PHOTO: A small girl carries a child through the streets of Cizre in southeastern Turkey, March 2016 (Ilyas Akengin/AFP)

Since the breakdown of a ceasefire last July, the war between Turkey’s security forces and the Kurdish insurgency PKK has escalated sharply.

It is not only fighters on both sides who are being killed. Ankara has cracked down on Kurdish areas of southeastern Turkey, imposing curfews and carrying out deadly operations. With news limited from the region, the exact death toll is unknown, but Kurdish outlets and the International Crisis Group say it is in the hundreds, with hundreds of thousands of people displaced or besieged.

The conflict is now receiving some attention from the mainstream media. The BBC broadcast a report from Jeremy Bowen earlier this week, and Robert Worth has written a lengthy article for The New York Times:

On the morning of October 29, 2014, a long convoy of armored vehicles and trucks rolled northward in the shadow of Iraq’s Zagros Mountains and crossed a bridge over the Khabur River, which marks the border with Turkey. As the convoy rumbled past the border gate, the road for miles ahead was lined with thousands of ecstatic Kurds, who clapped, cheered and waved the Kurdish flag. Many had tears in their eyes. Some even kissed the tanks and trucks as they passed. The soldiers, Iraqi Kurds, were on their way through Turkey to help defend Kobane, a Syrian border city, against ISIS. Their route that day traced an arc from northern Iraq through southeastern Turkey and onward into northern Syria: the historical heartland of the Kurdish people. For the bystanders who cheered them on under a hazy autumn sky, the date was deliciously symbolic. It was Turkey’s Republic Day. What had long been a grim annual reminder of Turkish rule over the Kurds was transformed into rapture, as they watched Kurdish soldiers parade through three countries where they have long dreamed of founding their own republic.

Some who stood on the roadside that day have told me it changed their lives. The battle against the Islamic State had made the downtrodden Kurds into heroes. In the weeks and months that followed, the Kurds watched in amazement as fighters aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK — long branded a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States — became the central protagonists in the defense of Kobani. The PKK’s Syrian affiliate worked closely with the American military, identifying ISIS targets for airstrikes.

By the time ISIS withdrew from Kobani in January 2015, the Kurdish militants had paid a heavy price in blood. But they gained admirers all over the world. The Pentagon, impressed by their skill at guerrilla warfare, saw an essential new ally against ISIS. There was renewed talk in Europe of removing the P.K.K. from terrorism lists, often in news articles accompanied by images of beautiful female Kurdish soldiers in combat gear. For many Turkish Kurds, the lesson was unmistakable: Their time had come. I met a 27-year-old P.K.K. activist in Turkey, who asked not to be named, fearing reprisals from the government, and who first went to Kobani in 2012, when the Kurds began carving out a state for themselves in Syria called Rojava. “I remember talking to PKK fighters, and I thought, They’re crazy to think they can do this,” she said. “Now I look back and think, If they can do it there, we can do it here.”

Nineteen months after that convoy passed, the feelings it inspired have helped to start a renewed war between Turkey and its Kurdish rebels. Turkish tanks are now blasting the ancient cities of the Kurdish southeast, where young PKK-supported rebels have built barricades and declared “liberated zones.” More than a thousand people have been killed and as many as 350,000 displaced, according to figures from the International Crisis Group. The fighting, which intensified last fall, has spread to Ankara, the Turkish capital, where two suicide bombings by Kurdish militants in February and March killed 66 people. Another sharp escalation came in mid-May, when P.K.K. supporters released a video online seeming to show one of the group’s fighters bringing down a Turkish attack helicopter with a shoulder-fired missile, a weapon to which the Kurds have rarely had access. Yet much of the violence has been hidden from public view by state censorship and military “curfews” — a government word that scarcely conveys the reality of tanks encircling a Kurdish town and drilling it with shellfire for weeks or months on end.

The conflict has revived and in some ways exceeded the worst days of the P.K.K.’s war with the Turkish state in the 1990s. The fighting then was brutal, but it was mostly confined to remote mountains and villages. Now it is devastating cities as well and threatening to cripple an economy already burdened by ISIS bombings and waves of refugees from Syria. In Diyarbakir, the capital of a largely Kurdish province, artillery and bombs have destroyed much of the historic district, which contains Unesco world heritage sites. Churches, mosques and khans that have stood for centuries lie in ruins. Tourism has collapsed. Images of shattered houses and dead children are stirring outrage in other countries where Kurds live: Iraq, Syria and Iran.

This war, unlike earlier chapters in the centuries-old Kurdish struggle, is also creating a painful dilemma for the United States. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is furious about American support for the P.Y.D., a leading Kurdish party in Rojava, which the Erdogan government considers a P.K.K. front. The White House says it has little choice: Erdogan has offered limited help in the fight against ISIS, despite years of American lobbying. That has pushed the United States to rely more and more on the P.Y.D., which it views as distinct from the P.K.K. American Special Operations troops now arm, equip and advise these Kurdish fighters, even as Turkey shells their bases farther west — and pays Islamist militias to attack them. As the war in Turkey grinds on, the United States is confronting a perilous sideshow that has begun to drain the energy and attention of the two allies it needs most. If it continues to spread, it could be worse than a distraction. As one Obama administration official put it to me: “Post-Paris, post-Brussels, we have to clear ISIS out. If it turns out that the coalition can’t operate in that space” — because of Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds — “then we have a serious problem.”

The Turkish city Nusaybin sits directly on the long southern border with Syria, a faded cluster of stone and cinder-block dwellings where truckers often stop on their way eastward to Iraq. Driving by, you would scarcely guess that it has been an outpost and a battleground for a half-dozen empires over the past 3,000 years, from the Aramaeans to the Ottomans. It still contains Roman ruins and one of the Middle East’s oldest churches. It has been a Kurdish town since a century ago, when Christian residents fled southward from Turkish pogroms that started during the upheavals of World War I. Last summer, when the fighting broke out, Kurdish youth affiliated with the P.K.K. built barricades around several neighborhoods making up about half the town. The Turks initiated several short military operations during the autumn and winter, but the defenders kept them at bay with a mix of well-placed roadside bombs and snipers.

I entered in early March with the help of a local activist, who acted as a translator and guided me as we drove along a winding road on the edge of town. We had to carefully avoid army and police checkpoints; journalists are strictly barred by the Turkish government from reporting on the insurgency, and even the mildest expression of sympathy for the rebels can earn a prison sentence. As a result, what has happened behind the barricades and under “curfew” has gone largely unreported.

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