Iraqi Kurdistan Airport Conflict Risks Kurdistan’s Autonomy & Human Rights – Sheri Laizer


 Exclusive to – 23. March 2018- With the invasion of Afrin naturally preoccupying Kurdish minds – but too few in the West – the threatened loss of control over the KRG’s airports and borders would splinter Iraqi Kurdistan’s security.

On 25 September 2017, the KRG went ahead with holding a referendum on Kurdistan’s independence from Iraq, which returned a positive vote of almost 93%. Prior to the referendum, Baghdad, the governments of the region’s neighbours and various Western countries argued that going ahead with the referendum was ill advised. Baghdad and the neighbouring countries made specific threats that they intended to implement if the referendum still went ahead. The referendum did go ahead and the threats have been implemented and the region punished severely. The punitive measures included the closure by Baghdad of all international flights into the Kurdistan region. After some delays, domestic flights were allowed.

In September 2017 Baghdad permitted flights for Muslim pilgrims to Mecca [1] but although PM al-Abadi had repeatedly promised to reinstate flights in time for the Kurdish New Year, 21 March 2018, after their closure over the past six months, the airports remain closed. Essentially this owes to several punitive prior conditions being fulfilled, as reported by KDP media, Rudaw earlier this month.

The KRG and Baghdad reached an agreement on Tuesday conditional on federal authority being imposed in the airports in Sulaimani and Erbil. The conditions include a number of technical measures regarding the exchange of information, visa authority, uniforms for security personnel in the airport, and a joint committee.

Rudaw can be considered reliable in this instance as the negotiator is the KDP’s former head of security, Karim Sinjari, now the KRG’s Interior Minister.

The agreement involves the KRG bowing to ‘federal authority’. This means in practice that Baghdad will control the airports. “The policy change would occur after the local authority in the Kurdistan Region heeds the return of federal authority in the two respective airports,” according to Abadi. Abadi’s office released a decree to create “a Directorate for Special Protection” for the airports of the Kurdistan Region. If the KRG abides by the decree, airports may resume international flights “not more than one week from its date. The requirements equate to a complete federal imposition of control over Kurdistan’s airports. The directorate “will be under the command and control of the Federal Ministry of Interior, and the Minister of Interior…Biometric systems from Kurdistan “are to be linked to the main system in Baghdad, as is the case in other Iraqi ports.”

Without comment, Rudaw continues to cite the dreadful details of Al-Abadi’s decree: “Passports and nationality departments and their staff” will be attached to Iraq’s Ministry of Interior…“To supervise the management of airports and border crossings a High Committee shall be established. It shall include representatives of all concerned authorities in the Center and the Region and shall report to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces or whom he authorizes”…2

Give all, get nothing in return but traffic.

Punishment and risk

The referendum was held on 25 September 2017 and the ban was imposed the following day, 26 September. Very early on, al- Abadi had threatened to shut down the airports because the referendum had ‘destabilised the region.’ He had then ordered the KRG to hand over control of the airports to Baghdad’s authority. [3] The ban went into effect on 29 September and is ongoing. As of 16 October 2017, Iraqi army forces and the Shi’a militia (PMU – in Arabic, Hashd al-Shaabi) re-swiftly retook the 40% of the territory held by the Peshmerga that had been wrested from under the control of the Islamic State (IS) including, strategically Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu, politically, Sinjar. [4] (That story has now been written).

Security challenges and warnings

On 26 February 2018, the international flight ban to Kurdistan was extended for a further three months to 31 May 2018. This equated with a planned-for closure until after the 12 May elections. And what if al-Abadi is not be re-elected and a former head of one of the Hashd-al-Shaabi units loyal to Tehran should succeed in taking his place?

Under al-Abadi’s stated policy, the KRG’s airports will only re-open subject to the KRG handing over full control to Baghdad, as above. But al-Abadi had already promised they would re-open by February and then by Newroz, and it is intimated the deal has now been done. Al Abadi cannot, however, be trusted to ensure security for the Kurdistan region.

The conditions being imposed would see the KRG lose direct control of its airports and borders; that agreement would expose anybody at risk from the powers in Baghdad (and potentially, Tehran and Ankara) to real harm when arriving in Kurdistan. Foreign critics would also be subject to vetting and denied entry or arrested if the airports and borders come under the authority of ‘Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces’ or his designee, as in al-Abadi’s decree.

The issue is not one that can be resolved lightly, or in haste, simply in order to get the airports open for business. The conditions al-Abadi seeks to impose are punitive and designed to overturn the proven consensus of the referendum on independence. Baghdad would control all Kurdistan’s gateways and thereafter control intelligence and security.

For centuries, Kurdistan was effectively closed off from the outside world by way of its mountainous geography and borders lacking exit to the sea. It could be argued that its neighbours today are even more hostile than in the post-Ottoman period when Kurdistan lost out on becoming a nation state.

Afrin: Turkish state terrorism

Erdogan’s slaughter in Afrin and sinister plans for Syria and Iraq [5] also require being factored in to the issue of border control. Kurdistan has conceded a great deal to Erdogan in terms of direct business ties, mainly through the Barzanis. Turkey is at the same time the benefactor of Jihadist terrorists. [6] Erdogan’s operations in Afrin are not unlike the motivation behind Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign.

With the invasion of Afrin naturally preoccupying Kurdish minds – but too few in the West – the threatened loss of control over the KRG’s airports and borders would further splinter Iraqi Kurdistan’s security.

Turkey can easily roll in to the KRG and carry out long-term military operations against Kurdish resistance fighters, as has become the norm. Cross border, hot pursuit agreements have always been reached with its neighbours in Baghdad and Tehran. The sinister Turkish Intelligence apparatus (MIT) has long enjoyed royal treatment in Kurdistan’s main cities, just as Iranian agents freely monitor Iranian Kurdish dissidents in the KRG and conduct operations through actors like Qasem Soleimani. Al-Abadi’s government is unable to control those units that directly answer to Tehran.

The KRG leadership has conceded too much ground to its historic foes, both strategically and in terms of illicit skimming of the profits of the energy and construction business, among other national assets.

Better may it be in the long term if the airports remain closed until a genuine democratic solution is found: surrendering the stated will of the Kurdish people to Baghdad when unstable forces are contesting the elections may put the final nail in the coffin of the referendum.

The failing leadership of many of the Western powers has become complicit in the expansion of Turkish and Iranian state terror and extremist militias. The seven-year slaughter in Syria is a case in point as with the gains of IS and the misnamed ‘Free Syrian Army’ cum mercenaries.

Solutions necessitate a Pan-Kurdish agreement on national interests and security and for the West and NATO to fulfil their obligations in practice.

Loss of the KRG’s border control effectively equates to a loss of Kurdistan’s autonomy. If the KRG leadership mishandles the agreement with al-Abadi over airports and borders (as Hero Talabani’s faction of the PUK mishandled transitional control of Kirkuk 7 they risk selling the future of their own children.


Sheri Laizer, a Middle East and North African expert specialist and well known commentator on the Kurdish issue.