As Turkey’s Kurdish peace process seems to devolve into a “crisis process,” government quarters have begun suggesting the idea that the Kurdish Islamist Free Cause Party (Huda-Par) is the sole force capable of finishing off the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and could eventually join the settlement talks. While some are promoting Huda-Par, an offspring of Turkey’s Hezbollah, old feuds between Hezbollah and the PKK are being revived. Many believe this is no coincidence.
Hezbollah, which has no relation to the Lebanese group, defines itself as a “Muslim Kurdish” movement, while the PKK comes from a Marxist tradition. Their rivalry in the past was inevitable, and it appears to still be so today.
In its 1990s heyday, Hezbollah failed to achieve its goal of becoming the sole Kurdish force against the regime. Similarly, the PKK failed to eliminate other Kurdish groups and suffered heavy casualties at the hands of Hezbollah.
The PKK, which sees Hezbollah as “contras” used by the state against the Kurdish movement, has branded the group “Hezbol-Contra,” while Islamist groups have called it “Hezbol-Shaitan” (Party of Satan) because of its murders of rival Islamists. After its leader Huseyin Velioglu was killed in a police raid in Istanbul in 2000, Hezbollah sank into silence for a few years before making a comeback in the civil realm. In 2012, it set up Huda-Par as a legal political force. In last year’s municipal polls, the party’s overall vote stood at only 0.19%. Yet, it garnered 7.8% in Batman and 4.32% in Diyarbakir, proving to be a force to be reckoned with in the mainly Kurdish southeast.
Hezbollah is believed to have received support from rogue elements of the Turkish security forces blamed for countless extrajudicial killings in the southeast. While there are no indications that Hezbollah has renounced violence, its political debut seems to have resulted in a revision of its alleged “contra” mission as the Kurdish party that would politically finish off the PKK-led Kurdish movement.
Huda-Par could finish off PKK?
Writing for pro-government Yeni Safak, columnist Yusuf Kaplan uttered what many have been discreetly discussing: “This country can be saved from drifting to the brink of partition not through ethnic awareness, but through ummah [Islam nation] awareness. … A strong ummah awareness exists in the [Kurdish] region among Huda-Par supporters in particular and among Islamic communities in general. … Had supporters of the PKK and the [pro-Kurdish] People’s Democracy Party [HDP] suffered the oppression that Huda-Par supporters suffered, they would have raised hell across the world! We owe Huda-Par gratitude for its prudence and common sense. … Huda-Par is the safety valve of the country and the region. … If Huda-Par maintains its common sense, the PKK will be finished.”
A series of developments have sparked concern that the “Kurds versus Kurds” tactic could be replayed in a new format.
Deadly clashes occurred between PKK and Huda-Par supporters Oct. 6-8, when Kurds took to the streets to denounce the Islamic State’s offensive on Kobani. The two sides traded accusations over the bloodshed, and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc paid a visit to Huda-Par and made remarks containing the following critical messages:
- The HDP is not the sole representative of the Kurdish people.
- Other parties will represent the Kurds if the PKK threat ceases to exist.
- Huda-Par has a vision for a new civilization, centered on humanity.
- One has to listen to anyone who has a word to say in the settlement process.
Arinc stressed, “The program of the Free Cause Party, through which devout Kurdish friends engage in politics, is extremely important. This party has a lot to say both about the country’s problems and the settlement issue.”
Two conclusions can be drawn from Arinc’s remarks. First, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which used to brag about being the only party other than the HDP to enjoy Kurdish support, sees Huda-Par as a “sister party” rather than a rival, even though Huda-Par also targets the vote of Kurds with Islamic inclinations. Promoting Huda-Par as an alternative Kurdish party is a sly tactic ahead of the June elections, in which the AKP aims to clinch a strong parliamentary majority that would allow it to introduce a presidential system, a goal that will be easier to achieve if the HDP fails to overcome the 10% national parliamentary threshold.
Second, the government — on an uphill track in the Kurdish peace process — appears to be flirting with the idea of taking on Huda-Par as a partner in the talks.
However, a serious problem emerges here: Who is Huda-Par going to represent at the negotiating table, being the offspring of an organization that has fought the Kurdish movement in collaboration with armed elements of the state? Lingering hostilities with the PKK could erupt at any moment into a full-blown confrontation, as seen during the deadly October unrest and most recently in the Dec. 27 clashes in Cizre that claimed three lives. It is very hard to imagine a negotiation formula in which Huda-Par and the PKK sit on the same side of the table, given their mutual mistrust and the easy flare-up of hostilities.
Undoubtedly, the settlement process concerns not only the PKK, but all Kurds and the whole of Turkey. No one denies this, yet participation is a different matter. Those involved in the issue emphasize that not Hezbollah but the PKK has fought the state for three decades and therefore the war, lately in a lull due to a cease-fire, can be ended only through negotiations between the warring parties.
Huda-Par wants to be part of the talks
Huda-Par, however, argues that negotiating with the PKK alone could resolve only the PKK problem, while a comprehensive settlement of the Kurdish question requires broader representation.
In remarks to Al-Monitor, Huda-Par spokesman Sait Sahin asserted the party wants to be a “partner” in the settlement process. “A healthy outcome requires the participation of all Kurdish segments. The process often suffers road accidents because only the PKK is involved,” Sahin said. “The government may hold talks with the PKK to make it lay down arms and may eventually succeed, but if it wants to resolve the Kurdish question in general, all Kurdish segments should be interlocutors.”
Asked about how the government and the PKK view this demand, Sahin said, “We’ve had contacts both with the government and the PKK. We’ve had occasional meetings with the government because the state has been the source of suffering. And we’ve had dialogue with the PKK because they are a force in the region. The PKK, however, wants no one but itself to be involved.”
And on which side of the negotiating table does Huda-Par want to be? “We don’t want to sit on either side. We could sit on a third chair as a just and fair party,” Sahin said.
Provocation by a third hand?
Engaging Huda-Par in the settlement process is not yet being seriously considered, but a heated debate has opened over alleged attempts to play it off against the PKK. The Cizre clashes, which followed Arinc’s visit to Huda-Par, stoked accusations that the AKP government is using Huda-Par against the PKK. The clashes erupted over an attempt to infiltrate a guard post that the PKK’s youth branch, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), had set up in Cizre to fend off police operations.
Several points seem to back up those claims:
- The attack in Cizre took place after HDP members visited the local Huda-Par office and the two sides agreed on certain issues.
- Just before the attack, the YDG-H had agreed to stop efforts to enforce partial control in the area such as digging ditches in the streets or erecting barricades and checking the IDs of passersby that had contributed to polarizing the atmosphere.
- Pro-government media outlets reported on the unrest with inflammatory headlines such as “Zoroastrians [idolaters] attack Muslims.”
Two civic groups penned reports on how the unrest unfolded. Islamic-leaning human rights group Mazlumder said, “The incident was an act of provocation by secret formations seeking to turn the sides against each other. An attempt is underway by some deep centers to start a PKK-Hezbollah war. The press has widely reported that ‘devout people are under attack,’ but the issue has nothing to do with religiousness.” The Human Rights Association, for its part, blamed the clashes on special forces teams acting together with armed civilians.
The PKK’s umbrella organization, the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), blamed the government and Huda-Par, while Huda-Par blamed the PKK.
HDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas, however, spoke of provocation. “We noticed that fake [social media] accounts posted messages, posing as Huda-Par and Kurdish youth accounts. The incident in Cizre was orchestrated by forces who had infiltrated both sides, seeking to foment conflict and bloodshed,” he said. “Government media organizations run headlines like ‘Zoroastrians attack Muslim neighborhood,’ which leads me to wonder whether some in the government were aware of this provocation. I’d like to ask Bulent Arinc: Did you have a hand in the provocation in Cizre or not?”
The pro-AKP media spoke of the PKK targeting Muslims, but the PKK has recently sought to develop good ties with Islamic quarters. KCK co-chairman Cemil Bayik, for instance, hosted 83 Kurdish clerics from Iraq in the Qandil Mountains in August 2013. Last May, a Democratic Islam Congress was held in Diyarbakir on the appeal of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The HDP similarly says it wants to embrace the devout. Turkey’s recent history is no stranger to bloodshed caused by religious provocation, and prudent voices were immediately raised.
Sahin denied his party had any links with the state. Asked about Huda-Par’s supposed mission, he told Al-Monitor, “Some may see us as a force to finish off the PKK, but we have no such intention. … Our problem with the PKK is that they attack us, refusing to tolerate us. If the PKK stops its violence, it could well exist as a way of thinking or a political formation. We do not approve of the PKK, and we’ll continue to struggle against them in the civil realm. If we manage to finish them in this way, fine. But no one has the right to use arms to finish off a thought.”
Despite the deadly clashes and a possible plan by the state to foment a PKK-Huda-Par conflict, neither of the sides appears keen to open a second chapter of the feud of the 1990s. Each time tensions have flared, a mediator or Ocalan himself has stepped in to cool things down. Yet, the region remains a powder keg, and the longer the settlement process drags on, the larger the risk of explosion looms. I happened to be in Diyarbakir on Dec. 27 and I was frequently told, “If the unrest in Cizre spills over to Diyarbakir, things will come to a disastrous end.” And that’s no passing fear.
By: Fehim Taştekin is a columnist and chief editor of foreign news at the Turkish newspaper Radikal, based in Istanbul. He is the host of a fortnightly program called “Dogu Divanı” on IMC TV. He is an analyst specializing in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, Middle East and EU affairs. He was founding editor of Agency Caucasus.