Snowsuits and Headscarves

A free, throw-away commuter newspaper made its debut in Istanbul during the past week and its timing could not have been more auspicious. As far as this observer is aware, the paper's debut has coincided with an event that has not occurred since the Czarist Russian offensive through the Caucasus during WWI - the last time Turkish soldiers were thrown into a mountainous winter campaign beyond the borders of Anatolia. Turkish military sceptics, including this observer, were generally surprised to learn that the military had chosen to undertake a winter operation in light of the added level of difficulty. The Turkish media has accordingly taken great pains to capture the exploits of the military's adventure into snowy northern Iraq. Photos of Turkish soldiers wearing white snowsuits have been the highlight of the media's coverage partly to emphasize the operation's degree of daring and surprise, but also due to the simple fact that the Turkish military has not allowed sufficient media access for the creation of alternative images.

The winter surprise attack on PKK positions in the Qandil Mountains region in northern Iraq has thus far yielded two main story lines in the international media and in the Turkish media to a lesser extent. First, there appears to be a general level confusion concerning what the Turkish military has actually accomplished. While body counts of dead "terrorists" as well as Turkish "martyrs" are provided in order to give the public a sense of progress, there does not exist a single source beyond the Turkish military's website or a press conference with General Büyükanıt to corroborate or qualify such statistics. (What delicious irony that the Turkish military, the country's staunchest defender of secularism, has appropriated an Islamic term to describe its combat dead.)

In addition, there appears to be a second point of confusion surrounding the question of why the Turkish military has maintained such a media freeze over the operation. This is particularly bewildering in light of the military’s comments that the operation has specific objectives, which are supposed to be limited in duration. It is unclear what the military has to gain from this approach.

It is still quite likely that the Turkish military will reveal the scope of military achievements for its latest operation once Turkish forces begin to conduct their pullout. The military seems to have so far maintained the view that it is turning the winter elements to its advantage with the added help of the element of surprise. The snow will hamper the Turkish forces, but it will also impede PKK fighters from fleeing the scene of attack. However, this observer also wonders whether PKK forces have truly decided to sit around the camp fire holed up in the snowy Qandil mountains for an entire winter season, as opposed to settling at lower and warmer elevations for the winter while waiting for the Turkish military to venture out in the spring. Whatever is the case, the Turkish military will undoubtedly label its operation a success whenever the time comes to make such announcements.

Another point worthy of consideration is to question whether Turkey’s winter offensive was truly intended to have decisive military implications. Rather, it seems quite possible that it was conceived for sheer political convenience. This view comes to mind when one considers the dominant fashion statements plastered across the entire spectrum of the Turkish media over the last eight days - either soldiers in white snowsuits or female university students wearing headscarves.

Combat operations against the PKK have always functioned as a unifying mechanism in Turkish society. This is no more apparent than when viewing the constant footage on all national news broadcasts that depicts the official funeral ceremonies or the grieving families of the Turkish combat dead. Faced with the incredible degree of polarization that has resulted from their successful initiative to legalize headscarves for women attending Turkish universities, it seems logical for Erdoğan and Gül to have encouraged the military to trudge around in the snow for a few weeks. A winter operation would distract the public away from its social crisis since it would remind them that there exist more critical and immediate threats to the livelihoods of the Turkish people compared to the headscarf. Judging by the fact that combat operations have been constantly featured as the lead story on the evening news during the past week, their tactic seems to have worked.

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