Leading Article: Turkey should not be left to go it alone

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The killing of 17 more Turkish soldiers yesterday, an act blamed – almost certainly correctly – on the Kurdish militants of the PKK, pushes the death toll in the Turkish army over the 30 mark in the past fortnight alone, significantly increasing the danger that the Turks will now invade northern Iraq to try to root out PKK bases.

The generals have been angling for this at least since May, when the Kurdistan Workers' Party intensified its policy of goading the Turkish military through pinprick attacks. Back then, the Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan – no great friend of the generals – resisted the clamour. After yesterday's attacks, even Mr Erdogan has been sounding receptive to the idea.

The trouble is that a Turkish invasion will make matters worse, because the 3,000 or so PKK guerrillas are not based close to the Turkish border but on the far side of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, near Iran. This means the Turks would have to cross large distances and a largely hostile terrain even to come within reach of their foes and, as Kurdish demonstrators in northern Iraq made clear at the weekend, many Kurds in Iraq would challenge an incursion on this scale.

The result could resemble mayhem, which presumably is the PKK's desperate strategy. Unable to force the concessions they seek on Kurdish autonomy in Turkey by other means, their apparent goal is to push Ankara into all-out conflict with Kurds on both sides of the border, in the flimsy hope that something may emerge from a general conflagration.

If this apocalyptic scenario is to be avoided, it will require cool heads and quick thinking, not only in Ankara but in Washington and at Nato headquarters in Brussels, for Nato members, such as Turkey, have a right to call on their allies when they feel their borders are under attack.

There is little point in looking to the Iraqi army to repress the PKK's activity. Iraqi regular forces are not even present in the region. Nor is the Kurdish Regional Government inclined to act alone.

It comes down to the US, therefore, which has a military presence in northern Iraq, to work together with the Iraqi Kurds to rein in the PKK. So far, Washington has been loath to choose between its friends in Turkey and among the Iraqi Kurds. But yesterday's events show that soothing calls for mutual restraint no longer serve a purpose.

Tough decisions must be made on stopping the PKK in its tracks if Mr Erdogan is not to be forced into unleashing the Turkish army into northern Iraq, and if another unstoppable, unwinnable, war is not to be visited on a region suffering from too many conflicts already.