Turkey on Jan. 5 released several long-jailed senior members of the indigenous militant group Hezbollah (no relation to the Lebanese group of the same name), a move allowed by an amendment to the Turkish penal code by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Whether or not it was the ruling party's aim to do so, their release will complement the AKP's strategy of keeping the three main groups that claim to be defenders of Turkey's Kurdish population — the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the Gulen movement, and Hezbollah itself — balanced against each other. Keeping the country's restive Kurdish region in check and striking a nationalist chord is a political imperative for the AKP ahead of the June parliamentary elections, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hoping to gain an overwhelming majority in the parliament ahead of his expected run for the presidency in 2014.
Several senior members of the indigenous Turkish militant group Hezbollah (not to be confused with the radical Lebanese Shiite Islamist movement) were released Jan. 5 after 10 years in prison. Their release came because of an amendment to the Turkish penal code made by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2005, but never exercised until now, which allows the release of suspects whose trials last longer than 10 years. Though their trials will continue, the release of Hezbollah's top brass is likely to revitalize the group in Turkey's Kurdish-dominated southeast. It is not known whether the AKP amended the law specifically for this reason, but there is no doubt the party knew Hezbollah members would eventually be let out of prison as a result, and a reinforced Hezbollah fits perfectly into the AKP's strategy for handling the Kurdish issue ahead of parliamentary elections slated for June. Turkey's Hezbollah, a Sunni group, has been active in the Kurdish-populated regions of Turkey, particularly during the 1990s. The Turkish government and army have allegedly provided covert support to Hezbollah against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in an attempt to undermine the PKK's military capabilities against the Turkish army. Ideological differences between the two groups — Hezbollah is a militant Islamist group and the PKK is a secular, socialist-rooted separatist movement — contributed to the struggle between the two. This balance of power between the groups worked in the Turkish state's interest until PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was imprisoned in 1999 and a temporary cease-fire was declared between the PKK and the Turkish government, gradually decreasing Hezbollah's usefulness to Ankara. After Hezbollah leader Huseyin Velioglu was killed in 2000 by Turkish police, its senior members — the ones recently released — were jailed amid a media campaign showing killings committed by Hezbollah. The group has remained silent since then and has refrained from any militant activity. It is unlikely that the Hezbollah leaders were released at this time without political considerations in mind. STRATFOR sources have indicated that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is planning to run for president by 2014, when current President Abdullah Gul's tenure will expire. Erdogan is also willing to grant more constitutional authority to the presidential post by the time he assumes it. To be able to implement this plan without any impediment from his opponents in the parliament, as well as from the staunchly secularist establishment in the high judiciary and the army, Erdogan needs to gain an overwhelming majority in the parliament in the June elections. Such a strategy requires, among other tactics, an increase in nationalist rhetoric to challenge the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party's popular support. However, while this plan may bring Erdogan more support from Turkish voters, it is likely to decrease the AKP's share in the Kurdish southeast. While implementing this plan, Erdogan also needs to buy time until 2014 by striking a strategic balance between Turkey's ethnically divided regions. To do this, a balance of power must be assured among the three politically active movements that claim to defend the Kurdish populations: the PKK and the pro-Kurdish political party, Peace and Democracy Party (BDP); the socio-religious Gulen movement; and Hezbollah. The AKP remains in a relatively comfortable spot so long as these three movements balance each other, as they have done in the past. However, two recent events may have put this balance at risk. First, the PKK-led Kurdish political movement kicked off a discussion on bilingualism — Turkish and Kurdish — that recently dominated the political debate in Turkey and put Erdogan in a difficult position. Aware that Erdogan plans to take a more nationalist stance ahead of elections, the PKK used the language issue to tell its followers that Erdogan does not take Kurdish demands seriously, urging its voters to support the BDP, rather than Erdogan's AKP. Second, the PKK's imprisoned leader, Ocalan, reached out to the Gulen movement and gave signs of possible cooperation in early December. Though the Gulen movement is unlikely to respond positively to such an offer, the mere fact that an offer was put forth may threaten Erdogan's balance-of-power strategy. It is in this context that Hezbollah is being brought back on to the Kurdish political stage. Hezbollah's next steps remain to be seen, but rumors are circling that the group may participate in elections as independent candidates or support a political party. Such a strategy will undoubtedly lead to a struggle between Hezbollah and the PKK, the first signs of which emerged over the past few days, with Ocalan and Hezbollah members engaging in public bickering. Also, Hezbollah and the Gulen movement are very different in terms of ideology, since the latter is a non-violent, religiously conservative organization that sponsors social activities, businesses and education in Turkey and abroad. It is still unknown whether Hezbollah will publicly align itself with the AKP — aligning with a militant Islamist group would be risky, especially since the governing party is working hard domestically and internationally to distance itself from its Islamist roots. But even if Hezbollah does not ally with the AKP, there is no doubt that it will be a counterweight to the PKK's armed pressure in the southeast by reactivating its followers, which would work in the AKP's interests.
Turkish Militant Groups, Politics and the Kurdish Issue