Turkey extends flight ban on Iraq’s Sulaimaniyah airport for 6 months – Ezgi Akın / AL-MONITOR

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The extension of the ban indicated that Ankara and the Iraqi Kurdish party controlling Sulaimaniyah had yet to resolve their differences

Al-Monitor, June 11, 2024, par Ezgi Akın

Turkey has extended its flight ban on Iraqi Kurdistan’s Sulaimaniyah International Airport until December 2024, as Ankara presses Iraqi Kurdish leaders controlling Sulaimaniyah to distance themselves from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). 

Turkey’s first closed its airspace to flights traveling to and from the Sulaimaniyah airport in April 2023, with the Turkish Foreign Ministry citing « increasing PKK activity at the airport. » Flights operated by Turkey’s flag carrier, Turkish Airlines, to and from the airport have also been suspended since that time. The latest extension of the ban was first reported by Iraqi Kurdish news outlet Rudaw on Saturday, citing Handren Mufti, the director of the airport. 

Sulaimaniyah is controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the dominant political parties of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Ankara accuses the PUK of providing support to the PKK, which has been waging an armed campaign against Turkish forces since 1984 for Kurdish self-rule inside Turkey. 

The flight ban on the airport is aimed at increasing the economic pressure on the Iraqi Kurdish party. The airport’s growth was slowed by 20% last year largely due to the ban, according to local Iraqi media, citing an annual report by the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority. Currently, six airways have direct flights to the airport, including Iraqi Airways, flydubai and Qatar Airways.

The extension of the ban reflects that Ankara and the PUK failed to resolve their differences over the PKK during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s talks with Iraqi Kurdish officials, including PUK leaders, in Erbil during his visit to Turkey’s southeastern neighbor in April. 

Prior to the visit, the Iraqi central government in Baghdad had designated the PKK as a banned organization but stopped short of listing it as a “terrorist organization” — a longtime demand of Ankara. The PKK is considered a terror outfit by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan last month touted Baghdad’s increasing cooperation with Ankara against the PKK but repeated his country’s annoyance with the PUK. “Don’t let them come to your city, don’t let them use the airport. Do not let them take advantage of the hospitals in your city,” Fidan said. 

“When we see that you are acting with the PKK, we have to do something against you as well,” he added. “But this is not something we would like to do.” 

Turkey has maintained a strong military presence in northern Iraq as part of its fight with the PKK, which is headquartered in the northern Iraqi mountains of Qandil. It also conducts regular airstrikes in the region, including in Sulaimaniyah. A few days after the flight ban last year, a Turkish drone hit close to a convoy carrying Mazlum Kobane, commander in chief of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as well as US officials, near the Sulaimaniyah airport. The strike, which left no casualties, is widely believed to have been a “warning shot” against the use of the airport by SDF cadres. Turkey equates the SDF with the PKK and has long been pressing Washington to cut off its alliance with the Syrian Kurdish group, which is the main ally of the US-led international coalition against the Islamic State.

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