Kurdish militants launched their most deadly attacks in years on Turkish soldiers and police on Wednesday, killing at least 24 and prompting cross border raids into northern Iraq and airstrikes by Turkish forces.
The attacks by the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, and the robust response by the Turkish government, risk wider resumption of a conflict that has left 40,000 dead since 1984, but been quieter since political efforts to provide greater Kurdish rights commenced in 2009.
The Wednesday attacks came after a roadside bomb on Tuesday that killed five Turkish soldiers and three civilians – among them a four-year-old girl. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.
"Whoever supports terror, feeds it and helps it; whoever tolerates it and ignores its inhumane attacks, tries to cover the bloody face of terror," said Erdogan. "I want to let them all know that Turkey is breathing down their necks all the time."
The Turkish leader reached further, too, blaming unnamed local actors for trying to end Turkey's rise as a regional power. The latest attack, Erdogan said, showed that "terror is a tool in the hands of certain powers. The PKK are subcontractors used by other forces and other powers, trying to provoke Turkish society."
Some 600 Turkish mountain commandos were reportedly deployed five miles into northern Iraq looking for targets, backed up by helicopter gunships, according to Turkish media. By mid-afternoon local time, reports emerged that 15 PKK militants had been killed.
"No one should forget that those who make us suffer this pain will be made to suffer even stronger," President Abdullah Gul said. "They will see that the vengeance for these attacks will be great."
Erdogan and the Turkish foreign minister cancelled trips abroad, and Turkey's top military commanders traveled to the remote southeast districts of Cukurca and Yuksekova in Hakkari Province, where ethnic Kurds dominate the region.
Warnings to Iraq
Turkey last week warned Iraqi authorities to deal with attacks staged from its soil, saying its “patience” was running out. Despite the potential regional reverberations, the timing of the attacks fits a previous pattern, experts say.
The PKK "tends to escalate" attacks every fall, when they have "maximum maneuverability" before the onset of winter, says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey specialist at the Chatham House think tank in London.
The current PKK strikes are taking place at a time of rising political frustration among Turkey's ethnic Kurds – a political "failure of expectations" among Kurds, met by a "hardening" government stance, says Mr. Hakura – but Turkey's military action in northern Iraq is likely to be limited.
"One could expect a more extensive ground incursion into northern Iraq, but this has been tried repeatedly in the past and has not degraded substantially PKK capabilities of carrying out attacks in Turkey," says Hakura.
Camps in northern Iraq
The PKK has long operated from camps in northern Iraq's Qandil mountains. In the latest episode of the years-long conflict, Turkish forces have stepped up attacks against the PKK since August, often using intelligence provided by the United States.
The PKK killed 13 soldiers in a July ambush, and nine more in August – prompting retaliatory airstrikes that Turkey says killed 160 PKK rebels.
Relative peace has prevailed, however, while Turkey's Kurds waited for the results of a high-profile 2009 "Kurdish Opening" by Erdogan's ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP). While it made some progress on permitting Kurdish cultural rights for the first time, its development initiatives failed to meet expectations.
Past AKP electoral gains among Kurds in the region were wiped away in the national election last June, which gave Erdogan a third term, while also exposing the government's failure to address key causes of complaint.
One pro-Kurdish parliamentarian was stripped of his seat, while others were barred from the chamber, accused of illegal links to the PKK. It was a pattern repeated from the previous year, when Kurds waving PKK flags rallied across the region against the arrest of hundreds of sitting Kurdish mayors and politicians.
“Turkey’s most urgent need is peace,” said the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, which has been accused by authorities of links with the PKK, according to the Associated Press. “We call on both the government and the PKK to immediately halt the war, without losing a second.”
A major shift in regional dynamics
Turkey's acrimonious political fight with its Kurdish population takes place against a backdrop of a changing regional dynamic that is being redefined by Arab Spring revolutions and a Turkey that is becoming a regional powerhouse.
Concurrently next door, a months-long antiregime uprising has already left 3,000 dead and continues in Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has threatened to make Turkey pay for hosting the Syrian opposition.
Syria's pro-democracy movement met to form the Syrian National Council in Istanbul more than two weeks ago. The assassination 10 days ago of a prominent Syrian Kurd in Qamishli, a Syrian border town in Turkey, was mourned also among Syrian exiles in Istanbul, who said the killing would galvanize the opposition.
On the other side of the ethnic Kurdish regions, Iran says it has damaged the Iranian arm of the PKK, known as PJAK, in a series of recent cross-border strikes.
Iran is at loggerheads with Ankara for Turkey's recent agreement to host parts of a US-engineered regional missile-defense system, which aims to protect against any potential Iranian missile attack.
As the eastern anchor of the NATO alliance, Turkey has the second-largest ground force after the US. But an intelligence-sharing deal – in which the US since 2007 has provided Turkey with real-time intelligence of PKK movements in northern Iraq – is proving to be far from fail-safe.
Negotiations have been under way between Turkey and the US to move the US drones from Iraq – where US forces are being withdrawn by the end of the year – to new bases in Turkey.
“As a friend and ally, the United States will continue to stand with the people and government of Turkey in their fight against the PKK,” US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone said is a statement. “No political cause, and no religion, can justify terrorism.”
Regardless of the ongoing intelligence-sharing, those efforts could not prevent the eight coordinated PKK attacks carried out on Wednesday.
"Despite the most sophisticated intelligence capabilities and technology, the mountains of northern Iraq afford enormous protection for guerrilla-type activity conducted by the PKK," says Hakura of Chatham House. "It's similar to the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan: very rugged terrain, lots of caves, and enormous protection for PKK combatants."