According to Nechirvan Barzani, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Iraqi Kurdistan will start exporting oil to Turkey via pipeline “before Christmas”. The move is expected to have major geopolitical implications, with possible threats to Iraq’s cohesion. We have asked Ethnographic Edge, a research center, to contribute the following piece to shed light on the deal, the main actors involved, and their motivations.
Iraqi Kurdistan: Oil Export to Turkey despite Baghdad’s Objection?
Eduardo Zachary Albrecht and Musa Dan Karami.
A recent oil deal signed between the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan and Turkey has raised tensions between Ankara and Baghdad. The deal, which states that the Kurdish region would provide Turkey with crude oil through a pipeline, has created some uneasiness in the Iraqi capital. Specifically, they fear that it could kindle the flame of independence that is currently simmering throughout a number of other Iraqi governorates.
This may explain why Baghdad announced on December 1st that it will refuse to approve the deal, which it considers illegal. Turkey’s Energy Minister, Taner Yildiz, was initially optimistic. Last November 10, he had sought Baghdad’s approval for the deal in a meeting with the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister for Energy, Hussain al-Shahristani. The meeting had apparently gone well. Undeterred, Turkish officials have announced plans to organize trilateral talks between Erbil, Baghdad and Ankara to resolve the issue.
Turkey needs oil. It is second only to China in terms of growth in demand for energy. Securing an energy deal with Iraqi Kurdistan is of vital importance. Turkey’s key interest in this situation is twofold, and constitute a precarious balancing act. First, gaining access to the natural resources located in Iraqi Kurdistan represents a huge geostrategic and economic opportunity.
However, Turkey’s pursuit of its energy interests in Kurdistan must be balanced against its second key interest in this situation, namely the maintenance of economic and diplomatic relations with Iraq. Iraq stands as Turkey’s second-largest trading partner, and Turkish dealings in Kurdistan have the potential to negatively affect this major avenue of Turkish trade. In addition, as the conflict in Syria continues to rage on, Turkey must maintain good diplomatic relations with Iraq in order to ensure the security of the two countries’ shared border with Syria.
In light of this double effort, Turkey has taken a new tack in trying to convince Iraq to support the deal. According to the Wall Street Journal, they are attempting to convince officials in Baghdad that the money coming in will ultimately be good for Iraqi unity. The Kurds themselves have also been mobilized in favor of the deal. Nechirvan Barzani, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, said that “through this landmark energy cooperation deal with Turkey, we are showing the new face of Iraq to everyone, we are showing that this is not a threat. This is in the interest of Iraq, and history will prove this fact.”
At the heart of the issue, stands the problem of Kurdish independence. Both Iraq and Turkey have long-standing issues regarding the status of their Kurdish populations. In Turkey, Kurdish independence hits a particularly raw nerve, given the sometimes militant nature of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Today, the increasing assertiveness of Syria’s Kurdish population is starting to complicate matters even further.
At the beginning of the civil war in Syria, Ankara miscalculated the prospects for the Kurds in Syria and supported the Sunni Arab groups and hardline Islamists which promised to disregard the rights and demands of Syrian Kurds. They are now the de-facto government in the Northern part of Syria where they live. Turkey feared – and still fears – the rise of the Syrian Kurds because of the ties between their Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the PKK.
Interestingly, the relationship between the Iraqi Kurds and the PKK is not as rosy; actually, there is something of an historical rivalry between the main Iraqi Kurd party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the PKK.
It is probable that an added value of the Turkey-Iraqi Kurdistan pipeline deal is that, in the eyes of Ankara, it may help counter the strengthening position of the PKK along the Turkey-Syria border. Empowering the KDP would further the divisions within the different factions, and thus thwart the cause of a pan-Kurdish state. This may help contextualize the importance for Turkey of a deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.