Why did the PUK’s brief flirtation with the PKK come to an end?

Hemen Abdullah

The decision to close the headquartersof the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-linked Tavgari Azadi (Kurdistan Free Society Movement) in the areas controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan(PUK) was nothing new. Following the Kurdish uprising, the PUK regularly fought with the PKK.

The speech which the PUK’s late leader Jalal Talabani gave in the Kurdish parliament to convince parties to expel the PKK from the Kurdistan Region is testament to the PUK’s past position on the PKK.

In recent years, relations between the PUK and PKK appeared to be good – on the surface. But these relations represented just a brief honeymoon period that should have ended when Iran used the group to undermine the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and limit the influence of Barzanis in other parts of Kurdistan.

So what has changed in recent years to make neo-PUK officials return to the path once pursued by Jalal Talabani and stand against the PKK?

The first reason behind this return to Talabani’s position on the PKK is the question of Sulaimani airport.

In the past, Turkey had few means to sanction or pressure the PUK for its support for the PKK, but the closure of the Kurdistan Region’s airspace last year provided a golden opportunity.

Turkey’s blockade of the Region’s airspace was seen by many in Turkey as a reaction to the Region’s September 2017 independence referendum to break away from Iraq. When the flight ban was lifted on Erbil International Airport in March 2018, Turkey decided to maintain the ban on Sulaimani, cutting the source of PUK revenue.

The revenues of both Erbil and Sulaimani airports are supposed to go to the treasury of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). One official, who I will not name, from the Change Movement (Gorran) – the PUK’s main local rival – alleges less than 20 percent of Sulaimani airport’s revenues reach the KRG treasury. The rest goes into PUK coffers, the official claimed, without offering evidence.

First, on October 16, 2017, the PUK traded Kirkuk for a few tankers of oil. Now the PUK is selling out the PKK to regain Sulaimani airport’s revenues.

Relations with the PKK have been causing trouble for the PUK. The PKK benefitted from these relations by recruiting youngsters in Pishdar, Bitwen, Halabja, Penjwen, and Garmian. The PKK also recruits relatives of high-level PUK officials. This made few headlines due to its sensitivity. I am aware of such cases in PUK areas.

During past protests in Sulaimani, PKK affiliates in the city created more chaos than Gorran supporters. And this put the PUK in a difficult position when protestors even threatened to work for autonomous regions within the province of Sulaimani.

By restricting the activities of Tavgari Azadi, the PUK wants to restore stability to its zone and prevent the PKK from spreading further.

However, there are rumors of a tactical agreement between the PUK and PKK to convince Turkey they have split so it will reopen Sulaimani airport. However, high-level PUK officials have said the party has promised Turkey it will limit PKK activities and will demonstrate this in the coming days.

The PUK zone went through difficult times in recent years due to mismanagement, PUK infighting. The PUK and PKK should not cause problems for citizens by creating tension or waging a war, especially in Pishdar.

The right path for the PKK to take is to respect this new situation in the Kurdistan Region and help strengthen the experience of governance in the Kurdistan Region.


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