It is a heavy morning in Sulaymaniyah, on the 8th of April 2023. A light breeze is blowing, carrying clouds of dusty sand, like a bad omen. The air is heavy and the surrounding mountains are invisible. Life was going on normally in the city, although it slightly slowed down on the third week of ramadan. In the outskirts of the provincial capital, Suleymaniya’s airport’s vicinity is peaceful. The flight to Medina took off on time at night. Nothing could let people imagine that a military operation had taken place there the day before.
« Aerial bombing », « bomb dropped against a gate », or even « iranian rocket »… Rumors soon started flooding before details about what really happened were delivered in the evening. Mazlum Abdî, also known as Mazlum Kobanî, the supreme commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of militias dominated by Syrian Kurdish rebels, and Îlham Ahmed, the co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), a political entity ruling over an autonomous and non recognized region in North-East Syria (AANES), were indeed in Sulaymaniyah and had been targeted by a drone strike. The United States Ministry of Defense commented on the incident, mentioning an « attack on a convoy », while others spoke of a helicopter which was bringing back two Syrian Kurdish officials to AANES (also referred to as Rojava by Kurdish activists) from Sulaymaniyah. In both cases, American military personnel would have been present on the ground of attack, although no casualties were reported.
No one claimed the responsibility of the strike, but all eyes were immediately turned on the Turkish State. This aggression occurred less than a week after the Turkish authorities announced a ban of their airspace to all flights coming and going to Sulaymaniyah for a period of three months, due to alleged PKK activities in the regions (The PKK, or Kurdistan’s Workers party, is a political and military organization founded by Kurds from Turkey and struggling for the liberation of Kurdish communities throughout the region).
This military operation echoes previous incidents such as a helicopter crash on March 15th in the Northern Iraqi mountains. This « mysterious » helicopter crash, as described by the press, led to the death of members of the FDS, including Kobanî’s nephew. The helicopter itself had been acquired by the FDS with the intercession of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party which controls the province of Sulaymaniyah. According to the Turkish authorities and to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP, PUK’s rival party which administers Erbil and Duhok provinces), the helicopters were used to commute fighters between Sulaymaniyah and the (AANES). This incident was seen as a blatant case of collusion between the « terrorist group » FDS and the PUK.
Recent evolutions between PUK and PKK:
Although Sulaymaniyah province has been continuously administered by the PUK since the end of the Kurdish civil war (1994-1997), this governorate has witnessed several internal disruptions in the last years. The death of Jalal Talabani, the founder and historical leader of the PUK in 2017, led to a succession crisis which brought severe turmoil within the party itself.
The issue of the relationship with the PKK was also a serious topic of debate. Some PUK leaders supported a strategic alliance with the KDP and Turkey although the PUK had always kept cordial relations with the Kurdish guerilla movement. The official military alliance between the PUK and the PKK, in the context of a war against ISIS, was intolerable for Turkey. But as of today, Ankara remains the main commercial partner to the Iraqi Kurdish region, further complicating the balance of relationship between actors.
In 2018, Turkey had already suspended all flights to Sulaymaniyah for several months in an attempt to force the local administration to distance itself from the PKK and the FDS. An agreement was subsequently signed between Turkey and the PUK in order to « stymie the activities » of PKK fighters in the Sulaymaniyah province. Syrian Kurdish representations as well as all organizations related to the PKK were officially banned although the agreement remained mostly ineffective. This convention was further rendered ineffective after Lahur Talabani became the head of the PUK in 2019.
This PUK leader, who has strong anti KDP tendencies, offered a truce to PKK militants in the region, although they were asked to remain discreet to avoid provoking Ankara’s anger. The PUK eventually resumed its unfailing support to the FDS during the Turkish-led invasion of the Tell Abyad land strip in the fall of 2019. Meanwhile, Turkish secret services (MIT) remained present in the Sulaymaniyah province, and regularly conducted targeted assassinations of PKK or FDS affiliated personnel.
The brutal change of leadership in the PUK during summer of 2021 did not fundamentally challenge the Union’s doctrine towards the FDS. Bafel Talabani, who since then rules the PUK, did not hesitate to ostentatiously show himself with the co-president of the PYD (a major political faction within the SDC, led by Kurds who share a similar ideology to the PKK). During his visit to Rojava at the end of 2022. The recent internal strife within the PUK leadership therefore did not hinder the collaboration between the PUK and the FDS, as the most anti PKK/FDS fraction of the party (mostly revolving around the rival figure of Qubat Talabani, the deputy Prime Minister of KRG) never really managed to gain control of the party.
Turkey’s uncertain electoral future
Although no undisputed element has been put forth to prove the responsibility of the Turkish army in the strike against Kurdish leaders, it is difficult not to point at Ankara regarding these assassination attempts against Mazlûm Abdî and Ilham Ahmed. Indeed, the timing of this strike is not random at all. Turkey’s next presidential election will be held on May 14th and current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is running for his own succession, is in a dire position. The pro-governmental press in Turkey has increased its aggressive discourse toward Kurdish separatists movements, a profoundly polarizing topic within Turkish society and its political opposition. Loose statements by Mazlûm Abdî regarding a possible regime change in Turkey were interpreted as a collusion between Turkey’s CHP opposition party and main rival to the AKP, Erdogan’s party, and « YPG terrorists ».
R. T. Erdoğan’s strategy doesn’t seem to have changed since his previous election in 2018: to divide a heterogeneous opposition loosely coalized but with vary divergent interests, although all poised to oust the AKP from power. In January 2018, the invasion of Afrîn’s canton in Syria by Turkey alongside Turkish affiliated rebels to remove YPG fighters from the area had already cracked a thin rapprochement between Turkish Kemalists and the pro-kurdish left. The CHP had then felt obliged to support the « anti-terrorist operation » against the YPG, an indefensible position according to the HDP, the main left wing Kurdish party in Turkey.
The HDP, which maintains itself despite having many of its leaders in prison, is currently threatened by the Turkish State to be banned from the upcoming elections. This party has therefore renounced to present a candidate for the elections on May 14th, in order to give all its chances to K. Kılıçdaroğlu (CHP) to defeat Erdogan on the first turn of the elections. Yet, although the CHP has made a few concessions to the HDP and loosened its harsh political line, it remains a nationalist Turkish party.
It would also have been quite difficult for K. Kılıçdaroğlu not to praise the eventual death of Mazlûm Abdi who is widely considered in Turkey as the leader of a terrorist organization, regardless of the tactical but fragile rapprochement with a still legal and non violent HDP party. Seemingly, it would also be complicated for the HDP to keep backing Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu after he would have publicly saluted the death of such a popular figure among Kurds in Turkey.
Official reaction in Iraq
The KRG, whose institutions are dominated by the KDP, quickly reacted to the incident in Sulaymaniyah. While acknowledging the responsibility of Turkey regarding this attack, KRG’s spokesperson Cotyar Adil also condemned the « actions of the self-proclaimed leadership of a party (meaning the PUK) ». Mr. Adil called upon the authorities in Sulaymaniyah to « address the root causes of the attack, » instead of blaming Turkey. This declaration remains in line with the KDP’s position vis a vis Turkey since 2015: rejecting the responsibility of Turkish attacks on the PKK and demanding the departure of all « non-Iraqi » actors from its territory. In this case, the comment was aimed at the FDS, not the PKK. Nonetheless, the KDP’s rhetoric is copy pasted on Turkish authorities viewpoints assimilating both organizations without any nuances.
The surprising element in the KRG’s declaration is the absence of any form of condemnation of what amounts to a blatant armed attack on KRG soil by Turkey. Moreover, all the blame of the incident is directed toward the PUK, a reminder of the high level of tensions between the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties. Nonetheless, the KRG’s official statement did bring a wide uproar on social media. The KRG’s contradicting positioning on the matter is made even more awkward by the fact that the Iraqi federal State itself condemned the attack but also demanded official apologies to Ankara. Turkey has since then denied any responsibility on the matter, which points to the uncomfortable position Turkey is in.
The military strike of April 7th is puzzling in many of its aspects. Is it a desperate attempt by an outdated regime to boost its chances ahead of a crucial election? Whatever Turkey’s motivations were, it is now obvious that the operation was a failure at every level: Mazlûm Abdî and Îlham Ahmed are still alive and returned to North East Syria while anti-Turkish sentiments are stronger than ever in the Sulaymaniyah province. On the other hand, relations between Turkey and Iraq have further eroded while the fragile tactical alliance between Turkish opposition groups remains unharmed.