SIRNAK, Turkey (Reuters) - Perched on a hillside overlooking the mountainous northern Iraqi border, Kurds in the southeastern Turkish town of Sirnak are nervously monitoring preparations for a possible cross-border military operation.
While concerned for their ethnic kin across the border, they also fear any attempt by the Turkish military to crush Kurdish guerrillas in the northern Iraqi mountains could hurt their own region further and fuel wider conflict in the Middle East.
“We are worried there may be a period of serious conflict between regional powers if there is a cross-border operation at a time when strains are emerging between Iran and the United States,” said Mayor Ahmet Ertak from the Democratic Society Party, which has strong support in the mainly Kurdish southeast.
Sirnak is at the heart of a conflict between the army and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels which has torn at the fabric of southeast Turkey for a quarter of a century, killing more than 30,000 people and leaving the region impoverished.
The separatists launched their armed struggle for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984.
Stirred into action by a sharp escalation of violence in recent weeks and under growing public pressure across Turkey to halt the bloodshed, parliament was voting on Wednesday on whether to authorize an incursion targeting some 3,000 PKK guerrillas holed up in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Analysts still believe a major offensive is unlikely, but if it does happen it is set to put a further strain on already tense relations with the United States, which is anxious to avoid destabilizing what is the most peaceful region of Iraq.
It is also likely to cause deep dismay among Turkey’s Kurds.
Rizgin Birlik, a local leader of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, said there was widespread opposition in the southeast to an operation, partly as a large number of Kurds on the Turkish side of the border had relatives in Iraq.
“Kurdish people have suffered a lot. We haven’t been able to find peace. Everyone in the region is uneasy with the thought of the troops going in,” he said, as two dozen people gathered for a traditional Kurdish feast on the floor of his lounge.
Birlik’s views were echoed on Sirnak’s streets, through which Turkey’s army chief passed on Tuesday on a flying visit which fuelled speculation about the likelihood of an incursion.
“My uncle is a shopkeeper in Zakho (in northern Iraq). We are worried about what will happen to our relatives there. It doesn’t matter whether Kurd or Turk. I don’t want anyone to die,” said 25-year-old teacher Murat Damar.
Aside from the bloodshed, local people say the conflict has deep social and economic consequences. Many teachers, as well as doctors and civil servants, refused to transfer to a region which they associate with a violent insurgency.
Livestock farming, once the economy’s mainstay, dwindled in the 1990s as clashes in the mountains led to forced migration of villagers into towns like Sirnak, fuelling unemployment. Some fear more conflict could trigger fresh migration.
“Life will come to a halt in the region if there is an operation. People may end up having no choice but to leave,” said Sirnak Chamber of Commerce Chairman Halil Balkan.
As farming declined, border trade with Iraq has become the lifeblood of the economy in recent years. While fuel is imported from Iraq, consumer goods flow the other way. Turkish Kurdish construction workers and students have also poured into Iraq.
Exports to Iraq via Sirnak’s Habur border gate, which amounted to around $3 billion last year, were set to fall this year and could be hit even harder if there is a further deterioration of the security situation, Balkan said.
He was already feeling the impact on his business of the latest unrest. Security concerns forced him to postpone a visit by a British company to view his mining project in the mountains near the Iraqi border.
In the municipality, Ertak said local people did not believe another operation would help resolve the region’s problems.
“We don’t want the conflict to widen. We want more human rights, democracy and freedoms. We want the country to develop.”