Revenge or resolve?
The public is clamouring for action, but the costs will outweigh the benefits, reports Gareth Jenkins in Ankara
A Turkish invasion of northern Iraq moved closer last week after the Turkish Council of Ministers formally approved a motion authorising the deployment of troops outside the country in a military operation against units of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.
The prospect of a Turkish incursion triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity. Iraqi Deputy President Tariq Al-Hashimi flew to Ankara to try to persuade Turkey not to launch a military strike. The next day, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan embarked on a tour of the leading states in the Middle East to try to explain that Turkey was no longer prepared to tolerate northern Iraq being used as a platform for PKK attacks inside Turkey. Both the US and the EU have already expressed their opposition to an invasion. However, at a time when anti-Western and anti-American sentiments are running at an all-time high in Turkey, mere expressions of disapproval are unlikely to have much effect.
When asked last week whether Turkey would seek permission from the US before initiating military action, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan angrily retorted: "when they travelled thousands of kilometres to invade Iraq they didn't ask anybody's permission first. Why should we?"
The Turkish government is under immense public pressure to be seen to be doing something against the PKK. In previous years, PKK activity has tended to decline from late September onwards as the organisation's units withdraw to their camps in northern Iraq before the first snow begins to block the mountain passes along their infiltration routes into Turkey. In mid-September this year the Turkish military launched a major search and destroy operation in the Gabar mountains of southeast Turkey to try to inflict as many casualties as possible before the end of the season. But the result has been a sudden spike in the Turkish military's own losses. On 7 October, 13 Turkish conscripts were killed in a PKK ambush, the highest death toll in a single incident for more than a decade.
The ambush provoked widespread public outrage in Turkey. Over the days that followed, Turkish newspapers were filled with photographs of grieving relatives and the life stories of the slain soldiers. The desperately poor backgrounds from which they came exacerbated the sense of public fury. Milliyet headlined one such profile: "He had nothing, only his life to give."
Turkey has already begun to apply economic pressure to the Iraqi Kurds to try to force them to crack down on PKK activities in their territory. Turkish airspace has been closed to flights between Europe and the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Arbil, forcing planes to detour through Cypriot and Syrian airspace. Last week the Turkish authorities announced that, from 2008, they will stop exports of electricity to northern Iraq. There have also been calls for Turkey to close its Harbur border crossing with Iraq.
On the ground, the Turkish military has been stepping up its preparations for a cross border operation. On 14 October, it admitted that it had already shelled suspected PKK militants up to five kilometres inside Iraq.
However, amid the popular pressure for revenge for the killing of Turkish soldiers, some analysts have been prepared to speak out against a military operation. They have noted that the PKK's main camps are located in the inaccessible Qandil mountains, some 60 kilometres south of Iraq's border with Turkey. The camps are little more than a few huts scattered through the ravines and valleys. Bombing the camps or helicoptering in a handful of commandoes would only inflict limited damage, all of which could be quickly repaired. The terrain and the location of the camps means that a full-scale military operation into the Qandil mountains would be extremely difficult and take time, not worth the international outcry that crossing the border would spark.
Several analysts have also noted that Turkey has been trying to suppress the PKK by military means for 23 years. During the 1990s the Turkish military staged four major cross border operations into northern Iraq against the PKK. All inflicted heavy losses on the PKK but, on each occasion, the surviving militants merely waited for the Turkish troops to withdraw before reoccupying the camps and restocking their supplies.
Sedat Laciner, head of the Turkish International Strategic Research Institute, claimed that the costs of a military operation would far outweigh the benefits.
"Yes, it would deal a blow to terrorism. You could kill 300 terrorists, maybe 500 terrorists," he said. "But so far you have killed 25,000 terrorists and lost around 10,000 members of the security forces. But when we look at the current situation we don't see a major change. This means that the problem can't be solved by killing. If we go on like this then the problem will continue for another 25 years. We need to do something different."