How Iraqi Kurdistan's unity endured the flight ban

How Iraqi Kurdistan's unity endured the flight ban
Despite attempts by external parties to divide Iraqi Kurdistan following Erbil's declaration of independence - including an international flight ban - the autonomous region has remained united.
5 min read
21 April, 2018
Erbil International Airport was hit hard by the flight ban [Anadolu]

Throughout the six-month closure of Iraqi Kurdistan's airspace by Baghdad, its two primary parties have successfully resisted external efforts to create divisions and split the autonomous region. 

Kurdistan's Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani visited Turkey this week and raised the issue regarding the continued closure of airspace over Iraqi Kurdistan's Sulaymaniyah province by Ankara. Shortly after Iraq lifted the flight ban in mid-March, Turkey resumed flights there.

However, those flights were directed only to Erbil International Airport (EIA) and not Sulaymaniyah International Airport (SIA), since Ankara has long insisted that the leading party in Sulaymaniyah - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - is in cahoots with Turkey's primary Kurdish adversary, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

"Concerning the return of flights to Sulaymaniyah, yes, there are talks between us and Ankara. We will resolve this matter," Barzani stated

Kurdistan's two primary parties - the PUK and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) - have long divided the autonomous region into two areas of control and influence. The KDP is the primary party in Kurdistan's two western provinces of Erbil and Duhok, while the PUK is the primary party in the region's eastern provinces of Sulaymaniyah and Halabja. The cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah host Kurdistan's two only international airports. 

Erbil's decision to vote on its independence last year, caused hitherto cordial relations between Ankara and Erbil to seriously strain. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to economically strangle the region by closing the region’s primary oil pipeline, which runs through Turkey. Erdogan also personally accused then Kurdish President Masoud Barzani of "betrayal".

Read also: How Saudi Arabia is using airspace as a geopolitical weapon

The current Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani is a member of the KDP and is using the first trip made by a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) delegation to Turkey since Iraqi Kurdistan's independence referendum last September to bring up the concerns of Sulaymaniyah’s main political party. 

Barzani and his deputy prime minister - the PUK's Qubad Talabani - have repeatedly emphasised the need for unity in recent months. Barzani clearly recognises that the status-quo - whereby Turkey is able to drive a wedge between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah by favouring the former and isolating the latter - is unsustainable. 

Ankara's decision to uphold a flight ban of its own over Sulaymaniyah is a direct result of its belief that there is little, if any, difference between the PUK and the PKK.

Last October, it was rumoured there was a possibility that Baghdad would allow international flights to resume to Sulaymaniyah airport but not to Erbil. Shortly after Iraq forced Kurdish forces out of Kirkuk Province on 16 October, the PUK (whose Peshmerga constituted the primary Kurdish military force in that disputed province) were widely alleged to have made an extensive secret deal with Baghdad to withdraw beforehand without informing the KDP. It led to bitter accusations of betrayal against them.

It was also reported that Baghdad would reward the PUK for handing over Kirkuk by paying salaries to their civil servant employees, which make-up a huge part of the work force in Kurdistan.

Around that time the PUK's Qubad Talabani insisted that both airports should be reopened together, shortly after the Iraqi ministry of transportation stated late last year that they were ready to reopen Sulaymaniyah International Airport to international flights.

Talabani's insistence demonstrated that despite knowing the resumption of international flights to Sulaymaniyah before Erbil would have given the former some respite from the dire effects of the flight ban (when imports to EIA drop from an average of 2,500 tons of cargo per month "to a mere ten", while SIA lost at least $3.5 million in revenues) it would have also run the risk of allowing outside powers to further divide the region by using such punitive measures to achieve political aims.

Read also: Erbil and Baghdad work together to end Kurdish flight ban

Turkey has long favoured the KDP over the PUK. It reached a political thaw with the former about eight years ago and invested heavily in Erbil and Duhok. The PUK has long maintained closer relations with Iran, its more immediate neighbour. Ankara-PUK ties became, and remain, hugely strained when two members of Turkey's National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) were kidnapped by the PKK in Sulaymaniyah province last August. The agents were allegedly acting on the direct orders of Erdogan to assassinate Cemil Bayik, the top commander of the PKK.

Around the same time Turkey expelled all representatives of the PUK from the country in a move that was likely directly connected to this incident. Directly after his expulsion, Bahroz Galali, the PUK representative in Turkey, told a press conference that Turkey's foreign ministry told him that his office was being shutdown "due to an incident which took place in the PUK zone in the Kurdistan Region". This was a clear reference to the capture of the MIT agents.

Ankara's decision to uphold a flight ban of its own over Sulaymaniyah is a direct result of its belief that there is little, if any, difference between the PUK and the PKK. For its part the PUK has stressed that it had no knowledge of the presence of the MIT agents and did not have anything to do with their capture. It now stresses that it wants to restore relations with Turkey.

Prime Minister Barzani's decision to raise this contentious issue during his first post-referendum visit to Turkey - which is also of vital importance for repairing relations between Ankara and the KDP - is a reassuring sign that intra-Kurdish rivalries have not succeeded in once again dividing the Kurds, a state-of-affairs in which they have always come out the biggest loser.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon