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Turkey’s Game of Chicken

Turkey’s Game of Chicken

So. The Turks voted on Wednesday to invade northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) militants. What now? Probably nothing more than more border skirmishes, a bit of diplomatic posturing and more confusion – as if there could be more – over Iraq.

But it would be unwise to dismiss the Turks’ saber-rattling as nothing more than a school-yard test of nerves. This is a very serious problem for the U.S. since 70 percent of all American air cargo bound for Iraq passes through Turkey, mainly through the Incirlik Air Base, a crucial logistical hub for U.S. forces.

And the Turks clearly know who their friends are. Or at least they’re saying they do. Ankara has said that just because Wednesday’s vote in parliament authorizes cross-border incursions, they’re not imminent. All the big players involved – Iraq, Turkey and the United States went to great pains to play down an immediate invasion. “I sincerely wish that this motion will never be applied,” said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Passage of this motion does not mean an immediate incursion will follow, but we will act at the right time and under the right conditions. This is about self-defense.”

Still, there’s little doubt that Turkey is royally pissed off and resentful of the United States and have decided to warn the Americans with what they see as a legitimate security measure to protect their borders. More than two dozen Turkish soldiers have been killed by PKK rebels in the last two weeks. “Those who criticize us in regards with the motion, should explain what they’re looking for in Afghanistan,” said Mehmet Ali Sahin, the Turkish justice minister. “Turkey applies the same international law that granted the right and authority to those who entered in Afghanistan in connection with some organizations with which they had linked the attacks on twin towers. Therefore, nobody has the right to say anything.”

Well, Iraq’s Kurds won’t take any movements against them lying down. They have no fond memories of the previous 24 incursions from Turkey over the past 23 years, but this one is different. For one, the Americans are in Iraq now, and the Kurds have an economic success story they – and to some extent, the Americans – want to protect. Yesterday, Kurds in Irbil, in northern Iraq marched by the thousands to protest the Turkish vote. Some threatened “resistance” should there be any cross-border funny business on the part of NATO’s second largest military.

But what would any military action on Turkey’s part look like? Are we looking at a major invasion? Probably not. Here’s why: northern Iraq is very inhospitable terrain. (I know; I’ve walked it.) It’s a maze of mountain passes and gullies, of treacherous peaks and loads of spots for ambushes. It is prime PKK territory. Also, winter is coming on, making a tough area even tougher. Many of the camps with the main body of PKK leadership and hardened fighters are in the Qandil Mountains, among the most rugged in the Middle East and on the Iranian border. Getting there is going to be a major challenge for the Turks. These raids would likely accomplish little by way of military objectives.

But faced with the difficulties of conducting effective precision strikes, the Turks will likely do what all militaries do when confronted with a wily foe: overreact with disproportionate force. That means the establishment of a buffer zone, manned by thousands of Turkish troops. And what happens when you put a foreign invading force on top of a resentful population in Iraq? Ask the Americans.

Of course, the Turks realize all this. This is their backyard after all. So it looks like the real game is not cowboys and indians, but the school-yard test of nerves called chicken.

What Turkey is really attempting to do is to force the U.S., Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to act against the PKK to pre-empt any action by Turkey. The Turks figure that the KRG and its American backers will choose to crack down on Kurdish rebels if they’re faced with the prospect of a Turkish invasion and the collapse of the Kurdish economic miracle in the north – much of which relies on trade with Turkey and Iran. It would be the lesser of two evils.

But if the U.S. and its allies don’t or can’t tackle the PKK, Turkey will be forced to act. Right now, there seems to be no great thirst for incursions that almost inevitably would lead to a larger and more permanent ground force and the Kurdish insurgency that almost certainly would follow.

Chicken is a dangerous game. The hardest part is knowing when to blink. Do Turkey and Iraq’s Kurds know the rules?