Iraqi Kurds hope Erdoğan will lift ban Sulaymaniyah flights after meeting Iraq president

Iraqi Kurdish authorities hope a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iraqi President Barham Salih this month will lead to Turkey lifting a more than one-year ban on international flights crossing its airspace to land at Sulaymaniyah, in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.

Turkey imposed the ban on flights to Sulaymaniyah in the southeast of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Erbil, in the northwest, in September 2017 after the region voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence in a non-binding referendum. Turkey vehemently opposed the vote fearing it could boost calls for self-rule among its own restive Kurdish population.

Turkey lifted the ban on flights to Erbil after six months, as the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls that part of the region, is closer politically to Erdoğan’s government. But Ankara maintained the ban on flights crossing its territory to reach Sulaymaniyah, controlled by the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and extended it by three months on Dec. 24.

“In the first week of the new year, President Erdoğan will meet with Barham Salih, the new Iraqi president. After that meeting, Turkey may lift the ban,” Sulaymaniyah governor Haval Abubaker told Ahval. Salih is also a leading member of the PUK and a former prime minister of the Kurdistan region.

Turkey accuses the PUK of not doing enough to counter the presence in the region of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed militant group that has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey for more than 30 years. Some 40,000 people, most of them Kurds, have been killed in the conflict.

The flight ban means that most international flights to the airport have been cancelled, with only connections to a handful of Middle-Eastern destinations, such as Doha, Dubai, Tehran and Amman, still operational.

“The number of flights leaving and arriving here has decreased by 60 percent,” Abubaker said. “Also, goods can’t reach us via the airport. We have to bring them in either via Erbil or via the road, which increases costs.”

A PUK official who declined to be named said the consequences were not just economic.

“There is a misconception that an airport closure only affects people in the middle and upper classes, since people with less money don’t fly abroad. This is not true. Our airport is also used by people who need to go abroad for medical treatment, and by wounded Peshmerga fighters,” he said, referring to Iraqi Kurdish armed forces.

“They can fly via other airports, but this may damage their health since they need direct flights. This is also a humanitarian issue,” he said.

The main PKK base in the Qandil Mountains, close to the border with Iran, can only be accessed by road from Iraqi territory through PUK checkpoints. PKK fighters have for years used the base to train fighters and infiltrate them into Turkey to launch attacks on Turkish security forces.

By closing its airspace to flights to Sulaymaniyah, Turkey wants to pressure the PUK to contribute more firmly to what Ankara sees as the fight against terrorism. Turkey, the United States and the European Union all list the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

But Turkey’s definition of what it sees as PKK terrorism is broad. It does not just mean its armed wing, over which the PUK has no military control, but also civil society and media organisations connected to the movement.

PUK security forces in November raided the offices of Tevgera Azadi (Freedom Movement) in six towns and shut them down. Tevgera Azadi is an unarmed civil society organisation working on women’s and youth empowerment and democratisation, but adheres to the ideology of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan, who has been jailed in Turkey since 1999.

At the Sulaymaniyah Tevgera Azadi office, its deputy chair and spokesperson Tara Husên pointed at an empty nail in the wall. “That’s where the portrait of Öcalan was hanging,” she said. “We took it down when the security police started pressuring us, but I suppose we could put it up again.”

Husên said she did not consider Öcalan a political leader but a philosopher, who, she said, inspired the anti-capitalist, feminist movement.

Some 200 members and sympathisers of the movement showed up at the premises when the police arrived and refused to leave, Husên said.

“The police ordered us to empty the office and our flag and the nameplate outside were taken down. You can’t close an office of a legal organisation just like that, that needs to be done via the court. All they could do was to seal our front gate. So now we enter the building via the side entrance,” she said.

In December, police prevented a demonstration by a women’s and youth organisation that wanted to draw attention to Öcalan’s ongoing solitary confinement. Dozens were detained before the protest could even begin.

Berhem Latif was one of those detained, though he was there as a journalist for the pro-Öcalan channel Roj News, not as a demonstrator.

“The pressure against these movements isn’t new, but in the light of the closed airport, the pressure is increasing,” Latif said. Roj News, he said, was not a PKK channel, but a privately owned legal news outlet.

The PUK official said Turkey wanted things the PUK could not deliver.

“Last year, the PKK abducted two Turkish secret agents, and Turkey wants them back,” he said. Turkey also wanted the PUK to extradite a number of Turkish Kurds who had fled to the region, he said, but the party would not give in to such requests.

“Once you give Turkey something, they will start demanding more. That is why we should not give in to its wishes,” the official said.

Abubaker said the PUK wanted good relations with Turkey.

“We want a good relationship with our neighbours. Good economic relations create good political relations as well. Not the other way around, as Turkey is trying to do,” he said.

The PUK official said he doubted Erdoğan would lift the ban immediately after meeting Salih, but would wait until February.

“I expect the new Kurdistan Regional Government to be formed by then. The KDP’s Masrour Barzani will be installed as the new prime minister. Turkey will invite him for a visit, after which Sulaymaniyah airport will re-open,” he said.

“They hope this will make Barzani a hero in the eyes of the Sulaymaniyah people and thus increase the popularity and influence of the KDP in the city, which is good for KDP and Erdoğan, both politically and militarily.”