Turkey, once a shining star, with its foreign policy focused on image-building mediation roles, adopted an interventionist stance in the Syrian crisis and went from a “zero problems with neighbors” policy to “zero neighbors.” Ankara’s only consolation is its deepening ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq that both sides refer to as “strategic relations.” Without a doubt, their annual volume of trade, which has reached $9 billion, lends the impression of strategic depth, but the springtime weather along the Ankara-Erbil axis remains a bit unstable.
Although the two sides are trying to eradicate mutual suspicions arising from past experience, they continue to harbor reservations about one another. Thus, it is worth examining Ankara’s relations with Erbil given the regional dimensions and thus their possible bearing on relations with their neighbors. Not long ago, when Turkey’s priority was relations with Baghdad, its relations with northern Iraq, today’s southern Kurdistan, were guided by Kirkuk and Turkmens’ problems. Today there are three essential elements guiding Ankara’s relations with Erbil: the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK); Syrian Kurdish autonomy issues, which caught Ankara off guard; and energy projects.
The path to peace with the PKK
KRG President Massoud Barzani has a critical role to play in the three-phase Turkish-PKK peace plan based on the withdrawal of armed PKK elements from Turkey into northern Iraq, implementing legal arrangements that will satisfy Kurdish demands and disarmament. A sixth PKK unit has already crossed into northern Iraq as part of the withdrawal process, which Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, indicated at a news conference on May 24 will be finished by the end of June.
Barzani’s most important task will be integrating the PKK elements, who will not be allowed to return to Turkey. The increase in PKK assets in the region could, however, give rise to an opposition that might well cause trouble for Barzani. The PKK’s power to influence and to mobilize goes beyond tribal linkages, thus challenging the established entities of the region. What is Barzani to gain by taking on this risk? The PKK’s move to the political arena in Turkey offers Barzani a chance to again influence “Greater Kurdistan.” Barzani, who has gone to the brink with the Baghdad government a few times, has to make sure that the gates to Turkey are secure.
Those who think that the PKK issue is only between Ankara and Erbil are wrong. The PKK move to northern Iraq has made Baghdad and Tehran uneasy. The Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki has accused Turkey of violating its sovereign rights in its economic dealings with Erbil, especially pipeline-related projects, but it complaints do nothing to impress Ankara because it knows that Baghdad does not control the country’s northern border.
More interesting is Iran’s reaction to developments. On May 21, Abbas Araqchi, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, complained, "When some developments are to take place at borders and forces are to be moved, definitely they need to happen with the consent of the central governments [of Iran and Iraq]. Iran, which has a cease-fire in place with the PKK’s Iranian extension, the Free Life Party of Kurdistan, fears the arrival of the withdrawing PKK elements in Iran because of their potential to disrupt the prevailing non-hostile environment.
Kurdish developments in Syria
Ankara wants to break the monopoly control of the PKK and its Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), in northern Syria and replace it with the Kurdish National Council. That is why Ankara has become dependent on Barzani’s credibility among the Kurds. Although the July 2012 Erbil Accord appeared to have united the PYD and Kurdish National Council along a common line, interference by Barzani could split the Kurdish alliance.
On May 18, a crisis ensued when 74 fighters trained by forces loyal to Barzani as a counterweight to the PYD’s Popular Protection Units were detained by the PYD trying to sneak into Syria from Iraq. Barzani angrily declared, “No group can impose itself until free elections are held. We won’t allow anyone to exercise despotism over others. If the stipulations of the Erbil Accord are not respected, then we will take new decisions.” He then closed the border, and the 74 detainees were released.
PYD representative Sherwan Ibrahim told Al-Monitor during the Syrian opposition conference in Istanbul on May 28 that Barzani’s biased attitude and his tactic of punishing the region by closing important border crossings at will has diminished his credibility with Syrian Kurds. Ibrahim contends that the Erbil Accord could be implemented without Barzani’s mediation. In fact, he believes, this recent incident revealed once again Barzani’s limits when it comes to putting pressure on the PYD.
Turkey has received that message, but it also has PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison, as a valuable card it can play. Whether Turkey will introduce the Syrian Kurdish issue as part of its negotiations with the PKK is crucial. There is a widespread belief that Ankara is, indeed, trying to influence the Syrian Kurds through Ocalan. The most salient expectation is the joining of Syrian Kurdish forces to the Free Syrian Army, but that will not be easy for Ocalan — who has advised, “Don’t fight the regime, don’t join the opposition” — to impose in the field.
The energy connection
Another critical motivation in Turkish ties with Erbil is economic. In addition to massive investment opportunities for Turkish companies in the the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Ankara sees energy cooperation with Erbil as a way to diversify its oil and natural gas sources and reduce its dependence on Russia and Iran. Kurdistan’s crude oil exports to world markets is about to double, and it owes this development to Turkey.
Since January, oil transported to Turkey’s Dortyol terminal from the Tak Tak oil field in northern Iraq has increased to 40,000 barrels per day (bpd). The target is 60,000 bpd by the end of June. The Kurds, who can export their oil via the Kirkuk-Yumurtalik pipeline, which is controlled by the Baghdad government, are now constructing a pipeline from Tak Tak to Habur, on the border with Turkey. With the expected completion of the line around September 2013, Kurdish oil will flow directly to Turkey’s Ceyhanli port. The line will have a capacity of 300,000 bpd.
This development represents a strategic victory for Erbil against Baghdad control, but also an irritant escalating tensions between Baghdad and Ankara. In addition, Turkey’s breaking with Baghdad eases the opening for Iran in Iraq and thus disturbs the United States. On May 16 at the White House, President Barack Obama asked Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan not to contravene Iraqi laws. Although Erdogan says he will comply, Turkey’s thirst for oil has not slackened.
On May 22, Turkish Minister of Energy Taner Yildiz, as if dismissing US concerns, announced that Turkey would likely make joint exploration and production deals with US and Russian companies in northern Iraq. On the other hand, Turkey’s reducing its oil imports from Iran because of the Kurdistan oil it receives conforms with the US demand for an embargo on Iran. This must be why Washington, still determined to protect the Kurdish region from Baghdad’s pressure, has not made this a big issue. Turkey, in the meantime, is quietly trying to pursue its energy connections elsewhere.
In sum, Ankara-Erbil deals covering the PKK, Syria and energy are injecting the Kurds into the Middle East calculus, and the cost to Turkey of these developing relations appears to be growing tensions with Baghdad and Tehran.
Fehim Taştekin is a columnist and chief editor of foreign news at the Turkish newspaper Radikal, based in Istanbul. He is the host of a fortnightly program called "Doğu Divanı" on IMC TV. He is an analyst specializing in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, Middle East and EU affairs. He was founding editor of Agency Caucasus.
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