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Aykan Erdemir & Merve Tahiroglu

The ISIS attack
and Turkey’s Islamist Kurds

Protestors shout slogans and hold a placard reading

An ISIS-linked suicide bomber attacked the southern Turkish border town of Suruç last Monday, killing 32 and wounding 100. The victims were preparing for a trip to reconstruct the war-torn Syrian town of Kobane, which has been held by the Kurdish People’s Democratic Union (PYD) since late January after a four-month battle with ISIS. Analysts have described the attack as spillover from the ISIS-PYD conflict and the broader struggle between Islamists and Kurds in Syria and Iraq. The Islamist-versus-Kurdish dichotomy, however, is too simplistic: the bomber in this week’s attack was reportedly an ethnic Kurd himself.

 

The People’s Democratic Party (HDP) made global headlines last month as it became Turkey’s first predominantly Kurdish party to pass the nationwide election threshold. With a female co-chair and Christian and LGBT candidates, the HDP epitomizes the popular Western perception of Kurds as secular, liberal and pro-Western.

 

In reality, however, Turkey’s Kurds are far from monolithic. On 5 June, two days before the election, twin bombs exploded in an HDP rally in Diyarbakir – Turkey’s unofficial Kurdish capital – killing four and wounding over a 100. The terrorist apprehended shortly after the attack also turned out to be an ISIS-linked Turkish Kurd. Indeed, while thousands of nationalist Kurds from Turkey have crossed to Syria to join the PYD, an estimated 600 Kurds have reportedly joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

 

Islamism has historically been the main ideological and political competitor to Kurdish nationalism. Since 2007, in fact, more Kurds have voted for the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) than for pro-Kurdish parties in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. In last month’s election, only six in 10 Kurds voted for the HDP – largely thanks to the roughly half of formerly pro-AKP Kurds who defected to it. However, many of them likely voted for the HDP not because they had become less conservative, but out of fear that the party would fall below the election threshold. Indeed, some 29% of Kurds still voted for the AKP. Many are ‘values voters,’ willing to support a predominantly ethnic-Turkish party as long as it is ideologically rooted in Islam.

 

Rarely covered in the Western press, meanwhile, are those Kurdish voters who are too Islamist even for the AKP. Hezbollah – a separate entity from its more popular Lebanese namesake – is a radical Sunni Kurdish movement sympathetic to Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Just as the militant separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) seeks to carry the banner for secular Kurdish nationalists, Hezbollah has since the 1980s vied to represent religious Kurds through its own utopian vision: an Islamic state for the Kurds. The resulting intra-Kurdish rivalry killed hundreds on both sides throughout the 1990s.

 

While violence today is nowhere near the level it was in the 1990s, radical Islamism still exists among Turkey’s Kurds. In January, a massive crowd gathered in Diyarbakir to protest the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo bearing banners reading, “I am Hamas in Palestine,” “I am Malcolm X in America” and “I am Hezbollah in Kurdistan.” The rally was estimated to be 100,000-strong. The protests were organized by Hüda-Par, an unabashedly hardline Islamist party created by Hezbollah members in December 2012.

 

In the last two elections, Hüda-Par garnered nearly 100,000 votes – a negligible portion of the estimated 14 million Kurds nationwide, but an indication that hardcore Islamist Kurds have a significant support base and the potential for growth. The entrance of Hüda-Par onto the political scene continues to agitate Turkey’s left-wing, secular Kurds. In the three years since its establishment, Hüda-Par has periodically clashed with supporters of the PKK and HDP. Most recently, three people were killed in post-election violence over the murder of a local Hüda-Par charity leader.

 

Regional conflicts are only likely to intensify intra-Kurdish divisions and fuel radicalism on both sides. Hüda-Par’s core support base resides near the Syrian and Iraqi borders, just across the bloody battles in both countries between Kurdish forces and ISIS. In October 2014, Kurds staged massive protests in southeast Turkey over the ISIS siege of Kobane. Clashes soon erupted between the PKK and Hüda-Par, with the former raging against the latter’s Islamic messages and alleged support for ISIS. The PYD, which is the Syrian-affiliate of the PKK, has effectively become Turkey’s new neighbor – to the delight of Turkey’s nationalist Kurds but the dismay of Islamists. For its part, Hüda-Par has an ideological affinity with Islamist groups fighting in Syria, and as a rival to the PKK, has an interest in seeing the PYD contained.

 

Monday’s Suruç massacre is merely the latest example of violence spilling over the Turkish border. This ISIS-linked bombing of Kobane supporters was a clear message by ISIS to the PYD, but it has wider ramifications: that the fundamental conflict along the Turkey-Syria-Iraq border is not Islamists versus Kurds, but is at times also an internecine Kurdish battle between Islamists and secularists. The bombing’s victims included secular and socialist Kurds – of the kind who generally support the PKK and HDP – and the terrorist was a pro-ISIS Kurd, like many radical supporters of Hüda-Par. Days after the Suruç bombing, on 24 July, a Hüda-Par member was assassinated in Adana, amidst demonstrations against the attack.

 

As the battles between Islamists and nationalist Kurds in Syria and Iraq spill over to Turkey, they could exacerbate the country’s intra-Kurdish conflict. Even more destabilizing, meanwhile, would be this intra-Kurdish violence crossing over to Iraq and Syria, where Kurdish unity is an imperative for the defeat of ISIS. Analysts should not overlook the deep fissures that continue to divide the Kurds and the significant swath of them who reject the secularist vision of those fighting jihadists.

 

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a nonresident fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate

Protestors shout slogans and hold a placard reading 'Government massacre in Suruc- killer government' as they march in Istanbul during a demonstration on 20 July, following an explosion in Turkey's southern town of Suruc. A suspected Islamic State suicide bomber killed at least 31 people in an attack on a Turkish cultural center where activists had gathered to prepare for an aid mission in the nearby Syrian town of Kobane. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

Rarely covered in the Western press, meanwhile, are those Kurdish voters who are too Islamist even for the AKP. The Sunni Kurdish Hezbollah is a radical movement sympathetic to Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Just as the militant separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) seeks to carry the banner for secular Kurdish nationalists, Hezbollah has since the 1980s vied to represent religious Kurds through its own utopian vision: an Islamic state for the Kurds."