Turkey weighs pivotal oil deal with Iraqi
By Ben Van Heuvelen - Washington Post
As Kurdistan, Iraq fight
for power over both territory and oil rights, Turkey
is increasingly siding with the Kurds
Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous
Kurdistan region, inspected Kurdish Peshmerga forces
in Kirkuk Dec 10, 2012 Photo: Barzani's page.
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December 11, 2012
ANKARA, Turkey,— American diplomats are
struggling to prevent a seismic shift in Turkey’s
foreign policy toward Iraq, a change the U.S.
officials fear could split the foundations of that
The most volatile fault line in Iraq divides the
semiautonomous Kurdistan region in the north from
the Arab-majority central government in Baghdad. As
the two sides fight for power over both territory
and oil rights, Turkey is increasingly siding with
Kurdish and Turkish leaders have had a budding
courtship for the past five years. But now Turkey is
negotiating a massive deal in which a new Turkish
company, backed by the government, is proposing to
drill for oil and gas in Kurdistan and build
pipelines to transport those resources to
international markets. The negotiations were
confirmed by four senior Turkish officials, who
spoke on the condition of anonymity because of
“Turkey hasn’t needed to ask what we think of this,
because we tell them at every turn,” said a senior
U.S. official involved in Middle East policymaking,
speaking anonymously because he was not authorized
to talk with the press. The official said any
bilateral energy deals with Kurdistan would
“threaten the unity of Iraq and push [Prime Minister
Nouri] al-Maliki closer to Iran.”
Kurdistan has already staked out significant
autonomy, providing its own public services,
controlling airports and borders, and commanding
police and army forces. The energy deal with Turkey
would all but sever Kurdistan’s economic dependence
on Baghdad, which is perhaps the primary tie that
still binds the two sides.
“We are having serious discussions with the
[Turkish] company,” Kurdistan Prime Minister
Nechirvan Barzani said. “We hope they participate in
The Turkish government has not yet made a final
decision. Energy Minister Taner Yildiz is leading a
review of the deal, according to the senior Turkish
officials, and expects to issue a formal
recommendation to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan by the end of the year.
Turkey’s moves come at an especially volatile time
for the region. Along Turkey’s southern border, in
the midst of a civil war, Syria’s Kurdish minority
has gained control of a large expanse of territory.
That instability has worried Turkish leaders,www.Ekurd.net
who have used their sway over the Iraqi Kurdish
leadership — both Prime Minister Barzani and
Kurdistan’s powerful president, Massoud Barzani, the
uncle of the prime minister — to help ensure that
they exert a benign influence in Syria.
Iraq is also in crisis. On Nov. 16, a minor
confrontation between Kurdish security forces and
Iraqi Army soldiers combusted into a deadly
firefight. Since then, both sides have deployed
thousands of troops, as well as tanks and artillery,
to either side of their contested border, where they
still remain within firing range.
Erdogan has left little doubt where his sympathies
lie, accusing Maliki of “leading Iraq toward a civil
Yet Turkey’s embrace of the Iraqi Kurds is not just
a function of personal enmity. Rather, it represents
a deliberate strategic shift that has upended the
conventional wisdom that once governed Turkish
foreign policy toward Iraq.
After the U.S.-led invasion, Turkey advocated
against giving autonomy to Iraqi Kurds, fearing that
such a precedent might strengthen Turkey’s own
Kurdish minority in its quest for greater rights and
self-governance. Turkey was also wary that any Iraqi
Kurdish territory would become a safe haven for the
militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by the
acronym PKK, which the United States has designated
a terrorist organization.
But in 2007, Erdogan began to soften that stance. He
took primary responsibility for his Iraq policy away
from the military, and gave it to a diplomat named
Murat Ozcelik. “My instructions from the prime
minister were to build ties with the Kurds,” Ozcelik
U.S. diplomats encouraged the rapprochement. By
pursuing economic cooperation, Turkey could form a
bulwark of mutual interest with mainstream Iraqi
Kurds who might otherwise be inclined to sympathize
with the PKK’s nationalism.
Turkey also recognized the strategic value of
Kurdistan’s abundant oil and gas resources, which
had barely been explored under previous regimes.
Turkey’s economy was growing rapidly, at an average
annual rate of about five percent. To sustain that
growth — and the enormous popularity it had brought
Erdogan — Turkey would need new energy supplies.
Moreover, Turkey’s ambitious leaders aspired to
elevate their country into the highest echelons of
international diplomacy. To do that, Foreign
Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has argued that Turkey
should leverage its geographical position at the
crossroads of East and West into geopolitical power.
One way to accomplish this, he suggests, is to make
Turkey a transit hub for energy.
“The foreign ministry’s analysis was that relations
with Baghdad are important, but relations with the
Kurds are strategic,” said Serhat Erkmen, the Middle
East political adviser at ORSAM, a research
institute connected to the Foreign Ministry. That
idea now frames Turkey’s Iraq policy, according to
several officials charged with implementing it.
Ozcelik said he initially envisioned that a strong
relationship with the Kurds could help Turkey
referee the persistent disputes between Erbil, the
capital of the Kurdish region, and Baghdad.
But political progress has been elusive. Instead,
Baghdad and Kurdistan have fought their battles
largely through their oil policymaking. Kurdistan
enlisted international companies to develop oil and
gas resources, including in territory whose official
status is contested. Baghdad responded by banning
any company that signed with Kurdistan from southern
Iraq’s much larger oil fields — a policy that
secured the loyalty of the world’s biggest oil
companies, including Turkey’s state oil company TPAO.
That stalemate was broken in October 2011, when
ExxonMobil, which was already developing an enormous
oil field under a contract with Baghdad, decided to
defy the ban and sign contracts with Kurdistan,
including three swaths of disputed land. By doing
so, it implicitly endorsed Kurdistan’s expansive
claims of contracting and territorial authority.
ExxonMobil’s move was pivotal, said a senior Turkish
official involved in foreign and energy
policymaking. “Here is Exxon coming in, and what is
Turkey supposed to do? Keep waiting? There will be
nothing left for us!” the official said, speaking
anonymously because of the political sensitivities.
This calculus led Turkey to accelerate its courtship
with Erbil, according to several officials in the
Turkish foreign and energy ministries. At the
beginning of this year, Turkish and Kurdish leaders
began to discuss the details of a strategic energy
partnership — culminating in the exploration and
pipeline deal currently under consideration.
Obama administration officials as high-ranking as
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have
advocated against such moves, according to the
Turkish officials involved in the deal, warning that
bilateral pipelines would open a route for the Kurds
to circumvent Baghdad’s authority over oil exports.
That, in turn, would bring the Kurds a big step
closer to independence.
The State Department and the White House declined to
confirm these accounts, or to comment on their
efforts to discourage Turkish investment in
Kurdistan. Kurdish leaders have denied that they are
seeking independence, but confirm that they are
using energy deals to achieve their political goals
of greater autonomy.
Turkish leaders also insist they have no interest in
an independent Kurdistan. Erdogan’s foreign policy
strategists say Turkey will always have power over
the pipelines and, with that leverage, can help keep
“They need us in terms of their outreach to the
world, especially in light of their problems with
the central administration,” a senior foreign
ministry official said. “And Turkey still supports
the unity of Iraq.”
While Erdogan has recently been happy to showcase
his warm rapport with Kurdish leaders, his
relationship with Iraq’s Maliki has never been
worse. Erdogan has given safe haven in Istanbul to
Iraq’s fugitive vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi,
who was sentenced to death for allegedly running a
sectarian death squad; he has also backed Maliki’s
political opponents, including their unsuccessful
effort this summer to remove the prime minister
through a no-confidence vote.
The Obama administration has argued that Turkey’s
diplomatic clout and investment dollars make it an
important counterweight in Iraq, against Iran. If
Turkey were to write off southern Iraq as a lost
cause, U.S. diplomats worry, Iran will fill the
breach by increasing its political and economic
presence there, gaining even more influence over
But those arguments have not resonated in Ankara,
where many senior officials think a major energy
partnership with Kurdistan is imminent. “U.S.
support would be appreciated,” said one official
involved in the deal, “but it’s not a condition.”
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