9 people have been killed and at least 22 injured so far in the attack on a tourist facility near the Iraqi city of Zakho on 20 July. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazimi, who declared a day of mourning across the country, and Muqtada al-Sadr, the religious leader of the Iraqi Shiites, pointed artillery fire from Türkiye as the source of the attack, and called for an immediate end to military operations on Iraqi soil. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the accusation, saying that Türkiye would never “attack on civilians” adding that is “considered that it was caused by a terrorist organization,” referring to the PKK. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu called on the Iraqi government to cooperate in finding the person responsible for the attack.
The Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, on the other hand, was more cautious than the Iraqi government, making a statement revealing that a 1-year-old baby was among the dead, and that the victims were members of a domestic tourist group of 200 people who escaped the extreme heat in Baghdad and came to the northern part of the country, to the Barah picnic area near Zakho. Iraqi KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani blamed neither Türkiye nor the PKK, but said that the attack, which resulted in death, was the result of the conflict environment between the Turkish army and the PKK.
Zakho accusations: is there an image?
On the other hand, Rudaw news channel, whose editorial line is more close to the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Massoud Barzani, claimed that the attack originated from Türkiye. It is not surprising that the pro-PKK Özgür Politika newspaper accused Türkiye.
Türkiye’s Kurdish-issue focused People’s Democratic Party (HDP) condemned the Zakho incident by comparing it to the Roboski incident, in which 34 civilians were killed by an air strike, as a result of false intelligence, demanded that Türkiye’s “Claw” series of military operations that have been going on in Iraq since 2019 be stopped.
While the UN representation in Iraq condemned the attack, it did not blame any party and asked for the incident to be clarified. US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that they were aware of the artillery fire in northern Iraq, they condemned the attack on civilians, that Iraq’s territorial integrity should not be disrupted, but a detailed explanation would be made later.
How will the matter be clarified? The first answer that comes to mind is aerial images. There are not only Turkish UAVs in the region. UAVs, including the ones of USA and Iran, are spinning around. There are also satellites overlooking the area. There is not only the TürkSat observation satellite. For decades, the US, Russia, Israel, Iran, as well as British, French and Chinese satellites have been watching the region from above.
If Çavuşoğlu requested a joint investigation, it means that Ankara trusts the images at their hands.
The timing is significant: after Tehran, before the NSC
The timing of the attack is worth to note. The day before, President Tayyip Erdoğan met with Iranian President Ibrahim Reisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran for the Astana talks, the official purpose of which is Syria. He also met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran, and like other two leaders, he could not get support from Khamenei for a military operation on Syrian territory; on the contrary, he was advised to meet with the Syrian regime. (In this respect, the political statement of Sadr, the religious leader of the Iraqi Shiites, condemning Türkiye in an uncommon way is also remarkable.)
On the plane returning to Türkiye, Erdoğan directed his frustration to the USA and openly said that the US should withdraw from the East of the Euphrates in Iraq, and that the support for the PKK came from the USA. He added that as long as there was a terror issue, the Syria operation would be on the agenda and it would be discussed at July 21’s National Security Council (NSC) meeting. US President Joe Biden already announced that he mentioned “the importance of preserving stability in the Aegean and Syria” to Erdoğan during the Madrid talks on June 28. However, Erdoğan had already mentioned a possible operation on May 23 and it was also discussed at the NSC on May 26. In order to implement Türkiye’s strategy of “preventing terrorism at its source”, Erdogan would not take into consideration what the US, Russia, Iran, and especially the Syrian government, which is the field of operation, say?
The news of Zakho came shortly after what Erdogan said on the plane began to be broadcast on television and in the agencies on the afternoon of July 20.
There are three possibilities, not two.
First, it is to prove that the PKK did it, as Ankara said.
The second is that this fatal attack was carried out as a result of the lack of coordination between the Defense-Internal Affairs-National Intelligence, MIT, as in Roboski or more recently in the Gara operation, where 13 soldiers were killed on February 13, 2021. To remind, the President deemed Gara “unsuccessful” and sent Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar and Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu to CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and IYI Party leader Meral Akşener for clarification. (I can’t say it was intentional, because planning such an attack that resulted in civilian deaths in such a period is an incompetence, if not treason.)
As a matter of fact, it was announced that the Claw-Lock operation, which was launched on April 18 this year, just when Türkiye’s credibility on Ukraine-Russia diplomacy was at its peak, was carried out in full coordination and under Akar’s administration, almost with reference to Gara. However, the operation on Iraqi soil did not end in a short time as expected, and news of new deaths of soldiers comes every day.
The third possibility is that even if this attack was carried out from Turkish territory, it was not the work of the Turkish security forces. In this case, it is necessary to take into account not only the PKK, but also other intelligence services active in the region.
In any case, Zakho made it difficult
However, whether it is the provocation of the PKK, originating from Türkiye with a grave mistake, or the provocation of another country’s intelligence service, the international wind has turned even more against Türkiye.
Until now, the government had said that anti-PKK operations in Iraq were carried out in counter-terrorism coordination with the Iraqi government. However, the Iraqi government has now announced that it will file a complaint about Türkiye to the UN Security Council.
The Zakho incident made it difficult to continue the operation in Iraq, let alone launching the Syrian operation.
When I say this, I do not mean that Erdogan would not stop the Iraqi operation saying that it “successfully achieved its goals” or that he would refrain from an operation into Syria.
The fight against the PKK across borders is not something that Erdogan’s government can easily give up, in a time when it is unable to say anything other than promises that are less and less convincing to the people who are struggling with the economic crisis. Maybe they will. But Erdoğan probably sees that this will increase the political and economic costs for the AKP government, despite the “Yes sir” team around him.
I repeat, after the Zakho incident, it is politically difficult to continue the Iraq operation, let alone Syria.