Turkey’s threatened invasion of northern Iraq to hunt down Kurdish guerrillas could cause a disastrous chain reaction. What’s behind the mounting tensions?

Who are the Kurds?
A non-Arab, mainly Sunni Muslim people, Kurds occupy a mountainous region, known as Kurdistan, that straddles Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. United by a strong sense of cultural identity, they are 25 million in number. That makes Kurds the world’s largest stateless people, and for decades, they have been dreaming of, and sometimes fighting for, their own nation. About 6 million now live in Iran and 4 million in Iraq. But the majority, 14 million, live in Turkey, where, ever since the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1922 and the modern Turkish state was formed, they have often been persecuted.

How have they been suppressed?
Until 1991, the Kurds weren’t recognized as a separate people or even allowed to speak their own language in public. In fact, Turkish law still forbids public expressions of Kurdish identity. But under the current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, things have improved. Kurds are now allowed to study their own language, though only in private classes, and welfare programs have helped alleviate the poverty of Kurdish areas. Erdogan’s reforms, in fact, encouraged many Kurds to vote for his party in the recent elections. That’s one reason the separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has resumed its terrorist attacks.

What kind of outfit is the PKK?
Founded in 1974 by a political science graduate named Abdullah Ocalan (whose name in Turkish means “he who takes revenge”), the PKK is a Marxist-Leninist party whose goal is an independent Kurdish state. It launched an armed struggle against the Turkish government in 1984 and, until the early 1990s, carried out numerous attacks on Turkish security forces and on civilians it accused of collaborating with them. In response, the Turkish military launched a vicious crackdown; at the peak of the conflict, thousands of Kurdish villages in the southeast were destroyed, and some 37,000 Kurds died. Ocalan was arrested in early 1999 and announced a cease-fire later that year. He remains in custody.

Has the cease-fire held?
It’s been sporadic. The PKK says it has abandoned its goal of a separate Kurdish state and instead seeks to promote the rights of Kurds living in Turkey. But it’s still regarded as a terrorist group by the U.S. and the European Union, and PKK guerrillas operating from northern Iraq have continued to mount attacks. In late October, 12 Turkish soldiers were killed in an ambush, pushing the army’s death toll up to 40 in a month. Turkish public opinion was inflamed, and the parliament, in an emphatic 507-to-19 vote, authorized military strikes into northern Iraq.

What about the Kurds of Iraq?

Their scars from the Saddam Hussein years have not yet healed. Long considered a separatist threat by the Saddam regime, in 1987 the Kurds were targeted by Saddam in a brutal campaign that even included use of chemical weapons. Tens of thousands perished (see box.) After the Gulf War in 1991, the U.N. created “safe havens” for the Kurds, policed as “no-fly zones” by the U.S. and Great Britain. Saddam’s regime withdrew its administration from the region in 1992, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was formed by the two main Kurdish parties. So even before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan had acquired many of the attributes of independence, with an elected parliament, municipal councils, and a free press.

What has happened to Iraqi Kurds since then?
They have taken on even more of the trappings of an independent nation. The Kurdish flag, not the Iraqi one, hangs over government buildings, and many Kurds openly advocate secession—even though Kurds are now represented at the highest levels of the Iraqi government. The crisis involving the PKK points up the complexity of the Kurds’ relationship with the central government. Baghdad has unequivocally condemned the PKK, but the Kurdistan Regional Government has been ambiguous. KRG President Masoud Barzani has called for dialogue to solve the PKK problem, but he vows to defend the region from any invasion. Turks believe, with some justification, that he is turning a blind eye to the PKK, and even actively assisting them.

Why isn’t he taking a stronger stand?

Partly because he knows that many Iraqi Kurds support the PKK. Even Kurds who condemn its methods are apt to be sympathetic to the cause of Kurdish independence, which, after all, is also their goal in northern Iraq. The prospect of an independent Kurdistan at its border terrifies Turkey, of course, since many Turkish Kurds would want their adjoining region to be part of such a country. Analysts say that at least some of the invasion talk in Turkey is fueled by fears of broader Kurdish national aspirations. But such an incursion could be a geopolitical disaster.

What might an invasion unleash?

For starters, it could wipe out one of the few success stories of the Iraq war—the relative peace and stability of northern Iraq. America’s two major allies in the region, Iraq and Turkey, would effectively be at war, while other neighboring powers, starting with Iran, could see an opening to make their own military moves. And an attack might not even succeed. The Turks have launched 24 incursions into Iraq since 1984, to little effect. The PKK has avoided serious losses, simply melting away into the hills.