Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ankara's Shift towards Iraqi Kurdistan

KRG president Barzani and Turkish PM Erdogan

 Guest contributor, Caitlin Scuderi, a doctoral candidate in the Political Science Department, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA, and a former Boren Fellow, has conducted extensive research in Turkey.

Given Turkey’s problems with its own Kurdish population, Ankara’s shifting sentiments toward Iraqi Kurdistan might seem perplexing. After all, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been systematically stepping up its terrorist activities in Turkey over the past 20 months. Between June 2011 and November 2012, at least 870 people were killed as a result of PKK violence.[1]

Despite this uptick in violence, Ankara has moved to establish an ever stronger relationship with the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), while simultaneously stoking the fire in its relationship with the central government in Baghdad.   What has prompted Ankara to develop a closer relationship with Arbil?

There are several factors that have precipitated the change in Turkey’s policy towards the KRG.  First, there is the ongoing conflict between Turkey and Iraq. Since the two states took different stances over Syria when it erupted into civil conflict, the tension between them has been mounting.

These tensions were intensified when Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi on terrorism charges.[2] Hashimi sought refuge in Turkey, and when Ankara refused to extradite him,[3] the relationship sunk to a new low. As Ankara continues to align itself with Arbil, Baghdad has accused Turkey of unwarranted meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs and has insisted that Turkey is refusing to extradite Hashimi with the intention of provoking sectarian tensions.[4]

On top of the mounting conflict with Iraq, Turkey has pursued closer relations with the KRG because it is an ally with Ankara against the PKK. In response to Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition, Syrian Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad effectively nodded to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, allowing them to operate in the region without constraints by the regime. In addition to Syria, intelligence reports indicate that Iran has been providing aid to the PKK in the form of shelter and logistical support.[5]

The KRG, on the other hand, has long been a supporter of Ankara in its quest against PKK terrorist activity. By banning pro-PKK political parties, arresting PKK politicians, and closely monitoring PKK activity in the region, the KRG has aligned itself with Ankara as it moves forward in its anti-terror strategy.[6]

Perhaps the most important factor driving the closer ties between Arbil and Ankara has been Turkey’s energy strategy. Currently, Turkey obtains the overwhelming majority of its energy from Russia and Iran.[7]

Although historically Turkey has maintained good trade relations with both countries, a number of factors have pushed Turkey to attempt to diversify its energy suppliers. First, the latest wave of sanctions on Iran has increased the costs for energy importers. Second, Turkey’s economy has been growing at an increasingly rapid rate in recent years and its energy demand is subsequently increasing as well.  Finally, the ongoing conflict in Syria, and Turkey’s support of the opposition, combined with the state’s reliance on Russia and Iran for energy, leaves it in a potentially constrained diplomatic position.

Because of these reasons, the idea of closer ties with the energy-rich KRG is appealing to Ankara. Iraq’s three Kurdish majority governorates (provinces) sit atop significant and largely untapped oil and gas reserves. In May 2012, Ankara and the KRG agreed to build one gas and two oil pipelines directly from the Kurdistan region of Iraq to Turkey, bypassing areas controlled by Baghdad.

In response, Baghdad threatened to veto the project. KRG officials successfully held their ground.  They pointed to the fact that Baghdad has failed to fulfill its obligations as stipulated in the current revenue sharing agreement. The Iraqi central government is required to share 17 percent of all oil revenue with the KRG and to pay the costs of energy exploration projects in the region. Neither of these conditions, according to the KRG, had been met by Baghdad.[8]

As Turkey and the KRG move closer to each other diplomatically, it shouldn’t be assumed that the relationship will proceed without obstacles. First, considerable distrust still exists between Ankara and Arbil.  From Ankara’s perspective, PKK camps still exist in the KRG’s territory.

Conversely, Arbil knows that if it moves to quickly or too closely in developing ties to  Ankara, it could provoke hostile action from Iran. The two actors also seem to have different ideas when it comes to the future of Turkey-PKK relations. While the KRG has made it clear that it wants Ankara to launch a dialogue with the PKK, it is questionable whether this is a real possibility as Turkey approaches its first-ever direct presidential election scheduled for 2014.[9] In an effort to fortify his base of support, it is likely that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will feel compelled to enhance his nationalist credentials, which will likely entail a staunch anti-PKK posture.

Politics aside, there are clear economic incentives for Ankara and Arbil to pursue a closer relationship. For the KRG, exporting oil and natural gas through Turkey rather than through Baghdad ensures much broader access to the global economy. Turkey is much more politically stable and has many more trade relationships to which the KRG could gain access compared to those available to Baghdad.

Ankara has much to gain economically as well. By importing oil and natural gas from the KRG directly into Turkey, the state has a huge opportunity for further development projects that will be economically lucrative.

Whether the relationship between Ankara and Arbil will continue to move forward without incident remains unclear. What is certain, however, is that the relationship will continue to be affected by “neighborhood effects,” specifically those including Syria, Iran, and of course, Iraq.  In order to move forward in concert, both Turkey and the KRG must remain cognizant of the relationships with their neighbors and pursue avenues that allow for the deepening of their dyadic relationship without sacrificing ties with other states in the region.

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