Turkey’s deadliest riots in more than a decade have prompted fears of growing strife within the country’s Kurdish minority after Kurds erupted at the plight of the Syrian border town of Kobane, where their kinsmen are struggling to fend off attacking Islamic State fighters.
At least 19 people were killed, 89 wounded, and 345 detained in Turkey since protests Tuesday night gripped the country’s Kurdish-populated southeast, a region that recently has absorbed a wave of nearly 200,000 refugees fleeing the IS onslaught in Syria.
Many among the country’s 15 million Kurds accuse the government in Ankara of abandoning the defenders of Kobane, target of a three-week IS assault.
Authorities Tuesday night deployed troops and armored personnel carriers to the four cities worst affected by the violence, and imposed curfews over a swathe of the southeast.
“Whatever it takes we will ensure public order. All of our security forces have been given this directive,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vowed to reporters in Ankara Wednesday.
Worst affected was Diyarbakir, where 10 people were killed in clashes between supporters of the PKK, the Kurdish rebel organization that has been fighting the Turkish state for 30 years, and a rival Islamist movement.
To some, the violence recalls the mid 1990s, when Turkey’s Kurdish region was put under military occupation as it descended into low-level civil war in which the PKK battled both the Turkish army and a Kurdish Sunni Islamist group known as Hezbollah.
Both the PKK and Hezbollah, which is unrelated to the Lebanese Shiite group of the same name, are designated terrorist groups in Turkey and in the United States.
Wednesday, a lawyer with close links to Hezbollah, told the Monitor that it could revive those clashes if pro-PKK Kurds continue their rioting.
“It seems as if the PKK is looking to carry out more violence and more killings, and people will expect Hezbollah to protect them,” says Huseyin Yilmaz.
The unrest also risks tearing apart 18-month-long peace talks between the government and Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, aimed at ending the group's 30-year-long insurgency.
“This is a violent region where people are armed and often quick to open fire,” says Aliza Marcus, a US-based Kurdish expert and author of the book “Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.”
“The last thing we need is an intra-Kurdish battle in the southeast.”
Group denies link to Islamic State
Conflicting reports have emerged of Tuesday night’s violence. Some Turkish media sources said members of Huda Par, an Islamist party with ideological links to Hezbollah, had opened fire on demonstrators, provoking retaliation.
“This religious group is on a parallel with ISIS, and they are being manipulated by the Turkish security forces to attack us,” said Ertugrul Kurkcu, a member of parliament for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, the political affiliate of the PKK.
However Huda Par’s representative denies the group harbors any sympathy for ISIS. “We completely condemn it,” Mehmet Yavuz, the party’s general secretary, tells the Monitor.
Mr. Yavuz says his party had acted in self-defense after PKK supporters attacked its offices across the southeast, killing five of its members.
“It is the right anyone has when one is attacked on one’s own property. They fired in self defence,” he says.
Kurdish Islamist groups have wielded little influence in the Turkish southeast since the 1990s. As the Turkish state fought against the PKK, it was widely accused of sponsoring Hezbollah to undermine Kurdish unity.
The PKK has staunch Marxist roots, and although Turkey’s Kurdish population is among the most conservative elements in the Muslim majority country, the rebel group has managed to maintain high popularity in the region, with its political affiliate controlling most southeastern municipalities.
Rising PKK-Islamist tensions
In the past two years, however, pan-Islamist movements with a Kurdish flavor have attempted to eat into its support, triggering rising tension.
Members of Huda Par, which was founded in 2012, have clashed several times before with PKK sympathizers in the past year.
Mr. Yilmaz, the Hezbollah-linked lawyer, says the organization is calling on its supporters to rearm in preparation for “self-defense” after having abandoned illegal activities two years ago.
Hezbollah has no direct links with Huda Par, he says, but they share a “common outlook.”
“I don’t know if there will be a change in Hezbollah’s position, but if the PKK continues these attacks then things will get much worse,” he adds.
The looming potential for further unrest has piled pressure on Mr. Davutoglu’s administration, as well as on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition People’s Republican Party, said Wednesday that Ankara’s alleged meddling in the Syrian civil war had invited unrest in Turkey.
“Turkey has dragged the Middle East quagmire inside its own country; now it has been stuck in the quagmire,” he told reporters in Ankara.
Strong family ties to Kobane
To Kurds in particular, the perception of Ankara’s complicity in the plight of their kinsmen in Kobane is a powerful spur to protest.
“It resonates for so many reasons,” Ms. Marcus says. “There are family links, and many of the defenders in Kobane are Kurds from southeast Turkey. There’s a conviction that Turkey is helping ISIS, and that combined with the lack of progress in the peace process is more than enough reason for people to go out on the streets.”
Davutoglu, however, denied that Turkey is abandoning the Syrian city. Since the beginning of the siege it has accepted 200,000 refugees, and has also begun to treat wounded Kurdish fighters.
“Turkey is the most loyal country on the subject of Syria and Kobane,” he said. Referring to the protesters, he added: “We will oppose these vandals to the same degree we have already opposed the atrocities in Kobane.”