Between Sulaymaniyah and Erbil, PKK interests conflict with SDF alliances

Bafel Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and SDF commander Mazloum Abdi, in the presence of an official woman from the Autonomous Administration in al-Hasakah (edited by Enab Baladi)

Bafel Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and SDF commander Mazloum Abdi, in the presence of an official woman from the Autonomous Administration in al-Hasakah (edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

Over the past weeks, the city of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan region of Iraq entered the line of escalation between Turkey and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which was evident in the crash of two civilian helicopters in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Duhok region on March 15 that exposed a secret air corridor to transport members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) between Iraq and Syria, according to reports.

The escalation that followed the fall of the two Dohuk helicopters was the targeting of the SDF commander, Mazloum Abdi, via a drone at Sulaymaniyah airport while he was at the airport.

Sulaymaniyah is considered the main stronghold of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is led by Bafel Talabani, son of the late Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, and is one of the two main Kurdish parties in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, along with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Massoud Barzani, which is considered the president of the region with its center in Erbil.

PKK’s role

With the SDF continuing to deny its relationship with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which eventually led it to be classified on the Turkish terrorist lists, indications are returning that show its rapprochement with the Kurdish party spread between Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

In an interview conducted by Al-Monitor with Abdi earlier this year, he said that talking about the SDF’s relationship with the PKK are “pretexts” that Turkey uses to launch attacks in Syria.

At the time, he added that the SDF is made up of Syrian Kurds who want to build a “peaceful” relationship with Turkey.

The crash of the two helicopters in Iraqi Kurdistan in mid-March was followed by an obituary of the SDF to the commander of the Anti-Terror Units (YAT) along with nine other members following the accident, which raised questions about the SDF actually owning helicopters, or the party that provides them with facilities in this regard. 

The Iraqi Salah al-Din TV channel quoted the governor of Dohuk, Ali Tatar, as saying that the passengers on board the helicopter belonged to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and all of them were killed in the accident.

The writer on Kurdish affairs, Hosheng Ossi, told Enab Baladi that the support of the Sulaymaniyah movement, or what is known as the “Talabanis movement” (after Bafel Talabani took leadership) for the SDF, comes within the framework of the “suspicious alliance” between the Iraqi Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in the province of Sulaymaniyah, in which the Patriotic Union Party controls the security, military and economic joints.

Ossi added that the Patriotic Party, headed by Bafel Talabani, turned Sulaymaniyah into a “state subject to it,” with support primarily from Tehran and Baghdad, after the fall of the Baath regime in Iraq.

He attributed the reasons for Sulaymaniyah’s support for the SDF to the consideration that the latter formed an arm of the Kurdistan Democratic Party that represents the “Barzanis” (in relation to Massoud Barzani) and the PKK’s military power over it.

He believes that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s support for the SDF comes within the framework of this party’s relationship with the Iranian and Baathist regimes in Syria, on the other hand, as the interests are not limited to some Kurdish parties in the region.

Talabani’s visit to Syria changed the equation

In December 2022, Bafel Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, met with Mazloum Abdi in the city of al-Hasakah, northeastern Syria, to talk about the relations between the two sides.

Talabani, who is described as a “deal maker,” posted on Facebook that the two sides discussed “the political situation in Rojava and the Kurdistan region, and political developments related to the Kurdish issue” and emphasized “solving problems peacefully.”

This visit, which was reported by the media in its news context, seems to have paved the way for cooperation on a higher level than usual for both sides.

Anas Shawakh, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi that Talabani’s visit to Syria was preceded by regular coordination between the “Talabanis” in Iraq and the SDF in Syria, based on the common relationship with the PKK.

Shawakh added that the visit, which came under the supervision or coordination of the US military, strengthened the relationship between the two sides, as it began as a first stage with strengthening the “combating terrorism” course between the two sides, especially since Talabani was accompanied by the official in charge of “combating terrorism” in Sulaymaniyah, in the presence of a military delegation from the International Coalition, key SDF ally.

The second stage to strengthen relations between the two sides, according to Shawakh, was to carry out anti-terrorism operations in the areas of influence of both sides and in the area between Iraq and Syria.

As the first fruits of the exercises between the two sides and under the supervision of Washington, a joint military unit from Sulaymaniyah and the US-backed SDF carried out a security operation in the al-Shaddadi area of al-Hasakah, northeastern Syria, on April 8, which resulted in the arrest of persons accused of belonging to the Islamic State group.

For his part, the Kurdish writer Hosheng Ossi believes that Bafel Talabani’s visit to Qamishli in 2022 is a “simple detail” of his party’s support for the SDF.

He pointed out that internal problems afflicted the SDF, related to the PKK’s dissatisfaction with Mazloum Abdi and attempts to overthrow him, as the PKK controls about 90% of the formation of the SDF, while the influence of Abdi, supported by Washington, is limited to few formations.

Ossi also considered that Bafel Talabani’s visit to Abdi, at the time, was part of mediation efforts between PKK and Mazloum Abdi to heal the rift and an attempt to resolve the dispute between the two sides.

Nested dependencies

The complexities and similarities are not limited to the names of these Kurdish formations only, but the extension and overlapping of their relations and alliances have been among the thorny issues for many years in the region that includes four countries.

The city of Erbil is considered a stronghold of the Democratic Union Party led by Massoud Barzani, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, while the city of Sulaymaniyah is considered a stronghold of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Bafel Talabani.

The Kurdistan region of Iraq is witnessing deep partisan differences between the “Barzanis” and the “Talabanis” to the extent that the cultural identity of the two cities witnessed a dispute that seeped into the streets and the languages offered in the educational curricula.

Hosheng Ossi summarized the dispute between the parties in Syria and Iraq as a reflection of the differences between the two Iraqi Kurdish parties. Mazloum Abdi is still in a relationship with the Democratic Party (Barzani), which annoys the Patriotic Union and its PKK ally in the Qandil Mountains.

Ossi considered that Sulaymaniyah’s hosting of Abdi recently was under American auspices and within the meetings of the International Coalition against Islamic State only, but it is no secret to the Americans, the Turks, the Iraqis, and the Kurds, that the military matters related to the PKK control over SDF and the Kurdish regions in Syria were and still are taking place through Sulaymaniyah.

The PKK and the Patriotic Union Party have one trench supported by Tehran, which is hostility to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which supports the Kurdish National Council in Syria, which has good relations with Turkey, the first enemy of the PKK.

What is SDF looking for

In view of the tense relationship between the “Barzanis” in Erbil and the SDF in northeastern Syria, researcher Anas Shawakh believes that the SDF is looking to achieve what it could not achieve in Erbil, but in Sulaymaniyah.

The past years have constituted repeated attempts to reach a consensus formula between the two sides on several issues, most notably the Kurdish-Kurdish dialogue that was held several times under American auspices between the Kurdish National Council (a member of the opposition’s National Coalition) supported by Erbil, and the SDF, to manage the area controlled by the latter in northeastern Syria, and no result was reached, and the dialogue remained in a state of clinical death to this day.

Shawakh believes that the failure in the relations between the two sides has prompted the SDF, which is looking to establish any kind of external relations, to lean towards Sulaymaniyah as an alternative to Erbil, especially since Erbil and Sulaymaniyah touch the SDF’s geographical borders, in northeastern Syria.

Strengthening any relationship on the part of the SDF with its neighbors from the Kurdish currents can enhance its benefits on the economic and military level, as it can secure for itself a nearby airport, such as Sulaymaniyah airport, or even logistical equipment such as helicopters.

The UK-based Middle East Eye website quoted unnamed Turkish sources on March 21 that Turkish sources say ‘unregistered flights’ have been tracked over the past two years between Iraqi and Syrian territories, raising questions about US and Iraqi roles.

Turkish sources told the MEE that while the Turkish government was able to track both aircrafts’ movements in Iraqi airspace, they didn’t have the passenger manifests. The sources added that such flights could only happen with the knowledge of the US government since US forces control the Syrian and Iraqi territory.

“These flights have been continuing for the past two years but they were unregistered,” one of the sources revealed to the MEE, adding that “Unregistered flights trigger speculations that PKK terrorists have been illegally transported between Iraqi and Syrian territories with US and Iraqi coordination.”



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