ANKARA – The button of the stopwatch counting down the invasion of northern Iraq by the Turkish army was probably pressed on Tuesday, at an impromptu meeting between Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The two men have, in theory, scheduled meetings on Thursdays, which are often not maintained, as they do not see politically eye-to-eye. The surprise meeting on Tuesday has sparked speculation that the assault is near. Cynics, however, say this is just another coup de theatre, which aims at shaking from the shoulders the United States and Iraq, who are clearly opposed to military action against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) on Iraqi soil.
False alarms have been almost a routine since the beginning of this year, when the general staff of the armed forces energetically requested the government’s approval to move into northern Iraq in large numbers in order to avenge the weekly casualties by the army in eastern Turkey, caused by PKK armed militants stationed in refugee camps and villages in Iraq.
The Turkish army has been drawing plans since last year for a "total cleanup" of that region, but the government has avoided responding clearly. A wait-and-see strategy has prevailed within the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the ruling political formation.
Other events this week corroborate the growing belief that the incursion is near. The U.S. ambassador to Ankara on Monday had to publicly reject in dismay allegations by the Turkish press that his government has been selling weapons to PKK members. The United States, as well as the EU and Turkey, consider this organization a terrorist one.
Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, head of the general staff, speaking on Tuesday at a security conference in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, criticized the international community for what he claims was lack of foreign understanding for the situation and cooperation with Turkey to "combat Kurdish terrorism" in Iraq directed against his country.
Gen. Buyukanit came out of a short period of silence on the subject, to which he had retreated after Prime Minister Erdogan had in late June declared that he did not plan to allow in the short-term massive military action in the neighboring country. In Antalya, however, he was outspoken.
"While we maintain our struggle against this terrorist organization," said Buyukanit referring to the PKK, "and expect international cooperation in this struggle, we are having difficulty understanding some positions and attitudes that we face. These attitudes not only disappoint us but contradict the basic notion that combating terrorism requires better cooperation."
More indicative, perhaps, of the signs of an impending incursion into Iraq by Turkish forces is the recent escape of a small group of PKK members who fled a refugee camp in North Iraq and crossed the border to Turkey to seek asylum.
At a press conference this week, organized by local authorities, they claimed that large numbers of Turkish Kurds were fleeing the region in anticipation of a Turkish advance, and that Turkish artillery was abundantly shelling PKK combatant positions.
There is suspicion, however, among observers that the escape and revelations may have been orchestrated by Turkish security services, within the context of psychological warfare, either to incite PKK activists in Northern Iraq to abandon the region, or to prepare the Turkish opinion for future events. Either way, such incidents and information from "beyond the enemy lines" are typical of pre-intervention activity and carry a message or a warning.
The meeting on Tuesday between the two Turkish leaders also indicates that Erdogan is in a situation where he has either to comply with the military, supported by and supporting Sezer, or face the consequences of his moderate approach to the handling of the Kurdish problem.
Not that long ago, on June 13, the prime minister rebuked insistence by the military to cross the border into Iraq. This was consistent with earlier statements of intent to build productive relationships with political chiefs in northern Iraq rather than punish their constituents for their support to the PKK.
"Steps to improve relations with the regional Kurdish administration might be taken in northern Iraq, why not; as long as it brings peace and calm and paves way for positive developments. If every step we are to take will bring calm for us and for them, we are game anytime," Erdogan told Hurriyet, a national newspaper, Feb. 15.
The rationale for his decision in June not to authorize the invasion was that the problem was not really PKK presence in northern Iraq but that of PKK armed activists within his country. "There are 500 terrorists in Iraq; there are 5,000 terrorists inside Turkey. Has terrorism inside Turkey ended for us to think about an operation in northern Iraq?" he asked.
He was quick to add that the figures he gave were just for the purpose of illustrating where the real issue was.
But Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have his back against the wall now unless he has lured the president and the opposition on to his turf, a competence at which he excels. On the face of things, Sezer may have put Erdogan before an ultimatum. Either the prime minister authorizes the invasion or it can be launched without his approval.
Sezer, as president, is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Article 92 of the Turkish constitution provides that the president may decide to order the armed forces to take action if the country is attacked while parliament is in recess.
Parliament is indeed in recess, and the country suffers weekly attacks from Iraq-based guerrillas. The president has therefore a free hand to act. Erdogan, however, either because he got the message or, likely, because he saw a political opportunity, has been swift to accommodate the hawks and steal the initiative.
It would seem that he is planning to call for an extraordinary parliamentary session to seek approval for cross-border action. This may lead to a "yes" or a "no," but in any event, the people will have decided and the military and the president will have to abide by such a decision.
Another reason for the government joining hearts with the military is that there is a growing number of AKP candidates and voters who would rather see decisive action against the PKK, regardless of the high cost and medium-to-low chances of success of the operation.
The opposition, particularly the CHP the left-wing party founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of the Turkish republic is capitalizing on these popular feelings in view of the legislative elections of July 22.
However, the timing for the green light to move into Iraq remains unclear. Launching the operation before the elections actually, a few days or hours before July 22 could increase Erdogan’s popularity. At the same time, it could lead to a postponement of the elections, due to a national emergency, an outcome favorable to CHP and probably sought by Sezer.
In this warm night in Ankara, the bets are open at the terraces of both the popular and fashionable cafés and restaurants of the capital. The gambling now is not on the "if" but on the "when" of the first Turkish shot on Iraqi land.
But the excitement, if any, is not shared by the shopkeepers, hotel owners, and restaurateurs around the country. The clicking of rifle triggers and that of cash registers have never been in harmony. For them, the war can wait until the winter.