While the media has been driven into a frenzy over the prospect of a Turkish military operation into northern Iraq, it remains unclear whether recent developments indicate an imminent incursion or aggressive saber-rattling designed to increase pressure on the US and Iraqi authorities.
With the PKK's announcement Friday that it would be re-locating its base of operations out of northern Iraq and into Turkey, the group made its own effort to undercut Turkish rationale for crossing the border.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said back in early July that following the July 22 elections he would seek parliamentary approval for a cross-border operation if the military requested authorization.
Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, chief of general staff of the Turkish armed forces, made no secret that he has wanted to unleash a more aggressive offensive against Kurdish rebels based inside northern Iraq, but Erdogan didn't broach the subject again after the elections.
The string of recent attacks inside Turkey, however, made it impossible for Erdogan to leave the problem on the back burner. Erdogan's government announced plans this week to send a use of force resolution for parliamentary approval, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're about to unleash the military.
Erdoğan suggested in an interview broadcast on CNN-Turk Wednesday that a cross-border operation would likely not be launched immediately, adding that the approval would remain valid for one year and could be used whenever deemed necessary.
"Let's make sure we have the authorization at hand so that we can decide to take a step whenever it is necessary," Erdoğan said.
Ertuğrul Günay, the minister of culture in Erdoğan's Cabinet, said in Frankfurt that military intervention in Iraq was not likely right away. "We do not want to go into Iraq ... What happens in northern Iraq is not of interest right away. We are fighting against militants within Turkey," Günay told Reuters in an interview at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The leader of the opposition CHP (Republican People's Party) Deniz Baykal announced his party would support the measure, but insisted the government should follow through and use the authorization. Baykal said: "They have issued permission twice previously, however they did not use it. One should conclude the action he has put into motion."
It would be wrong to say that Erdogan will not make use of the parliamentary approval, but probably equally wrong to expect him to put it to its official use.
Erdogan has a trip to Washington planned for November 5, and a meeting of Iraq's neighbors will convene in Istanbul next month. Going into these meetings with pre-authorization to launch an operation if discussions are not favorable to the Turkish position makes for a powerful negotiating tool.
The recent PKK attacks, which claimed the lives of 30 Turkish citizens, has made it an imperative for Erdogan to either act or run the risk of appearing weak. But the prime minister recognizes a military operation against northern Iraq would have reverberating effects far beyond the direct results of the incursion.
"We have to avoid acting emotionally on the issue of a cross-border operation. It should be assessed thoroughly. What it would bring and what it would cost should be assessed carefully," he told CNN Türk Wednesday. "So far, there have been 24 such operations. When you look back at its benefits, we see they have not been particularly effective. We have to see this fact... If we don't analyze it well, we will lose in the end," he stated.
The Turkish Daily News reports one senior official at the Foreign Ministry worries about the response of the international community, recalling the Turkish army's cross-border operation in 1996 when, "The whole world went against us. The current situation is graver than 11 years ago."
The "whole world" wouldn't go against Turkey, but Javier Solana yesterday raised the prospect that the EU could. "Any possibility of complicating even more the security situation in Iraq is something that should not be welcome and therefore that's the message that we passed to our Turkish friends," Javier Solana told reporters Thursday.
Erdogan is a pragmatic leader. He'll never rule out the prospect of pursuing the PKK into northern Iraq, but as long as he believes he can leverage threats of an incursion to pressure action out of the US and Iraq, he will continue trying to avoid getting his own troops embroiled in a military action.