Why Turkey is wary of Kurdish rebel trap
Turks broadly support a strike into Iraq, but that could play into the hands of the PKK.
As Turkey sends military convoys to its southeast border with Iraq, diplomatic efforts are intensifying to head off a cross-border incursion aimed at crushing the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).Skip to next paragraph
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On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan traveled to Baghdad and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in London to increase pressure on US and Iraqi forces in northern Iraq to halt a surge of attacks that peaked Sunday with the most lethal guerrilla strike in a decade. Twelve soldiers were killed and eight went missing.
There's broad public support and parliamentary approval for a cross-border attack, but analysts say that a Turkish decision to invade would ensnare it in a PKK strategy aimed at provoking just such an invasion. A Turkish offensive would bring NATO-ally Turkey face-to-face with US and Iraqi Kurdish forces, as well as the PKK. It could also destabilize northern Iraq – the one area of Iraq relatively calm since the 2003 US invasion – and embroil its troops in a quagmire.
"The PKK wants Turkey to engage in full-scale, extensive warfare – not just with the PKK in northern Iraq, but with the Iraqi Kurdish [forces] and to draw in the US and other foreign powers," says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the Chatham House think tank in London.
One purpose, says Mr. Hakura, would be to "reenergize their popular base" which has "been on a rapid decline" in southeast Turkey, where ethnic Kurds are broadly sympathetic to PKK aims, but often oppose violent methods.
That PKK strategy is "based on the assumption that the Turkish government is trigger-happy, nationalistic, and willing to take a knee-jerk reaction," says Mr. Hakura. "But the Erdogan government is far more calculating ... and has indicated a clear preference for diplomacy over military action."
Despite the build up of some 60,000 Turkish troops – and repeated assurances from Ankara that Turkey will limit its attacks to PKK targets – so far generals are pushing diplomacy, aware that 24 cross-border operations in past decades have failed to destroy the militants.
Already the crisis has grabbed the attention of Washington, which Turkey accuses of not doing enough to thwart the PKK. President George Bush on Monday contacted Turkish and Iraqi leaders, asking Turkey for restraint, and Iraq for action against the PKK, which the US, European Union, and Turkey all label a terrorist group.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and leader of one of the two main Kurdish parties in northern Iraq, said Monday that the PKK would declare a cease-fire.
The PKK denied declaring a new cease-fire, and said one from June still held. PKK attacks have killed 42 people in the past month, two-thirds of them soldiers. The Turkish military said its counterattack on Sunday against 200 PKK fighters who had come across the border killed 34.
The PKK strategy of drawing Turkey across the border has "failed," because Turkey is not likely to "go into Iraq at this moment," says Seyfi Tashan, director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Bilkent University in Ankara.