When Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller launched 35,000 elite troops into northern Iraq on Mar. 20, she was betting on a quick payoff. Some 2,400 insurgents belonging to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) have been using bases across the Iraqi frontier to mount raids into Turkey. A swift blow against the PKK would help Ankara turn the tide in its 11-year guerrilla war against the Kurds. And it would lift Ciller's popularity before national elections next year.
But code-named Operation Steel may have backfired. In the first week of the operation, the Turks say only 158 PKK rebels have been killed. With most of the PKK resistance now in mountain hideaways--both in Iraq and Turkey--the danger is growing that Ankara's troops will become bogged down in a no-win situation. Indeed, President Suleyman Demirel now warns that the operation "won't be finished in days, [nor] in a couple of weeks." A prolonged incursion could fuel tensions in the already explosive region.
DANGEROUS PRECEDENT. The Turkish attack sets a dangerous precedent for the post-cold war era. With its security zone in southern Lebanon, Israel has been the only other state to occupy neighboring territory for a specific security objective. "Now Turkey is doing it, and this could be the first in a long series of similar actions," says Martin Van Creveld, a military expert at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
More immediately for Ankara, Operation Steel is alienating Western Europe, Turkey's major trading partner. On Mar. 27, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced plans to freeze $107 million in proposed military aid to Ankara to protest the invasion. The conflict could derail Turkey's long-awaited entry into a customs union with Europe. Paradoxically, Ciller has wanted to resolve the Kurdish conflict to clear the way for democratic reforms such as lifting partial censorship--a condition for Turkey's admission. Although European governments have signed off on the union, the deal still must be ratified by the outspoken European Parliament.
So far, Europe is taking a tougher line than Washington. The Clinton Administration at first gave a green light to Operation Steel. Ankara, after all, is a longtime ally and key backer of sanctions against Iraq. But the Administration, concerned that the invasion might drag on, is now urging caution.
U.S. officials also worry that the operation could sidetrack Ciller from problems at home. "This dissipates the political energy needed for modernizing the economy," says a State Dept. official. Turkey's economy shrank 6% last year. And while inflation has recently slowed, unemployment is still 13%. Ciller also faces religious and ethnic disturbances. Recent riots in Ankara and Istanbul caused 19 deaths.
Ironically, the unintended winner could be Saddam Hussein. The border area is a no-fly area for the Iraqis and that has given the Kurds carte blanche in the region. "Instability in northern Iraq," says Philip Robins, a specialist at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, "will bolster the view that the Iraqi state should be allowed to reimpose its will over the area." But granting Saddam Hussein any leeway would run into U.S. opposition. This could prove divisive when Ciller heads to Washington for talks in April. In the end, both Ankara and Washington may wish that Turkey had never gambled on Operation Steel.