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How to respond if Baghdad closes the Kurdistan Region’s airspace?

By Nawzad Mahmoud 1/8/2017
The airport in Sulaimani is one of two international airports in the Kurdistan Region. Photo: Sulaimani Airport
The airport in Sulaimani is one of two international airports in the Kurdistan Region. Photo: Sulaimani Airport

The director of Sulaimani’s international airport has sent letters to all relevant parties calling on them to carefully think about finding a solution in case Baghdad closes the Kurdistan Region’s airspace because of its vote on independence, as other Kurdish officials believe the Region still can or won’t have to pressure Baghdad.

“The KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] has no control over the airspace. However, it can speak to aviation companies because airports are Kurdistan’s only airway to the outside world, which are two important pillars of statehood and a state,” Tahir Abdullah, the director of Sulaimani’s international airport, who sent the letters, told Rudaw.

A Patriot Union of Kurdistan (PUK) member in the Iraqi parliament told Rudaw that closing the airspace is Baghdad’s strongest card.

“According to the constitution, it can close Kurdistan’s airways to the outside world. In addition, Baghdad has other cards such as passport, citizenship, medicines, monthly food allowances and currency,” said MP Farhad Qadir.

Qadir believes the referendum will be delayed because Iraqi “cards are more and stronger than those of the Kurds,” because it is a country and has its own sovereignty.

Baghdad is dismissing on a daily basis the independence referendum which the Kurdistan Region plans to hold on September 25.

The parliamentarian added: “We hope we can hold it in coordination with Baghdad, because if it is held with such coordination, Baghdad will not be thinking about punishing the Kurds.”

Nearly three years ago, Baghdad cut the Kurdistan Region budget share. And this was done at a time when the Kurds had not even re-hashed the subject of referendum. 

Since then, the Kurdistan Region has been exhausted by financial crises and the war on ISIS, while Baghdad has been suffering from huge debts it owes to the World Bank. 

Additionally, huge swathes of territory were left destroyed by the war with ISIS and need to be rebuilt, as do the cities, towns and villages, in order to regain trust in Sunni areas.

All these factors make it difficult for Iraq to intensely wage political, diplomatic and economic wars against the Kurdistan Region.

Zana Rustaye, a MP with the Islamic Group (Komal), believes Baghdad’s strongest card is that it “has international sovereignty. It can stop the diplomatic journeys of the Kurds. This is in addition to its being able to cut the Kurds’ budget.”

But the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) bloc in the Iraqi parliament, Arafat Karam, counters that the Iraqi sovereignty, and its political and diplomatic stature is about to get undermined in the world. This is because militia forces which are more powerful than the government and the army.

But do the Kurds have any cards to play against Baghdad?

"The Kurds don’t have any significant cards to use,” Rostaye said.

However, Qadir expressed that unity between the Kurdistan Region’s political parties is the strongest card “because Iraq, some neighboring countries and part of the world were against federalism. But the Kurds made this decision because they were united.”

Other strong cards which the Kurds can play are water resources and Kurdistani areas outside the KRG’s  administration which are now under the control of the Kurds, he believes.

During a June interview with Foreign Policy magazine, the Kurdish President was asked what pressure Baghdad could try to exert on the Region.

"What haven’t they already done? They have done everything. They have cut the budget, meaning they have taken the bread from our people. We receive nothing from Baghdad. Maybe they only thing they can do is close the airspace," said President Masoud Barzani.

However, Barzani believes there are peaceful options to be pursued before such drastic measures.

"If they do those kind of things, there will also be a reaction. We will not stand with our hands tied. We really want to pursue peaceful means, negotiation, and understanding. We want to avoid bloodshed and violence. Then we’ll see, if they take other actions, definitely we will have our own reactions," he detailed.


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duroi | 1/8/2017
Kurds can support the uprising of Sunnis in Mosul in coordination with Suadi Arabia forces and let the Sunnis take over Baghdad before saying goodbye to Iraq. Don't push your luck.
M G | 2/8/2017
That would actually be pretty stupid of Baghdad. Iraqi Kurdistan would just retaliate by ending negotiations and declaring independence.
Forked tongue | 2/8/2017
FIM-92 Stinger is the answer to Baghdad.
bain | 2/8/2017
We don't have leverage? they close our airspace, we annex every inch of "disputed" territories, cut their water and declare indipendence immediately.
Ibrahim Ariyan | 2/8/2017
Kurdistan should go ahead with the Referundum, but independence declaration should be delayed until production factories are brought into Kurdistan and Kurdistan produces its own products; until Kurdistan revives its agricultural sector where no crop is imported and excess is exported (just like oil), a very young, strong, academy-style UNITED Kurdistan's Army and Airforce is formed (not party oriented), until Kurdistan solidifies its governance, and legitimacy, in the Newly Liberated Kurdistani areas, until it further developes its oils and Gas sectors, reaching well over 1,500,000 barrels of oil per day, until it builds numerous dams to control water for political and irrigation factors, and finally, until it drafts a Kurdistani constitution approved by most Kurds. This can be done within 10 years. And that is why and how long Kurdistan should delay proclaiming itself a country. Kurds must not take this crucial step irresponsibly and blindly just for the sake of having a country; success must be very plausible before it is pursued.

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