Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Political Calculations to Predict the End of the Sulaymaniyah Airport Closure

Specials- Erdogan and Salih
President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Iraqi President Barham Salih (L) shake hands during their joint press conference at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on January 3, 2019. Photo AFP

Will the airport of Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, re-open later this January? The rumours have started. A re-opening would end a fifteen-month air siege imposed on the city by Turkey, and revive the Sulaymaniyah area’s damaged economy.

The damage to the airport alone has already been calculated at 20,000 dollars per day, Haval Abubaker, the governor of Sulaymaniyah, has said. He added: ‘And that is of course not the only economic damage that the city and the region face due to the airport closure. Prices for consumers go up, tourism is down.’

In December 2018, it was announced that the closure would be extended for another three months, to end in March 2019. Abubaker declared: ‘The closure is totally illegal. No country should be allowed to close down an airport in another country.’

The closure of Sulaymaniyah international airport dates back to October 2017, when the authorities in Baghdad imposed an international flight ban on both international airports in the Kurdistan Region, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. This ban was lifted in March 2018, but for Sulaymaniyah airport this didn’t mean that the troubled times were over: Turkey then decided to close its airspace for flights to and from the city. As international flights must cross Turkish airspace to reach the airport, this decision is effectively preventing the majority of international flights from taking off and landing. Currently, only flights to and from a hand full of Middle-Eastern destinations, such as Baghdad, Beirut and Dubai, are departing and arriving.

This closure was political reasons: it is directly related to the Kurdish armed movement, the PKK, which has its bases in the mountains of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. The Sulaymaniyah area, including cities like Halabja, Ranya and Chamchamal, is governed by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK, which Turkey considers to be too friendly to the PKK. The northern part of the Kurdistan Region, with cities like Duhok and Zakho and including the capital city of Erbil, is governed by the Kurdistan Demcratic Party, or KDP. The KDP leadership has friendlier relations with Turkey than the PUK and enables Turkey in its war against the PKK. For example, Turkey has an increasing amount of military bases in KDP-governed areas and protests hardly or not at all when Turkish F16s carry out bombings on its territory, even when it sometimes leads to civilian casualties.

By closing its airspace to flights to and from Sulaymaniyah airport, Turkey is trying to pressure the PUK to crack down harder on the PKK in the areas of the region that it governs. However, Turkey’s definition of ‘PKK’ and ‘terrorism’ is broad. Turkey doesn’t just mean the armed movement, over which the PUK has no military control whatsoever, but also the civil society and media organisations that are connected to the wider Kurdish movement. They get more operating space in Sulaymaniyah than in KDP-ruled areas. One of the organisations that was targeted last month was the party Tevgera Azadi (Freedom Movement). Although the party adheres to the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan, who founded the PKK in Turkey in 1978, Tevgera Azadi is unarmed and mostly works on women’s rights, youth empowerment and democratization. Yet a couple of weeks ago, in November 2018, offices of the movement in six different cities of the Sulaymaniyah area were closed down.

In the garden of the office of Tevgera Azadi, the deputy chair and spokesperson Tara Husên showed Fanack Chronicle the gate to the street, which remains shut since the security police came to the premises to close them down in November 2018. Some two hundred members and sympathizers of the movement suddenly showed up at the office when the police paid an announced visit. The two hundred men and women refused to leave, Husên said: ‘They ordered us to empty the office and they took down our flag and the nameplate outside. 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.’

Tevgera Azadi isn’t particularly bothered by the political pressure, at least not in a practical way, Husên said: ‘We don’t need an office to function. We are mainly working directly with the people, paying home visits, educating people, showing solidarity when it is needed.’ For example, a delegation from Tevgera Azadi went to Chamchamal last week, to pay a solidarity visit to the graves of a woman and three children who died because of domestic violence.

Earlier this month, a demonstration in the city of Sulaymaniyah against the solitary confinement of Öcalan was broken up by the security police and dozens of people were detained. The protest was organized by a youth and a women’s group inspired by Öcalan – which are considered ‘terrorist organisations’ in Turkey’s terrorism text book. Berhem Latif was one of the people detained, although he came as a journalist for the channel Roj News, not as a demonstrator. In an interview at the Roj News office, he said: ‘The pressure against these movements isn’t new, but in the light of the closed airport, the pressure is increasing.’

The PUK and KDP – which also holds some power in Sulaymaniyah, as the capital Erbil can carry out orders that have validity in the whole region –, had apparently not done enough against ‘terrorism’, however: on 24 December 2018, Turkey decided to extend its ban for another three months.

Governor Abubaker hopes that the diplomatic meeting between Erdogan and Salih will do its work. Salih is a Kurd and was nominated for the Iraqi presidency by the PUK. Abubaker has said: ‘It is sad that Turkish military planes cross our border to bomb Kurdistan and Kurdish villages, but planes cannot leave from our airport. However, I am not angry. Anger is not useful. It’s the emotion that causes Turkey to behave like this. All we want is good relations with our neighbours.’

Referring to the war between the PKK and the Turkish state, which he cited as the reason for the trouble his city and region is in, he said: ‘We hope peaceful negotiations will lead to stability.’ And he added, regarding the dire economic situation Sulaymaniyah now finds itself in due to these tensions: ‘We believe good political relations are built on good economical ties, not the other way around.’

A politician from the PUK party, who asked not to be named in this article, doesn’t believe that the Salih-Erdogan meeting will change a thing for the Sulaymaniyah area and its economy. He thinks that the airport will be open again before the three months extension ends in late March 2019, although he believes this will happen for cynical reasons. He said: ‘I count on February 2019, when I assume a new government will have been formed. The new Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region, Masrour Barzani, will be installed. He will then be invited to Turkey. After that, the airport will open again. In this way, the KDP wants to show itself as a hero to the people of Sulaymaniyah, which is a way for Turkey to get more influence in this region. In the end, that is what this is all about.’

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