edition of the Kurdistan Report.