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Searching for the roots of present Turkey, by Etienne Copeaux

The War Against the Kurds – The “Special Forces” (1)

Publié par Etienne Copeaux sur 2 Février 2021, 10:16am

Catégories : #The War Against the Kurds, #Turkey in the 90's, #Turkish nationalism

[This article was published in French on susam-sokak.fr, on May 27, 2013. http://www.susam-sokak.fr/article-esquisse-n-39-la-guerre-les-equipes-speciales-ozel-tim-118080292.html]

In 1992, the war operations against Sırnak and other places, as well as the assassination of Musa Anter, a well-known Kurdish writer, poet, and activist, drew attention to what was then unclearly designated as a 'government-supported organization', 'the special teams', 'the special police commandos' or even 'the death squads' inflicting a 'state terrorism' on the country (Avesbury Report, FIHD Report). Four years after the destruction of Sırnak, the Susurluk scandal (November 1996) brought to light the links between the "special teams" (özel tim), the mafias, and the extreme right.

“Make-up for special teams” Photo Ali Ekeyılmaz, Sabah,  March 14, 1997

“Make-up for special teams” Photo Ali Ekeyılmaz, Sabah, March 14, 1997

During the 90s, but particularly from 1996 on, all opponents to the war, pacifists and democrats, have strongly denounced the “special forces”, as one of the main barriers to peace. These charges were launched by centre-left or leftist dailies like Cumhuriyet, Yeni Yüzyıl, Radikal, and even else by columnists writing in conformist newspapers such as Milliyet or Hürriyet. For the special forces, known in the country as “özel tim”, actually were gangs making use of all methods of the mafias in order to control towns and entire regions, to tax the population in return for a “protection”, and even to confiscate some powers of the state (Bozarslan 1997, 224). Many extra-judicial executions were carried out by members of these so-called "anti-terrorist" units who carried out their own reign of terror.

From the beginning of 1996, the controversy regarding the special forces was heated, since, by that time, the PKK had tried to carry the war into the Sivas province, very peripheral in regard to the Kurdistan. Therefore, the state had tasked the özel tim to take an important part in the counteroffensive. But the Susurluk case, which broke in daylight four months after the accession to power of the Refahyol coalition, contributed to revealing to the country the way of waging the war, and the use, by the state itself, of mafia gangs in the operations of repression. The state and the successive governments had then to make the case for the war and the special forces, by the way of some communication campaigns.

The members of the special forces are often pictured, in the media, in fatigue dress, often wearing body armour, a beret on their head – and, visibly, they like to be pictured this way. Most of them wear the typical Grey Wolf moustaches, almost a part of their uniform, which is all the more striking since by this time any facial hair was forbidden in the ranks of the Turkish regular army.

As states Hamit Bozarslan, extreme-rightist movements have provided the first elements of these militias (Bozarslan 1997, 224 sq). Very early on, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) had mobilized its ranks, and, around 1990-1992, had begun worrying the Kurds living in the Western towns: Grey Wolves squads were sent to threaten them, trying opposing to their settling.

Such is the political basis for the recruitment of the special forces, which pursued, in the theater of military operations, the goals of the ultra-nationalist, militarist and racist extreme right. For this reason, they are hailed by the journalists of the far-right daily Türkiye: "These men will never give up giving their lives for the security of the nation" (Türkiye, November 19, 1996).

The administrative framework for these paramilitary troops was created a soon as 1983. They fall within the capacity of a police administration, the Directorate of Public Order (Asayis Dairesi), and operate under command of the Special Operations Division (Özel Harekat Daire Baskanlıgı, ÖHDB), which in turn comes under the General Directorate of Security and Services of the Prime Minister. Thus, formally, the members of the special teams are police officers, not militaries. Due to the intensification of the war in the Southeast, the corps was reorganized in 1993 under the name of 'Directorate of Special Operations Sections' (Özel Harekât Sube Müdürlügü), which is responsible for the organization, equipment and training of the teams; at the height of the clashes, it had branches in 48 provinces (il), particularly in Southeast Anatolia and in the major cities.

In this new framework, the first commander of the institution was Ibrahim Sahin, a high-rank civil servant specialized in anti-guerrilla warfare, trained in Germany and the United States. His superior at the General Directorate of Security was Mehmet Agar. Both were involved in the Susurluk scandal (November 1996).

The case of Mehmet Agar is a perfect example of the protections this type of personality can benefit in the high place. Minister of Justice (1996), deputy of Elazıg since 1995, and president of the True Path Party (DYP), he was incriminated as the leader of a criminal organization, as a result of the Susurluk scandal. But the hearing of his trial could only begin only in 2007 due to his parliamentary immunity. Sentenced in 2011 to five years in jail, he was only incarcerated one year - very comfortably. Mehmet Agar, and Ibrahim Sahin as well, perfectly incarnated the link between a certain political milieu and the underworld.

The men of special forces are volunteers, often trained in the frame of the Higher Police Academy, selected for their discipline, composure and physical skills. Those who have done their military service among the commandos, on the field of confrontation, are preferably chosen. They are not amateurs. They undergo a three-month training, during which they are intensely taught in the use of weapons and explosives, in mountain combat but also in confined spaces. The special teams numbered up to 6,000 men. The most commonly used weapon is the American M 16 assault rifle.

After the Susurluk scandal, as the country was in the second decade of the war, criticism against the special forces (özel tim) came from a wide range of public opinion. Neither the discourse of the state nor the uttering of the warmongers was no longer audible. In the fall of 1996, some parties, NGOs and civil society foundations published reports on the search for a peaceful solution. For example, three deputies, each of Kurdish origin, from the rightist Motherland Party (ANAP), had brought together delegates of forty-four NGOs in the city of Diyarbakır – the “capital” of Turkish Kurdistan - and, on November 12, they presented a report to the party executive. While denouncing the multiple extra-judicial executions often attributable to the special teams, the report pointed out the main problem to be in the way the war was waged and concluded the problem to have its origin in the existence and the use of these teams, and from the system of the 'village guards' (köy korucuları). Among the solutions, the report proposed the adoption of the Kurdish as Turkey's second official language (Radikal, November 13, 1996).

On the other hand, the extreme-rightist daily Türkiye was, and always remains, on the side of the army, of the paramilitary troops, defending war, warlike values, and has never had a word against the militias and their way of ruling a territory. Ahmet Kabaklı, one of the newspaper's most prestigious columnists, saw them as the most effective protection against the "enemy within" (Türkiye, February 14-15, 1996). Periodically, Türkiye published reports about the elite units, always with the aim of praising and defending them. Reporter Hasan Yılmaz has made it his speciality. In August 1996, he had already produced a series about commandos entitled "The Turkish Lions". Perhaps because of the Susurluk scandal, he repeated its task a few months later.

A plea by the head of the special forces


On 21 November 1996, as part of this new series, Hasan Yılmaz interviewed Behçet Oktay, head of the special forces for the region of Diyarbakır from 1994 to 1997, who was then promoted to head of ÖHDB.

The title of the series is in red, a colour which, in Turkey and especially in this context, evokes the flag, the nation, and even "the spilt blood that gave the flag its colour", as proclaimed in the history textbooks. At the top left, in a vignette inserted in the title strip, a member of the commandos is shown lying in wait, behind a heavy machine gun. The title is followed by a sentence that explains the subject and summarizes the article: "Special Forces have a very high level of training, experience and firepower. They are so familiar with the tactics of the organization [the PKK] that the militants [PKK combatants] avoid any contact”. Then, in large print over seven columns: "We hold the ground”. The article and its illustrations cover the whole page.

The eye glides over the text, which occupies two-thirds of the page, to focus to the illustrations: a large group photograph, framing a cluster of armed men in latticework in a forest area; the caption seeks to attenuate the martial effect sought by the photographer and to reassure: "We are not a bunch of Rambo's". The right-hand column is occupied by four shots, of which two are combat simulations.

"We are not a bunch of Rambo's". Türkiye, November 21, 1996

"We are not a bunch of Rambo's". Türkiye, November 21, 1996

Published in the context of the Susurluk scandal, Behçet Oktay's comments are a plea responding much more to the accusations made by democratic milieus of the society than to the journalist's questions. The reports published by civil society organizations in the previous months appear as a watermark of the interview.

An officer, during operation time, cannot address the press without consent given by a superior. It is even highly likely that such an interview be only granted on order: it is a prepared and controlled communication operation. On the whole, the interview is a fine example of official waffle: an agreed, consensual discourse that avoids delicate subjects, or slips over them thanks to red herrings. At first glance, such talk seems uninteresting. But any communication operation demonstrates in itself that its sponsor, in this case, the Turkish state, recognizes the existence and seriousness of the problem.

At first glance, the first two questions asked by the journalist are curious, as the one raises a very serious problem, and the other a point that may seem anecdotal. The journalist asks Oktay to react to the accusation of racism, often proffered against his men. The very question being in fact if racism exists among them and if the Kurds are the victims. The interviewee obviously cannot answer in the affirmative and eludes the question by evoking the variety of the geographical origins of his men: "When recruiting, the personality of the men is taken into account, not ethnicity. Anyone can join the special teams if there is no physical or mental health problem. Among us, there are guys from Agrı, Kars, Edirne, from all over Turkey". By answering as if he was confusing geography and ethnicity, he pushes the diversity of individual behaviour aside: the fact that there are Kurds under his orders would not prevent non-Kurds from racist behaviour - even towards their comrades. The presence of Algerian harkis in the ranks of the French army during the Algerian war did not prove the nonexistence of racism either!

The answer to the second question is equally evasive; the journalist reports some criticism related to the wearing of moustaches among the special forces… If the question is asked and the officer bothers to answer it, it is because the drooping moustache, as it is worn by several men in the main photo on the page, is at least a sign of complicity with the Grey Wolves, if not a sign of belonging. The criticisms against the moustache, in fact, refer to the political leanings of these men and are in line with the answer to the first question. To address the question is to raise the concern of the political origin of the commandos. Again, Oktay, who very well understands the meaning of the question, gets away with a pirouette: "Our men are always criticized on their outfit, their hair, the wearing of moustaches... But in the field, it's not very easy to take care of your hair system. Should we take a team of barbers with us? These are unfair criticisms. We do our job".

That way of evading the issue solves the problem only in the eyes of readers who are sympathetic to the interviewee's cause. But in fact, the subterfuge emphasizes the sensitive point, which should not be discussed. Such conduct of an interview, often unsubtle, simply avoids saying "I'll not answer that question".

In fact, by his prevarication, the officer virtually does confess: “My men are racist Grey Wolves” since the moustache visually establishes an ideological kinship between the MHP party and the para-military forces. Hence the laudatory articles about these special forces in the daily Türkiye: both the special forces and Türkiye are part of the same ideological sphere as the MHP.

Twice, the officer avoids sensitive and precise questions. Then, unexpectedly, he tackles a question that is not asked - at least in the published version of the interview - and which is in fact the crux of the whole interview: "We are Muslim" Oktay says. “We know that wherever we go God is there. We are not alone, and that's why we feel strong on the ground”. This seemingly irrelevant statement, especially from a civil servant in a secular state, is of great importance to the overall rhetoric. In the context of the war against the PKK, the precision seems incongruous, since the adversary itself is supposed to be Muslim. But, for the benefit of Türkiye's readership, the officer wants to reaffirm the supreme value for which he is fighting and which is supposed to legitimize the war and its methods.

Behcet Oktay when interviewed by Hasan Yılmaz, Türkiye, November 21, 1996. Behçet Oktay is dead in 2009, probably murdered.

Behcet Oktay when interviewed by Hasan Yılmaz, Türkiye, November 21, 1996. Behçet Oktay is dead in 2009, probably murdered.

To the eyes of the dominant ideology, known as the "Turkish-Islamic synthesis", the special teams are the vanguard of the Turkish and Muslim nation. As a matter of fact, while the state, during decades, claimed to be secular - according to the intangible principles of Kemalism - the real ideology, expressed by a multitude of visible signs, links the Turkish nation to Islam (Copeaux, 1999). From this point of view, it is politically impossible to publicly criticize, or surge against the prevalent idea of the “Muslim nation”, or against Islam as the state-supported religion. As a matter of fact, the PKK stands against a state that is essentially Turkish-Islamic. Since the special teams are at the forefront of the defence of the nation, “those who demand the suppression of the special forces are in fact the spokesmen [of the PKK]”; it can be inferred from this that the pacifist intellectuals, those who support a negotiated solution, are themselves traitors to the nation and to Islam. As an implicit corollary, their physical elimination is seen as necessary.

As a whole, this is supposed to justify the ruthlessness of the combat, which is aimed at the enemy's annihilation. Discussion and negotiation are – officially - excluded. Apart from ideology, the force only counts; the special teams are strong, and Oktay knows that this is the second main argument in their defence. These men are good warriors, they know their enemy and adopt the methods that seem them appropriate; at a point that in front of them, the adversary “recognizes this superiority by avoiding contact”. All the legitimacy of the özel tim lies there: those criticizing do not know the reality of the terrain and of the war, Oktay argues. Worse, they refuse to face the facts: “None [of these intellectuals and politicians] has come to see us (...). We are state employees. We can't discuss with them, that's the role of our Director, of our responsible Minister”.

So are the positions clearly established: the existence of the special forces does not admit any criticism. Those who find fault with them belong to the camp of the "separatists", they are their "objective allies", as it would be said in another milieu, they are traitors to the nation and to Islam. By the way, according to the officer, the special teams move among the population like a fish in water: "The dialogue with our fellow citizens is excellent. Often, when our men enter a village, they are invited, they are offered bread and cheese". Let's forget that bread and cheese can also be offered out of fear. Oktay uses the anecdote to sweep away the objections of the media and of the pacifists: the population has nothing to fear from the özel tim; quite the reverse, people support them, and this is the meaning of one of the photos' caption: "We are not a bunch of Rambos". And it is surely thanks to this alleged popular support that the special teams would be "on the verge of overcoming the problem".

And if the rebellion is lasting so long, it is because of the support of "outside forces," the officer explains. In Turkey, this is the classic argument of those denying the existence of a problem: their rhetoric requires the existence of an outside enemy without whom the traitors would have been eliminated long ago. Turkey would thus be a victim of "geopolitics," of uncontrollable superior forces whose evocation allows to evade every thinking. And the second reason for the war's long duration would be the terror exerted by the "separatists" on the population: "Whenever they have the opportunity, the terrorists surrender. (...) I am sure that if their parents or relatives were not at risk of reprisal, 98% would surrender. They don't believe in it anymore. But they don't criticize the PKK openly, because of the closed-mindedness of the Marxist movements.”

But the men of the special forces don't fight only in the field of operations: eventually, they are also henchmen. On December 26, 1996, as the threads of the Susurluk affair were beginning to make their way, Radikal published an infography showing what was then known about the scandal. The "Susurluk quadrangle", according to Radikal, is made up of high-level personalities from the police, the politics, the mafia and the business world. The role of the special teams is there prominent: the scandal makes it clear that this body is not only used to wage war. They are killers on the payroll of the state, ready for any blow they are ordered to. Some of them, according to rumours, are said to have been involved in the assassination of Kurdish businessmen, and in the assassination of the 'king of casinos' Ömer Lütfü Topal, suspected of financing the PKK. The order is said to have come from Ibrahim Sahin himself.

After the scandal, the officers of the special teams have continued to use henchmen as a private militia for their own needs. The press highlighted then the case of the Interior Minister Mehmet Agar. Following the scandal, he was forced into resignation, and when he returned to Elazıg, of which he was a deputy (DYP), he showed himself to be in line with the image of the Muslim nationalist. Agar can't go to the mosque like everyone else and moves across the city in a special convoy, protected not only by the police but also by several over-armed and worrying moustache-wearing men, who open the street to him. The presence of bodyguards of the special teams is an attribute of power, it even represents power and its violence in the regions affected by the war: the photograph below is a beautiful image of the terrorist state.

If arrogant men of power do not hesitate to parade around in such a kind of staging, it is because they evolve in a macho world that appreciates this state of mind and these demonstrations of strength. If their role goes beyond the war, it is because the war spills over into society and political life. Political mores, at such a time, become warlike.

"After having prayed together with members of the True Path Party (DYP) at the historic Harput Mosque, a convoy brings Agar back [to Elazıg]". Milliyet, February 22, 1997

"After having prayed together with members of the True Path Party (DYP) at the historic Harput Mosque, a convoy brings Agar back [to Elazıg]". Milliyet, February 22, 1997

Paradoxically, at that time, power was partly in the hands of a woman, Tansu Çiller, Deputy Prime Minister, who chose another woman, Meral Aksener, to replace Mehmet Agar as Interior Minister and Chief of Police. Far from imprinting a different spirit on the conduct of politics, both women conformed themselves to the existing macho mould.

Thus, in December 1996, both female ministers visited the Police Academy and the barracks of the Special Operations Centre (Özel Harekat Merkezi) at Gölbası, not far from Ankara. For the occasion, they donned combat fatigues and wore berets. The ministers reassured these men who felt unloved and Tansu Çiller used her powers just as a woman in the service of machismo. "I am your mother, folks!", she told them, assuring them of the government's support: "I am with you all, be proud of yourselves!", she said. The event made the newspapers' front page; the attire of the ministers, their physical proximity to the members of the special teams, and the comments, everything was aimed to enhance and legitimize the militia corps.

Tansu Çiller and Meral Aksener, wearing fatigues, among members of the special forces (click to enlarge) (Sabah, Decembrer 28, 1996)Tansu Çiller and Meral Aksener, wearing fatigues, among members of the special forces (click to enlarge) (Sabah, Decembrer 28, 1996)

Tansu Çiller and Meral Aksener, wearing fatigues, among members of the special forces (click to enlarge) (Sabah, Decembrer 28, 1996)

Again, in March 1997, Meral Aksener visited a unit of the özel tim in Ardahan, in the East of Turkey. Once again wearing a beret, she poses among the militiamen and passes the arm to two of them. Almost any of the men in the photograph wear the drooping moustache of the Grey Wolves, but like shy big boys, these tough guys seem bewildered by what happens. For the minister, it is a victory cliché: "We have struck terror in the stomach!”. (Sabah, Türkiye, Zaman, December 28, 1996; Cumhuriyet, Zaman, March 10, 1997).

In order to improve the image of the special forces, the government has even recommended a renovation plan, a cosmetic "make-up", and, in particular, an increase of female staff. Thus, in the same month of March 1997, Tansu Çiller, while visiting military facilities in Kars and Erzurum, appears surrounded by martial female bodyguards, members of special teams, armed with assault rifles and wearing stylish sunglasses (see the photo at the head of the article). This amused the press and perhaps the public, but then it was never heard of again.

Meral Aksener among members of the special forces. Photo Anadolu Ajansı published in Cumhuriyet, March 10, 1997

Meral Aksener among members of the special forces. Photo Anadolu Ajansı published in Cumhuriyet, March 10, 1997

References and sources


H. Bozarslan, La Question kurde. Les Etats et minorités au Moyen-Orient, Paris, Presses de Sciences-Po, 1997, pp. 224 sq.

E. Copeaux, « ” La nation turque est musulmane ” : Histoire, islam et nationalisme », in Groc Gérard (dir.), Formes nouvelles de l’islam en Turquie. Les Annales de l’autre islam, n° 6, Inalco-Erism, Paris, 1999, pp. 327-342. (online: http://www.susam-sokak.fr/pages/_La_nation_turque_est_musulmane_1999-7938918.html).

Ahmet Kabaklı, « Sıvas'ta yeni ihanet », Türkiye, February 14, 15, 1996.

Hasan Yılmaz, « Komandolar », Türkiye, November 19, 1996.

Fikret Bila, « Güneydogu'da yeni düzen », Milliyet, August 23, 1997.

Özcan Ercan, « Terörün hedefi Tokat », Milliyet, September 4, 1997.

Isık Kansu et Erdogan Erisen, « Terör-Güvenlik önlemi sarmalında Ordu – Ordu’da halk hızla silahlanıyor », Cumhuriyet, September 23, 1997.

« PKK Panic in the Black Sea », Hürriyet Daily News, September 26, 1997.

Erdogan Erisen, « Özel timcilere özel koruma », 
Cumhuriyet, August 23, 1998.

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