Why Turkey's Army Will Stay Home

Just when the smoke from Turkey’s domestic political conflicts of the past year had begun to clear, another deadly attack by Kurdish separatists on Turkish soldiers has the government threatening military attacks inside northern Iraq. That prospect raises risks for Turkey, Iraq, and the United States. But there are reasons to doubt that the situation is as dangerous as recent headlines suggest.

Turkey accuses Iraqi Kurds of harboring between 3,000 and 3,500 of Turkey’s most active Kurdish militants – the PKK separatist guerillas who are blamed for the deaths of 80 Turkish soldiers so far this year. The trouble reached the boiling point on October 7, when Kurdish fighters killed 13 Turkish soldiers near Turkey’s border with Iraq.

The Turkish public has demanded action, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has responded. On October 17, despite pleas for patience and restraint from Iraq and the US, Turkish lawmakers voted 507-19 to authorize Erdogan to order cross-border military strikes into Iraq at any time over the next year.

Erdogan has sent Iraqi Kurds a forceful message. But, for several reasons, the Turkish military is likely to limit its operations to small-scale incursions and air strikes on specific targets rather than launch an all-out war.