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  • Supporters of the Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) wave flags with a picture of the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan and flags with a picture of Turkey's founder Ataturk during an election rally.

    Supporters of the Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) wave flags with a picture of the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan and flags with a picture of Turkey's founder Ataturk during an election rally. | Photo: Reuters

Published 19 September 2015
Politicized youth organizations on both ends of the political spectrum in Turkey are becoming more vocal, violent and popular.

When the decades-old conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK escalated again in July – two years after the start of the peace talks between the two parties – many were disappointed, but few were surprised. The breakdown of the peace process occurred in a context of increasing tensions between the Turkish government and the country's Kurdish minority.

Kurds have become increasingly suspicious of President Erdogan's government ever since it failed to effectively back the Kurds when the Syrian town of Kobane came under attack from the so-called Islamic State in September 2014, while the president still holds a grudge against the Kurds for not backing his plan to change the constitution and install a presidential system that would give him near-unlimited powers.

Much of the current fighting – airstrikes on PKK positions in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq, PKK attacks on military convoys and the targeting of police stations and military bases, etc. – remind one of the 1990s, when the conflict was at its height, but several aspects of the recent escalations signal a worrying trend that feeds into the belief that a solution for the crisis is further away than ever.

The central role played by the urban guerrillas of the YDG-H, a PKK-linked youth organization, on the one hand, and the increasing violence by nationalist groups, on the other, show that the conflict has partially shifted from the mountains to the urban centres, and that less institutionalized, civil-based groups are taking up a more prominent part in the conflict.

Hijacking the Wolf

A deadly PKK attack on a military convoy which left 16 soldiers dead, two days later followed by another attack in which 11 policemen were killed, provided the immediate cause for thousands of people to take to the streets across Turkey to express their anger at these latest “terrorist attacks”. Before long their anger was directed at the offices of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). More than a hundred offices were targeted, windows thrown in, signs pulled down and in some cases fire was set to the buildings in which the offices were housed.

And it was not just the HDP that came under attack. Nationalist mobs marched through Kurdish neighborhoods in Ankara and Izmir, harrasing the population, leaving many injured. When Hürriyet, a news agency known for its critique of the government, allegedly misquoted Erdogan when he commented on the deadly attacks, a nationalist mob descended upon its offices in downtown Istanbul, pelting the building with rocks and threatening its journalists.

Waving Turkish flags and making the “sign of the wolf” – a symbol often used by the Grey Wolves, an ultranationalist organization with a shady past – the mobs attacking the HDP offices and Hürriyet were immediately associated with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Turkey's third largest party. However, in a recent statement the leader of the MHP denied involvement and instead pointed fingers at a group called the Ottoman Hearths, a youth organization linked to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Politicians and journalists linked to the opposition have pointed to links between the AKP and the Ottoman Hearths, and although the AKP Deputy Chairman Ekrem Erdem denied these accusations, Kadir Canpolat, the chairman of the Ottoman Hearths admitted in a recent interview that the organization was “made possible by [President] Erdogan … We would not exist if he did not exist.”

Analysts have described the Ottoman Hearths as a “paramilitary group that can be used in street clashes” and argue that its appropriation of nationalist symbols normally attributed to MHP-linked organizations serves to appeal to nationalist youths and win them over to the group that is in fact characterized by “a heavy dose of political Islamist ideology.”

Self-confident Radicals

On the other side of the political spectrum a very different, yet in some ways strikingly similar, political youth organization has taken shape. Referring to themselves as the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement, or the YDG-H, after their Turkish acronym, the organization consists of Kurdish youths that have taken up arms against the state and are in their own words 'no different from the PKK'.

The recent eight-day long curfew in Cizre, a predominantly Kurdish town in eastern Turkey on the border with Syria, was imposed by the region's governor in order to subdue the resistance of YDG-H after they had declared the autonomy of several of the town's neighborhoods. They dug trenches, built barricades and launched armed attacks the police for whom they declared the neighborhood to be off limits.

The YDG-H are considered to be the youth wing of the PKK. What sets it apart from its mother organization is its urban character and localized resistance. Where those who join the PKK leave everything behind to move to the mountains, the members of the YDG-H more often than not still live at home with their families, fighting on the very same streets in which they grew up.

There appears to be no central command of the organization, and although it has declared itself as subject to the PKK, the day-to-day control of the guerrillas in the mountains over the urban youths seems to be very limited. In an interview with Die Welt. Cemil Bayik, the PKK's second-in-command, states that the youths are very “self-confident”, but that “sometimes they stand up against [the PKK] too much.” He then continues to explain that these youths are more radical because “many of them have been forced to flee from their villages along with their families and have grown up in poverty.”

Where before these youths would clash with the police using stones and fireworks, they now carry AK-47s and rocket launchers. They have become more radical in their demands and more determined in their struggle, and no longer fear to take on the state's security forces head on.

Threats of violence

What the YDG-H and the Ottoman Hearths have in common is that their ranks are made up of a new generation of political activists that seems much less eager to compromise than the rank and file of the more institutionalized (extra-)political organizations. Ideologically they both remain under the influence of their respective mother organizations – the PKK in the case of the YDG-H, and the AKP in the case of the Ottoman Hearths – but to what extent their actions on the streets are coordinated, approved or encouraged, one can only guess.

The increasingly radical character of both organizations' actions – taking up arms against security forces and lynching innocent civilains, respectively – serves little purpose but to widen the gap that already exists between the Kurdish and Turkish populations of Turkey. The prominent role played by both organizations in the recent escalations in violence heralds a new stage in the decades-old conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK; one in which neither of the parties seems to be any longer in full control of their supporters' actions, the mutual animosity entrenches itself even further and the risk of further escalations becomes more apparent by the day. The weeks leading up to the November 1 national elections will undoubtedly be marred by more violence and increased tensions, the extent of which will play no small rule in determining the future of this country.

Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist with an MSc in Political Economy, and editor for ROAR Magazine. He tweets at @Le_Frique.
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