Asli Elitsoy
Last updated: 15 October, 2014

“…the two groups emerged from essentially the same region and competed for the same local resources”

The siege of Kobanê, a predominantly Kurdish city in northern Syria, by the heavily armed Islamic State (IS) militants has entered its fourth week. The reluctance of Turkey to aid Kobanê caused great anger among Kurdish politicians in Turkey, warning that the fall of Kobanê would endanger the peace process with Turkey, which officially started in March 2013.

The main pro-Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), called for Kurdish people to take to the streets against IS and the lack of action by the Turkish government. Consequently, violent protests erupted in Turkey’s Kurdish region on 7 October, also spreading into Istanbul and Ankara. According to press sources, at least 35 people have been killed and many others were injured during the protests. On the first day of the protests, most casualties were caused not by the Turkish security forces, but by an internal conflict between the Kurdish nationalists represented by the HDP and Kurdish Islamist Huda-Par sympathizers.

Hur Dava Partisi (Free Cause Party), whose acronym Huda-Par doubles as “Party of God”, or Hizbullah in Arabic, was established on 17 December 2012. Huda-Par members present themselves as a new legal political entity, denying any direct connection with the illegal Hizbullah. However, the party can be considered as the political formation of Kurdish Hizbullah as it has many members who were accused and punished for being sympathizers of that organization.

“…most casualties were caused not by the Turkish security forces…”

With its formation as a political party, Huda-Par primarily sought to challenge the hegemony of secular Kurdish nationalist parties, namely the BDP and then later the HDP, in the mostly Kurdish populated cities. But the root of this political rivalry actually goes back to the 1990s when the tension between the PKK and Hizbullah escalated into an armed struggle. On the one hand, by calling the PKK Partiya Kafiren Kurdistan (literally meaning Kurdistan Infidels’ Party), Hizbullah charged the ethno-nationalists with serving communism, murdering Muslims, and dividing the Muslim community. On the other hand, the PKK saw any other organization, particularly one that appealed to the religious sentiments of what was traditionally the most conservative region of the country, as a threat to its own leadership position among Kurds. The PKK also labeled Hizbullah as a counter-guerilla organization as Abdullah Öcalan claimed it had been created by the state.

During the violent clashes between 1991 and 1995, both organizations lost almost 700 close sympathizers or militants. It is believed that 500 of these attacks were conducted by Hizbullah, while another 200 were executed by the PKK across the provinces of Batman, Diyarbakir and Van. Although Hizbullah members strive to legitimate their violence by proclaiming it “defensive”, the disproportion in the number of victims shows the aggression of Hizbullah during the conflict. Consequently, a de facto ceasefire was expected to apply between the groups when the PKK took a step back.

Although there is now a de facto ceasefire between the PKK and Hizbullah, hostility between the two groups has never ended. In the recent past, the competition between the Kurdish Islamists and the secular Kurdish nationalist movement has occasionally turned violent. After the establishment of Huda-Par, the first tension between the two parties surfaced on 8 April 2013 in a student clash at Diyarbakir’s Dicle University. The clashes started when pro-Hizbullah students organized an activity on the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday, and the left-wing student group close to the PKK tried to prevent them.

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In March 2014, Huda-Par participated in local elections for the first time. During the electoral campaign period, the tension gradually rose once again as the two parties competed with one another to expand their grassroots support. Huda-Par accused the PKK of throwing Molotov cocktails at its election offices in Diyarbakir and Van. In return, gunmen stormed a wedding attended by BDP supporters in Batman, killing one person. After the elections, the co-president of the Executive Council of the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), Cemil Bayık, accused Huda-Par of supporting radical Islamist groups in Syria by sending members. These claims were denied by Huda-Par members, but the tension did not cease.

“In March 2014, Huda-Par participated in local elections for the first time”

The recent clashes during the Kobanê protests in Turkey revealed the fragility of the truce between the PKK and Hizbullah who were fighting in the 1990s. In the first day of protests, local sources reported that armed Huda-Par sympathizers were attacking the protesters who took to the streets to express support for Kobanê and condemn the IS. In retaliation, The PKK’s armed youth wing, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) raided the Huda-Par branches and killed four Huda-Par members. Then a Twitter account associated with the Huda-Par’s Batman branch shared a photo of an alleged PKK supporter’s dead body. Quoting a Quranic verse which legitimizes self-defence, Hizbullah subsequently released a statement via its website declaring that they would defend themselves.

In fact, the reason behind this long-standing confrontation between the PKK and Hizbullah is not just secular or religious agendas but a benefit-sharing problem in the region since the two groups emerged from essentially the same region and competed for the same local resources. They needed to recruit new members and obtain logistic support from the people. Despite the ceasefire that came into effect in 1995, the tension between the two groups has not diminished with time and further unrest is expected if both parties fail to agree on an end to the crisis. The internal conflict of the Kurds in Turkey seems to stubbornly persist. It is also obvious that such a volatile situation will always be open to provocations.