SULAIMANIYAH, Iraqi Kurdistan — The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the largest Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, has increased the pressure on outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) following Washington’s decision to authorize bounties on its three leaders.
“The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is putting heavy pressure on us. I think we may soon have to leave entire Sulaimaniyah area,” said an official from Tevgera Azadi (Freedom Movement) that is, according to the PUK, the political wing of the outlawed PKK in Sulaimaniyah, where the PUK is in political control.
Immediately after his remarks, the Kurdistan Regional Goverment's security forces launched a series of operations at Sulaimaniyah and some of its townships targeting Tevgera Azadi. The true target of the operations was the PKK's presence in the city.
In 2014, Tevgera Azadi had 10 offices in the region, eight in Sulaimaniyah and Garmiyan governorates and one each at Kirkuk and Tuz Khormato.
The security operation followed instructions issued by KRG’s Deputy Prime Minister Kubat Talabani to close down PKK-affiliated political parties and any institutions that operate without permission. Although Talabani did not name them directly, it was obvious he was referring to the parties and institutions close to the PKK.
There have been no serious problems between the PUK and the PKK for several years. While former Iraqi president and PUK leader Jalal Talabani was alive, he opened the border gates many times to PKK militants escaping the Turkish army. In 1992 during a cross-border operation by Turkey, many PKK militants who were forced to leave their camps along the border had taken refuge in the Zeli camp, at that point under Talabani’s control.
Although there were occasional clashes in the 1990s, relations were calm during the 2000s. Why, then, is the PUK now taking on the PKK?
Kamal Chomani at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy says the reasons are the PUK’s economic politics and the Iran embargo. “The [PUK] feared international investments will be diverted to Erbil and will give the impression that Sulaimaniyah is unsafe easy place to reach,” Chomani told Al-Monitor. “But I believe that one of the real causes was that the sanctions against Iran in November made the PUK’s oil smuggling to Iran very difficult. The Kurdistan Democratic Party [KDP] of [former President Massoud] Barzani and the PUK were engaged in oil smuggling for a long time to sustain their economies. When Turkey reached agreements with the KRG leadership and Baghdad to carry oil via the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, the PUK had to normalize its relations with Turkey to avoid difficulty exporting its oil. Trucks won’t be going to Iran easily now. The US won’t allow them. Meanwhile, gas and oil production is increasing in KDP lands.”
A Tevgera Azadi official told Al-Monitor that Turkey is behind the decision to squeeze the PKK. Chomani feels the same way. However, according to Chomani, the decision will not lead to armed clashes between the parties: “The PUK feels the need for Turkish support. Turkey in return is forcing them to close down political parties and institutions close to the PKK. This is only the beginning. Turkey will want more pressure on the PUK. … Turkey thinks the PKK has grown stronger at Sulaimaniyah. I don’t expect it to escalate to clashes, because within the PUK there are still people who support the PKK. The PKK has popular support in the Kurdistan Region.”
Chomani added that PKK sympathizers may also sue Kubat Talabani in Iraqi Kurdistan or in Baghdad to pressure the PUK.
Kurdish sources say that the operation against Tevgera Azadi came after immediately Barzani’s Baghdad visit and was intended to corner the PUK. The PUK then realized it had no option but to improve ties with Ankara. The easiest way to do so was to expel the PKK. Turkey’s consul general in Erbil, Hakan Karacay, expressed Turkey’s support, saying that the decision was a wise one.
Arzu Yilmaz, a professor of international relations at the American University in Duhok, said the PUK plays a central role in Kurdistan politics but that quarrels among its leadership that began with Talabani’s health problems made it difficult for the PUK focus on other issues. According to Yilmaz, the PUK’s area of influence is geographically remote. The PKK and KDP’s sphere of influence has expanded, but the PUK could not reach to beyond the Soran region. The PUK is now trying to restore its position in Kurdistan and challenging the PKK.
“The PUK appears to be forming relations with non-Kurdish actors because it is not able to acquire that strength in Kurdistan’s internal dynamics. But all this confusion will not lead to internal strife,” Yilmez told Al-Monitor.
The PKK’s reaction to the PUK’s decision was quick. The Kurdistan Communities Union, an umbrella organization that brings together all the parties affiliated with the PKK, called on the PUK to annul its decision. The PUK is not expected to heed the call and may even step up its efforts by forcing the PKK to withdraw its political activities from Sulaimaniyah. Considering the PKK’s past ability to freely move in the PUK-controlled areas, what has changed?
Another reason for the PUK's change of stance against the PKK might be Washington's recent decision to place bounties on the PKK’s top three leaders, pressuring Iraqi Kurdish parties to distance themselves from the organization.
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