BACKGROUND: Until relatively recently, Turkish policy towards the autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq was determined primarily by Ankara’s attempts to suppress the nationalist aspirations of its own restive Kurdish minority. The militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has its main bases in northern Iraq. Although the bases are located beyond the effective control of the KRG in the inaccessible Qandil mountains, Ankara frequently complained that the Iraqi Kurdish authorities were not taking sufficient measures to stem the flow of militants and supplies through the lowlands, which are under the KRG’s effective control. In addition, Turkey was concerned that any official engagement with the KRG could embolden the Iraqi Kurds to push ahead with their long-cherished goal of establishing an independent state, which in turn could encourage nationalist Kurds in Turkey to step up their own campaign for some form of self-rule.
However, starting in 2007, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) began to engage with the KRG, calculating that the benefits were likely to outweigh the risks. The main reason was economic. Political engagement enhanced already growing cross-border trade and boosted the local economy in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey, which has long been the most underdeveloped region of the country. The AKP also hoped that improved living conditions would ameliorate the poverty and sense of alienation that it believed fuelled recruitment for the PKK. The KRG is now Turkey’s second largest export market after Germany and Turkish companies are the main source of foreign direct investment in northern Iraq.
The rapprochement was given a new impetus by the KRG’s attempts to issue its own exploration and extraction licenses to foreign energy companies and to begin exports of oil and natural gas independently of the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad – which has accused the KRG of violating the strictures in the Iraqi constitution regulating the exploitation and sale of the country’s natural resources. The U.S. has also repeatedly expressed its concern that the KRG’s pursuit of an independent energy policy could be a precursor to the emergence of an independent Kurdish state and the breakup of Iraq.
The AKP is aware that Turkey needs to diversify its energy supplies and reduce its reliance on Russia and Iran, which together supply nearly all of the country’s natural gas and a significant proportion of its oil. In recent years, the AKP has come under intense pressure from the U.S. to cut its oil imports from Iran, which in 2011 briefly became Turkey’s leading supplier. The pressure from Washington coincided with a rise in sectarian tensions in the Middle East, particularly in relation to the Syrian Civil War. The AKP positioned itself on the opposite side of the ideological divide not only to Iran but also to the Shia-dominated government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – and was more willing to antagonize Baghdad by cultivating a closer relationship with the KRG.
Initially, Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) shared power in northern Iraq with the Patriotic Union Party (PUK) of Jalal Talabani. However, the KDP has gradually become the pre-eminent political force in the KRG. Massoud Barzani is a conservative Sunni Muslim with close ties to the Sufi brotherhoods active in northern Iraq, particularly the Naqshbandi. Before moving to Ankara to become prime minister, Erdoğan regularly attended meetings of a Naqshbandi lodge in Istanbul. As a result, although the rapprochement between the AKP and the KRG is based primarily on economic considerations, it has certainly not been harmed by the two men’s shared personal piety, strong sense of Sunni identity and affinity for the Naqshbandi order.
In recent years, Barzani has tightened restrictions on the movements of PKK militants in northern Iraq. However, his relations with the PKK have always been strained. Both Barzani and PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan regard themselves as the main focus of Kurdish nationalism. Barzani’s Sunni conservatism contrasts with the leftist and highly secular ideology espoused by Öcalan and the PKK. In August 2013, Barzani and the PKK appeared to be on the verge of a rapprochement of their own, when the KRG announced plans for a pan-Kurdish congress, including a delegation from the PKK. However, the congress has now been shelved. One reason is pressure from Turkey. Another is tension over Syria, where the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – which is ideologically affiliated with, but organizationally distinct from, the PKK – has carved out a de facto autonomous Kurdish region. Barzani has accused the PYD of monopolizing power and excluding other Syrian Kurdish groups, including some with which he has close ties. The PKK and PYD maintain that Barzani is trying to prevent the emergence of another autonomous Kurdish entity in the region and claim that he has been blocking the flow of refugees and humanitarian aid across the KRG-Syria border.
IMPLICATIONS: Erdoğan’s primary motivation in inviting Barzani to Diyarbakır appears to have been to strengthen the AKP and weaken the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) – which shares the same support base as the PKK – in the run-up to Turkish local elections on March 30, 2014. While he was in Diyarbakır, Barzani publicly called on Turkey’s Kurds to support the dialogue between Öcalan and the Turkish state, which was first launched in late 2012 but has been stalled by Erdoğan’s refusal to engage in substantive negotiations. Both the BDP and the PKK have accused Erdoğan of insincerity, claiming that he only initiated the process in order to force the PKK to announce a unilateral ceasefire while the talks continued.
Erdoğan appears to have calculated that hosting Barzani in Diyarbakır would convince the local population that the AKP was pro-Kurdish. However, despite the frequent rhetoric about pan-ethnic solidarity, the Kurds in Turkey and northern Iraq speak mutually unintelligible dialects of Kurdish. Barzani has only limited influence in Turkey, and then mostly amongst Kurds who vote for the AKP rather than the BDP. Although support is far from universal, there is no doubt that more of Turkey’s Kurds look to Öcalan for leadership than to any other individual.
While they were in Diyarbakır, Barzani and Erdoğan also discussed future cooperation in the export of oil from the KRG. At the moment, small quantities of oil are being trucked from the KRG to Turkey. Baghdad has refused to countenance allowing the KRG to use the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline. Initially, the KRG hopes to pump oil along a newly-completed pipeline from the Taq Taq field in northern Iraq to Fishkabur on the Iraqi-Turkish border, thus bypassing the section of the existing Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline that is under Baghdad’s effective control.
On November 10-11, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu paid a two-day visit to Iraq to try to repair strained bilateral relations and reassure the central government that Turkey was not about to sign a series of energy agreements with the KRG. On November 27, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani met with Erdoğan and Yıldız in Ankara. Prior to his arrival, Baghdad issued a statement warning that bilateral ties would be seriously damaged if Turkey signed any agreements with the KRG. The meetings finished without the announcement of any agreements, suggesting that none had been signed. However, on November 28, Reuters news agency reported that the AKP government and the KRG had actually finalized six separate agreements, including ones for the use of the newly-completed pipeline from Taq Taq to Fishkabur and for the construction of a new pipeline from the KRG to the Turkish Mediterranean coast. Turkish officials made no attempt to deny the report.
On December 1, Yıldız flew to Baghdad to meet with al-Shristani. Yıldız later told Turkish journalists that he had suggested that Baghdad, Turkey and the KRG could form a trilateral mechanism to resolve energy issues related to northern Iraq. He added that Ankara respected Iraq’s territorial integrity and would not allow the export of oil from the KRG without Baghdad’s consent. Yıldız then flew on to an energy conference in the KRG capital of Erbil where he declared that Turkey’s energy needs meant that it could not stand idly by when there were substantial reserves of Kurdish oil and natural gas so close to its border.
CONCLUSIONS: Over the weeks ahead, Erdoğan and al-Maliki are each due to pay an official visit to the other’s capital. Oil exports from the KRG are likely to top the agenda. But there is no indication of an imminent breakthrough in the standoff between the KRG and Baghdad. Nor is there any sign that the central Iraqi government would welcome Turkey’s inclusion in a trilateral mechanism to resolve what it regards as a domestic issue.
The signing on November 24 of the Geneva Interim Agreement between Iran and the P5+1 has raised the possibility of an easing of the sanctions against Tehran, potentially making it easier for Turkey to increase its imports of Iranian oil. However, in the medium-term, there is no doubt that the AKP government regards Barzani and the KRG as a more reliable strategic partner in energy cooperation. But, in the absence of an agreement between the Baghdad and Erbil, it is unclear whether Ankara would be prepared to defy both the U.S. and the Iraqi government by implementing its energy agreements with the KRG.
Whatever happens next, the manner in which Erdoğan gave the Iraqi government the impression that he was committed to repairing ties by dispatching Davutoğlu to Baghdad and then remained silent about finalizing six agreements with the KRG has dealt another blow to the Turkey’s already faltering credibility in the region.
Similarly, whatever Erdoğan may have hoped to gain by effectively enlisting Barzani’s support in the AKP’s campaign for the 2014 local election, he has further antagonized those whose trust he needs most if he is ever to put a permanent end to the PKK insurgency. The concern now is not so much the breadth of the hatred and distrust with which Erdoğan is regarded by the BDP and the PKK, but their depth. Unless Erdoğan acts quickly to convince them that he is sincerely committed to a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue, the PKK is likely to return to violence soon after the snow melts in spring 2014 – and next time it will be much more difficult to persuade it to return to the negotiating table.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.