By Ceylan Yeginsu at New York Times
ISTANBUL — A major Turkish military operation to eradicate Kurdish militants in Turkey’s restive southeast has turned dozens of urban districts into bloody battlefields, displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians and shattering hopes of reviving peace as an old war reaches its deadliest level in two decades.
Over the past week, Turkish tanks and artillery have pounded Kurdish targets across several southeast cities, killing at least 200 militants and more than 150 civilians, according to human rights groups and local officials.
Their descriptions of the fighting and mass destruction in populated areas, which are off-limits to journalists, depict war zones not unlike the scenes in neighboring Syria to the south.
The Kurds are a geographically dispersed minority whose aspirations for autonomy date back decades. The flaring of their conflict with Turkey represents a dangerous complication in a region already convulsed by the upheavals in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. About half of all Kurds live in Turkey, a NATO member and American ally.
Several Turkish cities are under tight lockdown, and many residents have been trapped without food or electricity as clashes between Kurdish militants and Turkish security forces have intensified.
Militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party have dug trenches and put up barricades and are using heavy weaponry and rocket launchers to repel the Turkish police, according to local officials.
Turkey has been fighting a counterinsurgency campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party since the group ended a two-year cease-fire in July. Analysts said the renewed conflict initially appeared to have been a calculated political strategy by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to strengthen support for his Justice and Development Party ahead of parliamentary elections in November.
When Justice and Development won by a landslide — a result that Mr. Erdogan interpreted as the public’s demand for stability — many had hoped it would lead to the revival of peace talks.
Instead, the violence has sharply escalated, stoking fears that it might spread.
Mr. Erdogan has vowed to eliminate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. Having carried out an insurgency against Turkey for three decades, the group, now emboldened by a radicalized youth branch inspired by the war in Syria, has declared autonomous regions and stepped up its fight for self-rule.
The Turkish authorities have also been alarmed by the territorial gains in Syria made by Syrian Kurdish militias that are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and are considered a national security threat to the Turks.
Those militias have complicated Turkey’s collaboration with the United States in the Syria conflict, because all share a hostility toward the Islamic State extremists there and to President Bashar al-Assad.
But for Mr. Erdogan, the Kurdish militants in Turkey are now the most important enemy.
“You will be annihilated in those houses, those buildings, those ditches which you have dug,” he said recently, speaking about the militants to a crowd of his supporters in the central Anatolian city of Konya. “Our security forces will continue this fight until it has been completely cleansed and a peaceful atmosphere established.”
Photographs and video clips from the region distributed by local officials show chaos and destruction, with black smoke rising above shelled buildings and neighborhoods.
The town of Cizre, in the southeastern province of Sirnak, has been under a curfew for more than two weeks, with mounting civilian casualties. Last Friday, a 3-month-old baby and her grandfather were killed in crossfire between security forces and militants, according to local medics, who said the family was unable to reach help after its house had been shelled.
Three soldiers were killed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Cizre over the weekend, the Turkish military said in a statement. At least 200 members of Turkey’s security forces have been killed since the conflict resumed.
In the district of Silopi, which borders northern Iraq, residents say they are trapped in a war zone.
“The tanks fire all day and we have nowhere left to hide,” said Nurettin Kurtay, a teacher reached by phone.
“People are dying in their own homes,” he said. “Our schools and our infrastructure has been destroyed. There is no difference between what is going on here and next door in Iraq and Syria.”
Rights groups say the civilian death toll will probably rise steeply.
“The Turkish government should rein in its security forces, immediately stop the abusive and disproportionate use of force, and investigate the deaths and injuries caused by its operations,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
“To ignore or cover up what’s happening to the region’s Kurdish population would only confirm the widely held belief in the southeast that when it comes to police and military operations against Kurdish armed groups, there are no limits — this is no law,” she said.
Turkish officials maintain that they are committed to a political resolution and will return to negotiations after the military campaign, but it has become increasingly unclear who would negotiate for the Kurds.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has labeled the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or H.D.P., an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., and refuses to hold talks with its leaders until they prove themselves “a serious and genuine political party.”
The Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party for the first time crossed the 10 percent legal threshold for representation in Parliament in elections in June. It retained that foothold in the November vote, though its share of seats shrank.
On Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan accused Selahattin Demirtas, a leader of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, of treachery for comments that called for self-rule for Kurds in the southeast. The Ankara Public Prosecutor’s Office has begun an investigation into Mr. Demirtas over those comments.
Analysts say that the government will probably seek to resume talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed Kurdish rebel leader who continues to exercise influence over Turkey’s Kurdish population.
“They are talking tough now, but ultimately the government will have to start negotiations,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“They do not want to deal with the legitimate political actors, that is, the H.D.P. or the P.K.K. leadership directly,” she said. “Their choice will be negotiating solely with Ocalan, with the hope that he can rein in the other players and quell the violence.”
But according to Ms. Aydintasbas, the longer the conflict drags on the harder it will be for any party to negotiate. “Ocalan will not go back to the negotiating table and just pick up where it was left,” she said. “I suspect his demands will involve a form of self-rule or autonomy.”
In the southeast, hopes for peace are fast diminishing as thousands have fled their homes because of the unpredictable momentum of the conflict. While most have gone to neighboring towns and cities, some have traveled 14 hours by bus to join relatives in Istanbul, which has the largest Kurdish population in Turkey.
“It’s a different world here,” said Engin Gur, a father of two who came to Istanbul from the southeastern district of Sur after a curfew was temporarily lifted. “The east of the country is burning and it feels like no one here has noticed.”
“What people here in the west do not realize is that we are one step away from a civil war.”