Turkish TV stations began airing the incident only after statements were released by the Turkish military and government officials that the smugglers bombarded, including children as young as 13 years old, were mistaken for outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists.
Turkish TV coverage of this grave incident several hours after it had taken place is illustrative of the way the country’s Kurds are perceived by the public in general. This is a misperception that tends to associate the Kurds with the PKK, an outlawed terrorist organization that has been waging an armed campaign for autonomy against the Turkish state for almost 30 years in the Kurdish Southeast. Thus media from the outset did not, as usual, want to believe that the Turkish military is capable of making a mistake, and accepted that those killed were definitely PKK members being bombarded while crossing from Iraq into neighboring Turkey near Uludere to stage attacks against Turkish targets.
Almost five months have passed since the killings and still none of the subsequent investigations probing the bombardment have reached any conclusion about the reasons behind the killing.
The prolongation of investigations is partly because neither the media nor the public in general make strong demands for the truth to be unearthed about the deaths of civilians. Therefore, the credibility of the ongoing investigations, that they are thorough, independent and impartial, is not widely questioned in the country.
It is important to analyze a story run by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on May 15 that sparked controversy in Turkey, highlighting the Turkish military’s frequent insensitivity and carelessness in the selection of targets in the fight against the PKK. The WSJ report, titled “Turkey’s Attack on Civilians Tied to US Military Drone,” is based on an internal assessment by the US Defense Department as well as the testimony of unnamed American officials familiar with the Turkish-US real-time intelligence sharing mechanism.
The WSJ reported that a US Predator drone spotted the party of men and pack animals near the Turkish border and that US officers alerted Turkey to the intelligence.
US military officers at the Fusion Cell in Ankara could not tell whether the men, bundled in heavy jackets, were civilians or guerilla (terrorist) fighters with the PKK, the WSJ said, adding that their location in an area frequented by guerilla (terrorist) fighters raised suspicions. The WSJ story adds that Turkish officers turned down a US offer of additional surveillance from the drone that might have helped better identify the convoy.
The WSJ noted that in Turkey -- a NATO member -- the US provides intelligence about the PKK for operations but plays no direct role in any strikes.
The WSJ quoted claims by former US officials familiar with US-Turkish intelligence that they were sometimes troubled by Turkish standards for selecting possible targets. One former US official told the WSJ that Turkish officers sometimes picked targets based on a notion of “guilt by association with the PKK.”
The lengthy article has prompted the Turkish government to describe it as false, while the Turkish military has said that Turkish drones -- Turkey has Israeli-made Herons rather than Predators -- were responsible for the initial intelligence footage that prompted a deadly strike against civilian smugglers.
The Turkish reaction to the WSJ story, however, does not change the reality. This US paper reminded us of what we Turks do not want to admit. The reality is that the level of Turkish standards in the selection of targets in the fight against the PKK is poor, and that Turkish officers’ selection of targets is sometimes based on a notion of guilt by association with the PKK.
The Uludere attack has further complicated efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem. If Kurdish demands for rights such as education in their mother tongue are even partly addressed in the planned new constitution, negative repercussions such as the killing of civilians may be averted.