In the past, I have noted how uneven Washington’s treatment of two Near Eastern allies has been. When Israel embarked on its war against Hizbullah, which quickly turned into a war against all of Lebanon, Washington backed Israel to the hilt. (It seems plausible that Washington even urged Israel to take action, but however it happened the support was clearly there.) For many months PKK members have been operating inside Iraqi Kurdistan, and they have been unimpeded either because the KRG cannot control them or because it will not control them. I assume the former is the case, just as it was the case in Lebanon. Washington’s support has been slow in coming and grudging. Turkey has genuine security concerns, and they have been ignored for far too long. However, even though Turkey has a legitimate claim to launch reprisals, it is not clear that this would be a wise thing to do at the present time.
As the Lebanon case reminds us, even widely supported, “limited” incursions can quickly turn into something else all together. As the Lebanon war revealed the limitations of fighting such forces with conventional means, a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq will likely have the same disappointing—to the Turks—results. It will either escalate and widen to the detriment of all concerned, or it will settle into a desultory Turkish occupation of part of Iraq, which can only destabilise Kurdistan as a whole and push more Kurds towards PKK-like militancy.
What may begin as an allegedly limited, targeted response, and one that can be genuinely justified, will in all likelihood turn into a more general conflict against Kurds. Another potential, though less likely, problem is that the Iranians, who also have the same complaints about violent Iraq-based Kurdish militants, will use a Turkish incursion as a justification for one of their own. Kurdish reprisals against Turkomen in the Kirkuk area could also very well follow a Turkish incursion, providing Ankara and Turkish nationalists generally with a pretext for broader intervention. The possibility of a Turkish offensive triggering a more general conflict seems quite real. If Mr. Bush can persuade Ankara not to undertake a major offensive, he will deserve some credit for heading off what could be a disaster for all parties.