After an attack by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) killed 26 soldiers and wounded 22 on Wednesday --- the PKK said the death toll is 87 ---- the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) entered the northern Iraq with 10,000 special forces and jets on Thursday.
The Turkish government had prepared for the move with the cancellation of a trip by its leaders to Kazakhstan and through sharp statements. President Abdullah Gul said that “the revenge will be very big” and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said:
... Hot pursuit operations (into the northern part of Iraq) is continuing. Following this bitter incident, personally, I as a PM, canceled my Kazakhstan visit. We made a detailed evaluation meeting with ministers at Prime Minister’s Office, Deputy Chief of Staff, commander of the Turkish Gendarmerie Forces and undersecretary of the intelligence service... The enemies of Turkey must know this very clearly: Turkey is a country which is built on the sacred souls of those martyrs of [the battles of] Sarikamis, Canakkale and the Independence War. These lands have became a sacred country thanks to our martyrs. Our flag takes its colour from our martyrs’ blood. The country and the flag mean virtue and honour for us. Every friend and enemy must know and acknowledge that we will not bow down to any attack either from inside or outside, that we will not step back and that we will not sacrifice even a piece of this country’s land. Those who intend against the unity and the integrity of this country will find this nation in front of them! And until now, as a nation and the government, we haven’t retreated even an inch and we will not! Whoever gives implicit or explicit support to terrorism; whoever feeds, protects and abets terrorism; whoever tolerates terrorism, covers its bloody face, ignores its inhuman attacks; must know that the Turkish Republic’s breath will be behind their napes! Whoever supports or encourages the terrorist organisation will brought to account!
The curiosity of Erdogan's statement was in its emphasis. Instead of a focus on operations against the Kurdish Communities’ Union (KCK), with the arrest of hundreds of Kurdish politicians, or ongoing military action against PKK militants, Erdogan implicitly blamed “external powers” for using PKK.
Doing so, he was trying to divert the public’s attention from domestic political debates. But this is also a move in foreign policy: according to many experts, columnists, and academics in Turkey, Erdogan is targeting Iran and Syria.
With the crackdown on the Syrian opposition and the consensus on putting NATO’s radar system in Turkey, relations with Damascus and Tehran have been deteriorating. There is also confusion over whether the PKK’s #2 official, Murat Karayilan, was captured by Iranian forces last month and then released.
So even before this week's events, there were signs of increased tensions. President Gul visited the area near the border, saluting troops and even staying one night in military quarters. Erdogan sharp;u warning Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari that “Turkey will clean all PKK militants in the region if you don’t”. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu established his first official contact with the Syrian opposition last weekend, even as the PKK's Karayilan told Syrian Kurds that they should avoid provocations of the Assad regime.
The reality beyond these regional moves is that PKK could launch its attack without any specific external help or encouragement. The insurgents considered President Gul’s visit in military uniform as a signal for an operation in northern Iraq and wanted to hit first. Some claim that PKK wanted the public to focus on the Kurdish problem after Turkish media was absorbed by the swap of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, 11 of whom came to Turkey.
And there is the claim that the PKK pushed Ankara into land operation in Iraq. PKK’s third-ranking official, Cemil Bayik, told Firat News Agency on 7 October: “A land operation will engender important political consequences. It will be understood that violence cannot solve this problem and it will pave the way for a democratic solution. We are not saying that they shall come but we say that if they do, it will bring good points for the solution of the Kurdish problem and Turkey’s democratisation.”
While time is running out for a solution, everyone is waiting for Ankara’s “revenge”, with the Government apparently putting a sharp response above diplomatic moves towards Tehran and/or Damascus. Meanwhile, Erdogan has invited Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish regional administration in northern Iraq, for discussions on collaboration against the PKK. (Barzani, following the PKK attacks, said it was a move against "Turkish-Kurdish brotherhood".)
We wait for the next steps --- in Turkey and inside Iraq.