By Ibon Villelabeitia
ANKARA (Reuters) - A full-blown Turkish military incursion into Iraq may assuage public anger over this week's attacks by Kurdish militants, but would not deal a fatal blow to the rebels and could inflame Turkey's ties with its Middle East neighbors.
A day after Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) guerrillas killed 24 Turkish soldiers near the border with northern Iraq, hundreds of Turkish commandos backed by helicopter gunships attacked PKK militants based in Iraq in what Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called "a first step."
Turkey's leaders vowed to keep up the pressure and avenge Wednesday's raid, one of the worst attacks on the army since the separatist group took up arms three decades ago.
But analysts said Ankara would struggle to push the rebels out of their remote mountainous bases.
"While the attacks on PKK camps in northern Iraq will certainly inflict significant losses upon the group, it has long withstood Turkish military onslaughts and I don't expect it to be dealt a fatal blow on this occasion," said Julien Barnes-Dacey, an analyst with Control Risks.
"Essentially it will remain extremely hard for Turkey to incapacitate the PKK so long as they can claim refuge in the Iraqi mountains," he added.
Past Turkish missions against an estimated 4,000 PKK fighters camped in Iraq had only succeeded in disrupting the group, not eradicating it, said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based security analyst.
"The government is under pressure to be seen doing something, so chances of a big operation have gone up. But the problem is we have seen this before. The military will go in and come out with body counts and claims that they inflicted great damage but they will have to withdraw and the PKK would regroup," Jenkins told Reuters.
With snow already falling in Hakkari province, where the PKK attack took place, time might be running out for a wider cross-border offensive.
"If Turkey is thinking of a mass incursion they have to do it now. Once snow falls it's going to be very difficult to maintain supply lines. They can send a few hundred commandos at any time but that's not the gesture the public wants now," said Jenkins.
The last full-blown incursion was in 2008 when about 10,000 Turkish troops swept into northern Iraq, but since then the PKK has managed to regroup and continue launching attacks.
With U.S. troops due to withdraw from Iraq this year, and mutual neighbor Syria in the grip of a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters -- and with Iran, another neighbor, dealing with its own internal disputes -- any big military action could bring more instability.
"A more sustained land incursion deep into northern Iraq would certainly rile tempers and could provoke some heated criticism from Iraqi politicians but they have no real desire or ability to confront the Turkish army," said Barnes-Dacey.
A heavy-handed Turkish operation against Kurds in Iraq could also stir unrest among Syrian Kurds, already unsettled by the prospect of what may happen if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is pushed out by pro-democracy protesters.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's advocacy of Islamic ideals and promotion of economic growth and stable democracy has won many Arab admirers, but an overly-aggressive Turkey might alienate them by evoking memories of the times when Ottoman Turks ruled much of the Arab world from Istanbul.
"There is an ambivalence of Arabs toward Erdogan's AK Party. They like to see an assertive Turkey, but Turkish boots on the ground in Iraq, even if the stated goal is to pursue Kurdish rebels, would bring images of new-Ottoman interference," said Jenkins.
Erdogan's government needs to tread a thin line between responding to public opinion and fanning ethnic tensions, said Wolfango Piccoli, from the London-based Eurasia group.
"One thing is to please public opinion and another thing is to see a polarization of the Turkish-Kurdish ethnic divide."
Piccoli said a Turkish nationalist backlash unleashed by the PKK raid will also undermine government efforts to work with Kurdish parliamentarians to rewrite a new constitution that addresses long-held Kurdish grievances.
"The process of engaging in a dialogue with the (pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, BDP) in a constitutional framework is not dead but it is going to be more difficult," he said.
As the political and military maneuvering rumbles on, the dominant feelings on the ground on Turkey's side of the border with Iraq are fatigue and despair over the unending violence.
"They can go into Iraq but what are they going to do? Plant a flag in the mountains of Iraq? I don't know what the answer is but they all need to get together to solve this," said restaurant owner Hakan Basarali in the southeast city of Van.
He spoke as the flag-draped coffins of the 24 soldiers were loaded onto military aircraft at a nearby airfield, to be taken to grieving families across Turkey.
"These boys are 20-years-old... It really makes me sad to think this could be my son."
(Additional reporting by Peter Apps in London and Jonathon Burch in Van; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia)