Turkey's Wise Hesitation

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

IT IS NOT merely statesmanlike restraint or responsiveness to U.S., European and Arab appeals that have so far prevented Turkey from launching a military invasion of northern Iraq. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his military commanders are also acutely aware that such an operation would play into the hands of the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, the insurgent group that is dug into the rugged, mountainous terrain along the Turkish-Iraqi border. Twelve Turkish soldiers were killed and eight others captured in a PKK ambush inside Turkey on Sunday; if there were an invasion, Ankara's losses would be much higher, while the chances that PKK bases inside Iraq could be wiped out are small. Meanwhile, Turkey's gains in integrating its ethnic Kurd population -- a large part of which voted for Mr. Erdogan's party in recent elections -- could be nullified.

What Turkey really wants is to pressure the United States and Iraq into taking action against the PKK. Diplomats argue that the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan and the U.S. military are responsible for curbing the Kurdish insurgents and have the means to do so. The first part of that argument is certainly true, and some U.S. officials concede that the Bush administration has probably not put enough pressure on its Iraqi Kurdish allies to move against the PKK. Unfortunately, the second part of the Turkish argument is questionable. It's not clear that Kurdish forces in northern Iraq are strong enough to take on the PKK guerrillas, and U.S. commanders in Baghdad are understandably loath to divert hard-pressed American units from operations against al-Qaeda and Shiite militias to yet another front.

The reality is that the PKK threat cannot be quickly eliminated by military means. Iraqi Kurdish leaders, especially regional president Massoud Barzani, should pressure the PKK to cease any operations across the Iraqi border and to release any Turkish prisoners held in Iraq. The Bush administration should make clear to Mr. Barzani that failing to apply such pressure will endanger relations between the United States and Kurdistan. At the same time, Mr. Erdogan should lower his country's expectations and his own regarding how much can be done immediately to eliminate the Iraqi bases of the PKK -- which is, after all, a Turkish insurgent group that has been active for decades. Neutralizing it will require closer cooperation between Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish authorities, more effective Turkish military operations inside Turkey, and more political reforms in both countries.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company