LICE, Turkey — The military helicopters swooped in over the Kurdish heartland and dropped white incendiary powder on a raging brush fire — igniting a massive conflagration that raced through the mountains, devouring orchards and livestock. For Kurds living in nearby Lice, the recent Turkish operation brought back memories of the traumatic days in the 1990s when the army twice burned the town to the ground.
The military may have been trying to smoke out Kurdish militants, who had allegedly set off a car bomb near Lice killing a soldier and wounding four more. But locals in Lice, where the rebels have widespread support, see a more sinister motive: “Just like the old days,” said local journalist Metin Bekiroglu, “they want to spread fear.”
In an abrupt reversal, Turkey and the Kurdish rebels appear to be hurtling toward the return of an all-out conflict that plagued the nation for decades, before a fragile peace process was launched in 2012. A truce that has helped bring social and economic stability to Turkey evaporated only one week into the government’s new offensive against the militant Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which stretches from southeastern Turkey to northern Iraq. Old habits of militancy, killing and retaliation are returning to a region that until recently harbored hopes of joining mainstream Turkish life.
Forest firebombing is not the only provocative method Turkey is using to put pressure on the Kurds. In nearby Diyarbakir, the spiritual capital of Turkish Kurds, fighter jets are taking off for dozens of sorties to hit PKK strongholds in northern Iraq. The planes screech over the city as if to send a threat of destruction. Many Diyarbakir residents have relatives in the mountains among the Kurdish targets.
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“The message we hear from the jets is: ‘We are in your heart and we will destroy your heart and your freedoms,'” said Adnan Seyit, who runs a cafe overlooking the Tigris river in Diyarbakir. He said that Kurds have been surprised at the swiftness of the air mobilization — and that it is being executed in such a massive way. Turkish military authorities did not immediately respond to questions about its air campaign.
Around Lice — a highly contested prize at the height of the conflict — the new cycle of violence was triggered last week when Kurdish militants kidnapped a policeman in the area and hit the military convoy with a car bomb.
Many Kurdish politicians accuse Erdogan of escalating the tensions to undermine the main Kurdish political party after its election success in June parliamentary elections. They say Erdogan is hoping to tarnish the Kurdish party, widely considered to be the political arm of the PKK, so that he can win back his party’s parliamentary majority in a possible repeat election in November.
The conflict escalated after a suicide attack in a crowd in the town of Suruc along the Syrian border. Turkish authorities say the bomber was trained by the Islamic State group and was targeting a group seeking to help Syrian Kurds across the border rebuild the city of Kobani, which IS had destroyed. But many Turkish Kurds accused the government of responsibility for the explosion, which killed more than 30 people.
Days later, as the government prepared airstrikes against the Islamic State group, two policemen were killed in an apparent PKK attack in a southeastern town, prompting the government to retaliate against the Kurdish rebels with airstrikes. Turkish authorities also began a nationwide terror sweep netting more than 1,300 Islamic State, Kurdish and leftist terrorist suspects. Yet the vast majority had affiliation with the PKK, which Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist organization. That prompted the Kurds to claim that Turkey’s moves against IS were really a pretext to crack down on the Kurdish rebels.
Government officials countered that leaders simply moved decisively to protect the public at a precarious moment, in which both IS and the PKK — sworn enemies of each other — had mobilized simultaneously in Turkey.
Whatever the original motivations, the government’s attention has turned single-mindedly to the PKK. Kurdish politicians and analysts say the airstrikes against Kurdish positions in northern Iraq are more extensive than at the height of the conflict that left thousands dead from guerrilla warfare and terrorists attacks.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency recently claimed that some 260 rebels had been killed in the air raids against PKK targets in Iraq, while the PKK charges that there have also been extensive civilian casualties. Many Turks fear that the peace process — which seemed on the verge of being clinched — is now dead.
The forests near Lice were still smoldering on Friday. Military convoys passed along the main road, and soldiers manned checkpoints in areas that the PKK had controlled earlier in the week. In Lice, armored vehicles with mounted guns patrolled the streets. Local residents said that dozens of people, including journalist Bekiroglu, had been detained in recent days by Turkish authorities.
At a teahouse in the town center, Kurdish men were gripped in animated talk about the conflict, an intensity that showed a hardening of lines among ordinary Kurds. Murat Eser, who runs the teahouse, recalled the troubles of the 1990s at the height of the fighting, when Lice was burned, and said that locals wanted peace but were also willing to defend their rights.
He said he had gone to help put out the fire last week, and had seen the helicopters help spread it. Two women, he said, were badly burned in the blaze.
“Our resistance is our life,” said Eser, adding that he did not fear police retribution over his name being used. “The sheep and the wolves in this fight already know each other from before.”
Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara.