Kurdish Hizbullah pushed back to the scene

Published 27.10.2014 00:00
Updated 27.10.2014 01:36
Kurdish Hizbullah pushed back to the scene

The clashes that occurred between PKK and Hizbullah sympathizers during the Oct. 6-7 demonstrations are regarded as an indicator of a new power struggle in the southeast, while reviving memories of violence in the late 1990s

Sometimes conflict is more of a mode of creation than elimination as it helps opposing forces to create each other. The interaction between the PKK and the Kurdish Hizbullah also resembles this. The fight between these two groups, both influential among Turkey's Kurds, of their own volition or upon external interference somehow contributes to the existence of both sides.

The PKK called its supporters in southeastern Turkey - particularly in Diyarbakır province - to take to the streets on Oct. 6-7 under the pretext of protesting the siege of the Kurdish-populated town of Kobani in northern Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). During these protests, PKK sympathizers attacked groups and organizations considered to be affiliated with the Kurdish Hizbullah. The resulting loss of lives has caused the long-dormant enmity between the two sides to resurface. The PKK's unexpected attacks on the Kurdish Hizbullah, which is in a defensive position, for some obscure reasons can be interpreted as a sign of Hizbullah's reintroduction into a nationwide power struggle in the near future.

There is no shortage of information and resources about the structure of the PKK, which was founded at the end of the 1970s under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan. But there is little, if any, resource on the Kurdish Hizbullah, which was founded at the same time with the PKK and followed a similar course of development afterward.

Just like Öcalan, the founding leader of the Kurdish Hizbullah, Hüseyin Velioğlu, was a dropout from Ankara University's Faculty of Political Science. Foundations of both organizations were laid in the same period. At the end of the 1970s, while Öcalan founded the PKK upon Marxist-Leninist principles, Velioğlu began working to form an Islamist organization in Batman - the second largest Kurdish city in Turkey - among Kurdish youths. As Öcalan took the remaining members of his organization to Syria after the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup, Velioğlu brought together his young followers around a bookshop. Velioğlu has tried to get new recruits for his group from among poor and conservative Kurds. Actually, the Kurdish Hizbullah does not have a solid ideological source. Although the group was heavily influenced by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, it is built on Sunni thought. It was also influenced by the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist thinkers Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. The group's identity, however, has been shaped by local religious motifs.

In 1984, the PKK started an armed struggle against Turkey conducting occasional attacks on military guard posts with small groups of fighters. This is how the PKK came on the scene in southeastern Turkey. There was also a significant level of activity within the Hizbullah movement in 1984. Velioğlu transferred his activities in Batman to Diyarbakır, which was seen as the Kurdish capital city. They have come to be known there as "İlimciler" - the İlim-wing - so named for Velioğlu's bookshop of the same name. Velioğlu chose to name his group "Cemaat" (the Community). The name "Hizbullah" appeared first in 1985 on an intelligence report by the Gendarmerie Intelligence Units. The state is the one that named the group "Hizbullah."

Between 1980 and 1990, Hizbullah made preparations for a jihad. By the 1990s it declared the PKK, which had increased its activities in the southeast, the arch enemy. It can be said that the authoritarian nature of the PKK, which does not allow any other alternative, also played a role in this move. Velioğlu decided to play the PKK, which had become the sole alternative after eliminating its opponents at the end of the 1970s, at its own game. Clashes between the PKK and Hizbullah began in the fall of 1990. After the PKK killed a member of Hizbullah in the Nusaybin district of Mardin province, the group took action. Although it had been considered unable to stand out against the PKK, Hizbullah had the upper hand in the ensuing clashes. Of a total of 700 people killed during the clashes, around 500 were PKK sympathizers. Hizbullah instantly emerged as the only rival force against the PKK. The PKK invoked the help of prominent religious leaders from Lebanon and Northern Iraq to reach a resolution with Hizbullah. Despite sporadic cease-fires, the fight between the two organizations continued until 1999.

It can be said that the state took Hizbullah's side during these clashes. That then-Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel defined the fight between these two groups as "the revolt of Kurdish citizens against the PKK" has always been offered as a basis for the claim that Hizbullah had been founded by the state. Although the allegation that the gendarmerie trained, armed and led Hizbullah against the PKK is accepted by certain circles, there is no strong or official evidence yet supporting it. But it is indisputably agreed upon by experts that Hizbullah was manipulated by the so-called deep state.

The destinies of the two groups underwent a radical change between 1999 and 2000 when the PKK's leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was captured in Kenya in 1999 and handed over to Turkey with the help of the U.S. Öcalan's destiny has also shaped Velioğlu's future. Hardly a year passed when Hizbullah's leader, Velioğlu, was killed during a police raid on a safe house in the Beykoz neighborhood of Istanbul where he was hiding, on Jan. 17, 2000, the few remaining leaders were arrested and Hizbullah's archive was seized by the police. The archive was presented as proof of thousands of murders committed by the group in the 1990s. However, it was noteworthy that no document or evidence pointing to a connection between Hizbullah and the state has emerged. Based upon this archive, a veil of secrecy was cast upon Hizbullah and thus a bloody period was covered up.

After the capture of its leader in 1999, the PKK lapsed into deep silence until 2005. During this period, it was thought that the terrorist group was totally done away with. The decision that sent the militants who had been receiving only political training in the group's camps in Northern Iraq into the war again came at the end of 2004. Also with the effect of changes in political balances in Turkey, the PKK has taken up arms again and returned to the armed struggle it had declared it stopped.

Hizbullah, which was widely believed to have been dissolved by that time, has also begun to re-emerge at the same time. The group appeared on the scene again with a show of strength in 2005 and 2006. After organizing a "Respect for the Prophet" mass gathering to protest against the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, Hizbullah again gathered tens of thousands of people on April 16, 2006, at İstasyon Square in Diyarbakır for the "Love of the Prophet" meeting. These events showed that those who thought Hizbullah had collapsed for good after its leader was killed in 2000 and the rest of the organization's leadership arrested were wrong. Hizbullah has only given up armed struggle and switched to the civil domain instead. It maintained its presence through activities in neighborhoods in associations. Although it lost its leadership, it was able to keep its social base through mass media like TV, radio and magazines. And in 2006 it staged a show of strength for the first time against PKK-affiliated political parties as a rival. The most critical development regarding Hizbullah, which maintained its presence in the civil domain and expanded its activities, took place in 2011. A curious thing happened at a time when negotiations between the PKK and Ankara reached their peak while the PKK was gradually establishing a civilian administration in Kurdish cities. More than 10 high-ranking Hizbullah members who were among the organization's political and military leaders and had been in prison for 10 years being held responsible for 188 deaths, were released upon an amendment in the Turkish penal code limiting the period of imprisonment without a conviction to 10 years. The government was not happy with the judiciary, but before it could find an opportunity to correct the legislation it saw as misinterpreted, these people fled despite police surveillance first to Syria and then to Iran. There were serious allegations that the "deep state" was behind the judicial scandal, which occurred before everyone's eyes. Quite a lot of people interpreted it as a plan to revive Hizbullah. After that, the control of Hizbullah, which has been conducting activities in the civil domain, was taken over immediately by the released leaders. Hizbullah has again begun to organize illegally and managed its base in Kurdish cities.

Meanwhile, again in an awkward move, the Mustazaf-Der association, short for Mustazaflarla Dayanışma Derneği (the Association for Solidarity with the Oppressed), being used by Hizbullah as a front for conducting its activities, was closed down. The closing of its association led Hizbullah's civilian wing to take steps toward establishing a party. In place of Mustazaf-Der, which was closed in 2012, a political party with the name the Free Cause Party (Hüda Par) was founded. Thus Hizbullah's civilian activities were elevated to a higher organizational level.

Having participated in the March 2014 local elections under the banner of Hüda Par, Hizbullah emerged as the third most powerful force in southeastern Turkey after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). Although Hüda Par did not achieve surprising success in the elections, a clear picture of its support in the region emerged.

The PKK's attacks on Hüda Par in the southeast on Oct. 6-7 have turned Hizbullah into a victim of sorts in the eyes of the public. The PKK could not offer a persuasive explanation for its launching a wave of attacks on Hizbullah. In its statement about why it targeted Hizbullah, the PKK claimed that the organization is pro-ISIS but it could not provide any evidence. In addition, the PKK conducted successive assassinations against people it considered close to Hüda Par, turning the attacks it started on Oct. 6-7 into a systematic campaign. Nongovernmental organizations in the southeast and the public in general are greatly disturbed by the PKK's targeted attacks on Hizbullah. The people living in the region do not want a return to the bloody days of the 1990s. If popular pressure does not stop the PKK, Hizbullah will waste no time in retaliating against it.

Several scenarios can be put forward to explain why the tension between the PKK and Hizbullah has come to such a fevered pitch. It's reasonable to assume that the PKK, which has ongoing negotiations with the government, wants to eliminate its opponents in the Kurdish region. Hizbullah may have drawn the reaction by participating in the 2014 local elections and offering an alternative to the PKK's dominance. The PKK may be trying to forcibly eliminate a rival that is likely to become more formidable in the near future.

It could also be postulated that the PKK is stoking tension with Hizbullah in order to put the government in a difficult situation. The PKK may be forcing the government to make concessions in other areas by creating instability and conflict. But evaluating the relations between these two organizations without taking the overall power struggle in the country into consideration prevents us from seeing the whole picture, for those who manipulated the conflict have benefitted the most from the fight between the PKK and Hizbullah in the 1990s. That bloody conflict become the main source of political instability and caused civilian governments to come under the tutelage of deep shadowy powers.

Of course, Turkey is not the country it was in the past. It has undergone huge changes over the years. However, there is a serious power struggle, at times hidden and at others overt, going on among the power centers in the country. There is a strong bloc both at home and abroad that is uncomfortable with the AK Party government. Additionally, the great power struggle in the Middle East has begun to closely affect Turkey. A new fight between the PKK and Hizbullah would serve as a tool of instability in the power struggle sweeping the entire country and even the Middle East.

It should be remembered that Hizbullah represents the Turkey of the 1990s. It evokes chaos, conflict and instability. Hizbullah entering the game and fighting the PKK once again would have a negative effect on the political stability in the country and on the reconciliation process that was launched to secure peace between Turkey and Kurds. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's statement: "We will not allow deep powers to drag Turkey into the 1990s," shows that the government is aware of the danger. But being aware of the great trap awaiting Turkey is not sufficient on its own - we should also forestall this danger.

*Istanbul based journalist

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