In a Turkish drone attack on a small airport close to Sulaymaniyah (Silêmanî), three members of the counter-terrorism forces of the PUK were killed. The bickering about what exactly happened and who exactly was killed, obscures a truth many are uncomfortable to admit: Kurds must work together to counter the serious threats against them.
What happened? On Monday, three people were killed in a drone attack on the small airport of Arbat. One source told Reuters that six people died but most reports claim that three people died (and three were injured). They were members of the anti-terrorism units of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the second biggest party in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and the party that controls the province of Sulaymaniyah.
The reactions from different actors in Turkey, Iraq and the Kurdistan Region are highly telling of the dynamics at play. Abdul Latif Rashid, Iraq’s president, summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Iraq to protest the strike. Yahya Rasoul, spokesperson for the Iraqi General Staff, said the drone ‘had taken off from Turkey’. He added that the incident was a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, and that it was ‘incompatible with the neighbourly relations between the two countries.’ He also reiterated Iraq’s right to put an end to such violations.
Iraq hardly has any options though to exercise that right. And if it had, this particular attack wouldn’t trigger action. Why? Because the incident increases already high tensions between two Kurdish political parties, the PUK and KDP: the more divided and thus weaker they are, the stronger Baghdad becomes in its relations with the Kurdistan Region. Even the Kurdistan Region itself is afraid of the collapse of its autonomy.
The KDP didn’t react at all to the drone attack. It cooperates with Turkey in its fight against the PKK and is fully under Ankara’s control. The KRG’s deputy prime minister, Qubad Talabani, did react, but he is not from the KDP but from the PUK.
The leadership of the PUK reacted much stronger. PUK President Bafel Talabani: “This criminal act is an open trespassing of the border of the Kurdistan Region and of Iraq, and it is part of the conspiracy aimed at disturbing the peace and stability of the Kurdistan Region.” Of course he reacts harsh: it’s three members of his counter-terrorism experts who were murdered. But the PUK doesn’t have much more than strong words. The attack actually shows that the PUK is cornered by Turkey. Since earlier this year, Turkey has closed its airspace for planes going to and coming from Sulaymaniyah’s international airport because in Turkey’s eyes, the PUK doesn’t contribute enough to the fight against the PKK. It is trying to drone bomb the PUK into submission – this week’s attack is not the first.
Turkey didn’t explicitly claim the attack. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the ‘explosion’ at the airport was ‘noteworthy’ because it ‘was understood’ that the PUK members were ‘training together with PKK/YPG terrorists at the time of the explosion’. This is ‘quite disturbing’, the statement continued, ‘as it has clearly revealed the cooperation between PUK’s security apparatus and members of the terrorist organization’. Turkey always throws all Kurdish groups adhering to the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan on the same pile and calls it ‘terrorism’, and claims without evidence that either the PKK or YPG were present at Arbat airport.
The YPG forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF and the PUK have been building good relations the last couple of years. They visit each other and cooperate in their common fight against terrorism, mainly ISIS. It is no secret that SDF members do visit PUK territory for joint training sessions and for talks. The YPG and SDF are not militarily active in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq though: their work field is in Syria.
And the SDF? It sent a condolence message. The PUK denied there were SDF or YPG members present during Turkey’s attack. PKK presence can be ruled out: they focus on resisting Turkey’s invasion alongside the Turkish border and carry out attacks in Turkey and don’t militarily cooperate with PUK.
Based on all these dynamics, what can we make of these statements?
I wouldn’t be surprised if the SDF and PUK held a joint session at the airport at the time of the attack. Sources claimed that Turkish drones had been hovering in the sky for three days already and drones have good eyes. But Turkey can’t outright claim the attack because it knows it crosses red lines when it kills member of an official counter-terrorism force (as the PUK’s). The SDF hasn’t outright denied that there were members of theirs killed or injured in the attack but chose a condolence message to the PUK. If they were there, however, admitting it would get the PUK in further trouble. Explicitly denying their presence while they were actually there, is not their style.
But let me pose a question. What if the SDF was there? What if the PUK and SDF used the small airport to train their forces in their crucial fight against terrorism? Aren’t Kurds allowed to do that in their own Kurdish lands, in their own Kurdish mountains? The political and diplomatic realities demand they would have to keep it silent if it were true, but Kurdish cooperation against terrorism is a source of pride and nothing to be ashamed of.
The silence of the KDP in this incident speaks the loudest. They fully cooperate with Turkey and are co-responsible for what happened. Turkey enables jihadist terrorism in Syria and KDP enables Turkey’s terrorism in Kurdistan in Iraq. Strong the Kurds will be the day the YPG, PKK, PUK and KDP join forces to fight the devils destroying their lands.