Top Iraqi Kurdish party clamps down on PKK to placate Turkey

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a political party that controls the eastern half of northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, recently shuttered the local offices of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), suggesting the PUK aims to restore relations with Turkey after 18 months of strained ties.

The Kurdistan Free Society Movement, also known as Tavgari Azadi, is a Kurdish political party that adheres to the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned founder and leader of the PKK. In late November, PUK security forces in Sulaimani, the biggest city under their control, surrounded Tavgari Azadi’s headquarters, giving party officials 24 hours to leave, while other party offices in the towns of Kalar, Kifri, Koya and Raparin were also shut.

The Kurdistan Communities Group (KCK), an umbrella organisation that includes the PKK and its affiliates across all the Kurdish regions of the Middle East, bitterly denounced the move, attributing it to Turkish pressure on the PUK and the leading party in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Supporters of Tavgari Azadi protested in Sinjar and managed to temporarily close down a PUK office in the town, which is under Iraqi government control.

The PUK move came shortly after Qubad Talabani, Iraqi Kurdistan's deputy prime minister and a leading PUK member, said all parties not licensed to operate in Iraqi Kurdistan should have their offices closed down, regardless of whether or not they were licensed to operate by the central government in Baghdad. This was the justification the security forces gave when shutting Tavgari Azadi offices.

Turkey welcomed the move, with the Turkish consul-general in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil saying it was a step in the right direction, but insufficient. “Further steps must be taken to close all the offices of the terrorist organisations in Sulaimani,” he said.

The PUK's motive for cracking down on PKK-affiliated political activities in its region is clearly aimed at placating Turkey. Ankara expelled PUK representatives from Turkey in August 2017 after Turkish intelligence officers operating in Sulaimani province were captured by the PKK.

In the aftermath of an Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence in September 2017, Ankara banned flights from going through its airspace to Kurdistan's two international airports, Erbil and Sulaimani, after Baghdad requested it in order to isolate and punish the landlocked autonomous region.

Following a thaw in Baghdad-Erbil relations in early 2018, the Iraqi-instigated flight ban was lifted. Turkey resumed permitting civil flights through its airspace to Erbil International Airport in March, but maintained its flight ban to Sulaimani International Airport, citing terrorism-related concerns. That ban remains in place to this day. Early in December an official from Sulaimani airport criticised Baghdad for not doing more to convince Ankara to lift that ban.

The PUK is likely calculating it has a better chance of getting Turkey's ongoing flight ban lifted if it placates Ankara’s concerns about PKK activity in the areas its controls. Also, restoring its relations with Turkey would have other benefits for the PUK.

“I think the winding down of the war against ISIS on one hand and the changing political dynamics inside Iraq and Kurdistan since both elections have shifted the PUK's priorities,” Bilal Wahab, of Washington Institute think-tank, told Ahval.

“Not only better relations with Turkey but also with the United States, which is taking a tougher, albeit symbolic, stance against the PKK, is a greater priority for the PUK,” Wahab said. “Reopening Sulaimani Airport for Turkish Airlines traffic has political and economic significance.”

Diliman Abdulkader, the director of the Kurdistan Project at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a Washington-based think tank, sees the PUK's move as “short term compromise to a repatching of relations.”

“I still believe that the PUK will continue its relations with PKK, but no longer publicly of course,” Abdulkader told Ahval.

“The airport issue was a significant factor in the closure of PKK offices,” Abdulkader said. “The PUK must also compete with the KDP, therefore it must do what it can to survive even if it means appeasing Turkey.”

Lawk Ghafuri, an independent Kurdish affairs analyst, pointed out that the PUK's recent action came shortly “after the imposition of sanctions on Iran by the United States”.

“Remember the PUK's biggest trade partner is Iran, and if they lose that they will need a substitute,” Ghafuri told Ahval. “Recently, the PUK informed the KDP that they want to be part of any future deal with anyone on oil deals, so the party wants to restore its ties with Turkey to stop losing money.”

Ghafuri said the PUK was conscious of the fact that problems with neighbouring countries were bad policy.

“Look at the KDP and how it balances its relations with the neighbouring countries so well,” he said. “Furthermore, the PUK is losing a lot of money because of the continued closure of Sulaimani Airport as people are flying into Erbil more now.”

“As a result, the PUK aims to re-empower its financial status before losing too much and therefore doesn't want to be the 'bad boy' in front of the eyes of the West, the U.S. and Turkey in Iraqi Kurdistan over the fate of the PKK,” he said.

Wahab said the “nationalist sentiments” of Kurds “across the borders cannot, and have not, withstood the pressures on the internal dynamics of the Kurdish regions.”

“Iraqi Kurdish parties often have to walk a fine line between Kurdayati (the Kurdish national movement) and the challenges of ruling a semi-state in a tough neighbourhood,” he said.