The Next Front

Israel launched airstrikes on Lebanon in response to attacks by Hizbullah earlier this month, and George W. Bush called it "self-defense." But what to tell the Turks, who over the last week lost 15 sol-diers to terror attacks launched by sepa-ratist Kurds from neighboring Iraq? Many Turkish leaders are pressing for cross-border tactical air assaults on the guerrillas. But Bush, fearing yet another escalation of the Middle East's violence, urged Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to hold off. "The message was, unilateral action isn't going to be helpful," says a senior U.S. official, describing the 15-minute phone conversation. "The president asked for patience."

And so Turkish forces are holding fast--for now--in deference to their half-century alliance with the United States. But that patience is bound to be challenged, probably sooner than later. Domestic political pressures are building to take a leaf from Israel's book and hit back at the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Work-ers' Party, or PKK. Since the beginning of the year, attacks on Turkish military garrisons and police stations have esca-lated across the country's southeast, along with random shootings, bombings and protests--many of them, authorities suspect, organized in Iraq. Already the Turkish military has laid detailed plans for possible helicopter-and-commando assaults, government sources tell NEWSWEEK. Meanwhile, Ankara's frustration with Washington has grown palpable. For all the Bush administration's repeated promises to crack down on the PKK, little if anything has happened. With elections coming next year, Erdogan could be pardoned for soon concluding that his forbearance might prove politically dangerous. "Moderate, liberal people in Turkey are becoming increasingly anti-American," warns Turkey's Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. "That isn't good."

Erdogan has built a career on skillfully riding populist waves, and he's not going to miss this one. On the one hand, he recognizes the importance of maintaining good relations with America, if only to foil critics who lambaste him for being too Islamist. On the other, popular anger at the PKK is getting explosive. At the funeral of a murdered soldier in Izmir last week, crowds destroyed wreaths sent by Erdogan's Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu and the city's governor, Oguz Kaan Koksal. Some mourners chanted slogans accusing the government of cooperating with the PKK. And when a group of 60 human-rights activists were arrested in the resort of Kiyikoy on suspicion of being PKK sympathizers last week, locals attacked the detainees with stones and iron bars.

The Turkish press has been baying for action, with even the solidly pro-American Turkish Daily News railing in an editorial that "Turkey is no banana republic that can leave its security to the mercy of others." Another editorial posed the question more directly. "Why is it that Israel has the right to 'self-defense'," the paper asked, "and not Turkey." The country's usually fractious parliamentary opposition, in a rare moment of unity, called for active intervention. "Opposition," says True Path Party leader Mehmet Agar, "ends at Habur"--Turkey's border crossing with Iraq.

Can Washington keep the lid on this bubbling pot? Not for long, many experts fear. Despite past assurances, the U.S. military has been unwilling or unable to mount operations against the guerrillas. With its hands full elsewhere, Washington can realistically offer little more than in-telligence-sharing, coupled with possible measures to cut off PKK funding. That's just not enough, says a senior Erdogan aide: "We want action, not words." Nor can the Turks expect much from the Iraqis. "We will not tolerate any terrorist groups on the territory of Iraq," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshir Zebari told NEWSWEEK. But even he acknowledges that it may be a while before the government's security forces get around to dealing with the PKK. By contrast, Iran last week began shelling PKK positions around Kandil Mountain on northern Iraq's Iranian and Turkish border. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also called Erdogan to assure him of Teh-ran's willingess to help quell the guerrillas --unlike the United States.

This won't automatically lead to another front in the region's wars. For all the clamor for a military strike, "the sane members of the Turkish General Staff are aware of the costs of going into northern Iraq," says independent analyst Grenville Byford. Those include possible all-out civil disorder across Turkey's Kurdish southeast provinces--which, if rioting this spring is anything to go by, would lead to a brutal crackdown, hurting Ankara's hopes for joining the EU. "There is no good way out of this for the Turkish government," says Byford.

All this comes at a bad time, clearly. Turkey could play a key diplomatic role in dealing with the burgeoning crisis in southern Lebanon, NATO officials say, especially if Turkey were willing to provide troops to the sort of international force being promoted by France and other European leaders, including Tony Blair. Not only are Turks Muslims, which should reduce frictions with the local population, but Ankara also enjoys good working relations with many of the countries and forces active behind the scenes. As one of Damascus's few friends in the region, for example, Ankara would be in a good position to rein in Syrian ambitions in Leba-non. Erdogan has been trying to play the role of mediator with Iran, Israel and the Palestinians as well--precisely why Turkey would "encourage and support" an international peacekeeping force, says Foreign Ministry spokesman Namik Tan.

Objectively, Turkey knows that it has no real option but to remain within the Western Alliance. As for Erdogan himself, who has pushed through so many dramatic reforms to win membership in the European Union, he, too, will be reluctant to break with the West, however sorely provoked by the PKK. Still, if attacks continue to the point where his political survival is at stake, that sense of restraint could abruptly give way. Last week rumors swirled in Ankara and Istanbul that he was close to such a move. For the United States and others, the diplomatic challenge is to help save Erdogan from having to make such a choice. If they fail, the next occasion may require more than a phone call from Bush.