TURKEY

Will the War Against ISIS Tear Turkey Apart?

TURKEY
Oct 20, 2014 at 7:50 AM ET

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Lately, it feels like Turkey has traveled back in 
time to the 1970s, a violent period when people on the left and the
 right clashed in the streets.

Now, fighting has once again flared here in this nation of 77 million. Only this time much of the violence is between rival groups of Kurds, 
an ethnic minority, which has long asked for greater self-rule in the
 Middle East.

On one side: the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a
 banned
 militant and political group, which is still listed as a terrorist
 organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. On 
the other: a radical Islamist political party known as Huda-par, which grew out of a now defunct militant group known as Kurdish Hezbollah (it has no relation to its counterpart in Lebanon).

The issue at stake is Kobane, a Syrian town on the Turkish border
 that’s under
 attack by the Islamic State, the jihadi group commonly 
known as ISIS. Most of Kobane’s residents are Kurds, and for weeks, thousands of 
their
 cousins in Turkey—among others—have been asking the 
Ankara to come to
their rescue. Some PKK fighters have even crossed 
the border to help.

So far, the Turkish government has stood on the sidelines. And while
 the Kurds and their American allies finally appear to be beating back
 the ISIS
 advance, Turkey’s hands off policy has been polarizing.

The tipping point in the inter-Kurdish rivalry came earlier this month
 when thousands of Kurds, including PKK supporters, took to the streets
 across to protest
 against Turkey’s ISIS policy.
 Hundreds of Huda-par supporters entered the 
fray, and the two sides
 clashed, especially in Turkey’s southeastern
 provinces, where
 protesters torched dozens
 of buildings and six cities implemented
 curfews.

The Turkish riot police—and in some cases the army—responded with tear
 gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. And in the end, more
 than 30 Kurds
 died in the protests and hundreds were wounded, though it’s unclear
 who was responsible for their deaths.

For now, things have simmered down. On Monday, the Turkish government said it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross into Kobane. But many fear a wider 
conflict is
 brewing between the two Kurdish adversaries. Their history is a bitter one. Huda-par grew out of Kurdish Hezbollah, a militant
 and political
 organization that wanted to create an Islamic state in
Turkey. When it 
emerged in the late 1980s, some say the Turkish government helped support 
it as a way to weaken the Marxist PKK.

The group’s armed wing hasn’t been active since 2000. But last week’s
 events has made some wonder if their return is imminent. “We call this
 a fight among brothers,” says Sidki Zilan, a lawyer who 
has defended 
Kurdish Hezbollah members in court. “There was a ceasefire in 1996 but 
this never evolved to a peace agreement.”

Since this month’s violence, both groups have been
 pointing fingers,
 accusing the other side of starting
 the violence. About the only 
thing they seem to agree on is that the Turkish state
 is ultimately to
 blame—and that doesn’t bode well for peace.

Indeed, the conflict over Kobane is now so tense that some say it could even 
derail the much-heralded peace process between the Turkish government
 and the PKK. “The peace process,” says Meral 
Danis Bestas, a senior
 official for the political
 wing of the PKK, “is directly linked to the 
future of Kobane.”

Last week, for instance, Ankara carried out airstrikes in Turkey 
against the Marxist group for the first time in two years. A spokesman 
for the Turkish prime minister’s office did not return calls for 
comment. But as Bestas, the
 senior Kurdish official, put it: “This 
conflict will
 serve no one’s interest. It is too dangerous.”

She may be right.