Unsplendid Little War

HAVING already launched a major military operation against Kurds across its border with Iraq, Turkey last week opened a second front -- sending some 15,000 troops against Kurdish rebels inside its borders, in southeastern Turkey.

These events are disturbing. Turkey is a major Western ally, a member of NATO, and a European Union suitor, and sits at a number of ethnic, political, and geographic crossroads. Since 1984 Turkey has tried to militarily crush those Kurds who never accepted the Turkish identity forced on them in 1925 by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. But military force has not worked.

At first, the White House went along with the Turkish incursion in Iraq, being told it was ''quick.'' But the Kurds have not been rounded up; Turkish forces remain. Turkish Foreign Minister Erdal Inonu visits Washington tomorrow to assure US officials that civilians are being treated well and that Turkey will leave Iraq soon. But this is hardly good enough.

Ataturk may have created a secular democratic state out of the old Ottoman Empire. But he did not make it liberal or multiethnic. Thus, the Turkish dilemma. Only recently, under liberalizing efforts of the late president Turgut Ozal, were Kurds legally allowed to speak their language. As late as 1989 some Turkish officials denied even having a Kurdish population.

Ozal's openness, however, was joined to a brutal crackdown on rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1992. Thousands of Kurds were killed when 200,000 Turkish troops camped out in the southeast. They burned villages, killed civilians, and drove resisters across the borders -- the same Kurds Ankara now defines as ''terrorists.''

Of course, there is a terrorist element among some who desire a separate Kurdish state. But Western officials ought to resist simplistic or convenient caricatures.

The question for Turkey's foreign minister, and for Prime Minister Tansu Ciller when she arrives April 16, is whether an all-out two-front state war against an ethnic group is in anyone's best interest.

There had been, at least, divisions among Kurds about pursuing military means. That now may be a more difficult argument for some. The danger is that Turkey and its supporters are making an enemy of all Kurds.

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