Turkey's weak poker face in tensions with Iraq

As tensions mount between Baghdad and Ankara over a Turkish oil deal with Iraqi Kurdistan, many note that Turkey has not been able to cover up its dishonesty in the matter.

al-monitor Turkey's Energy Minister Taner Yildiz (R) speaks with Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government Natural Resources Minister Ashti Hawrami (L) at the Iraq-Kurdistan Oil and Gas Conference, Erbil, Iraq's Kurdistan Region, Dec. 2, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Azad Lashkari.

Topics covered

us-turkish relations, turkish foreign policy, recep tayyip erdogan, oil contracts, nouri al-maliki, nechirvan barzani, massoud barzani, kurdistan regional government, kurdish oil, iraqi kurdistan, iraq-turkish relations, ahmet davutoglu

Dec 4, 2013

I heard the sensational news report around noon Saturday: “As of last night [Friday, Nov. 29], Iraq has closed all its air space, including the Kurdish region, to planes registered in Turkey.” While I was checking the reliability of the report, the real shocker appeared on Hurriyet’s website:

"According to the exclusive news Hurriyet.com has [received], the tension between Ankara and Baghdad has reached a breaking point after it was revealed that an agreement had been signed between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on the sale and transport of Kurdish oil.

"Reports we have say the Baghdad central government has closed the Northern Iraqi air space to private planes coming from Turkey. Turkish sources said they have heard similar reports and they were now checking its veracity with the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority and waiting for an answer."

The most urgent and practical result of this development was that just like last year, Minister of Energy Taner Yildiz could not attend the Oil and Natural Gas Conference that was to convene in Erbil, or at least he could not fly to Erbil. An important international oil and natural gas conference was to meet on Sunday in Erbil and Minister Yildiz had already packed his bag.

Let us recall last year: On Dec. 4, Yildiz took off in a private plane to attend the conference. But when Baghdad closed its airspace because of its anger with Ankara, his plane had to land at Kayseri in central Anatolia. In a way, Baghdad had denied him the right to take action on Kurdistan oil without Baghdad's permission.

A year later we are again at a similar point, but this time it is more dramatic.

Last year in response to the negative stance of Baghdad, Yildiz said, “It is a known fact that at times politics becomes a burden on energy, and other times energy becomes a burden on politics. But if the infrastructure of energy is more robust, we will be able to deal with political complications. Turkey has participated in all energy production biddings all over Iraq. Out of $25 billion worth of projects, Turkish Petroleum’s (TPAO) share is $5 billion. We don’t have to deal only with Northern Iraq.”

The minister continued: “Today, Iraq’s oil revenue is $100 billion. Its production is 2.7 million barrels. If that production goes up to 8 million barrels, its revenue will climb to $300 billion. They can rebuild Iraq in three years. We believe in the importance of transparency and do not want anything to remain secret. We should discuss everything openly. If we succeeded in doing this with Russia, why can’t we do the same with Iraq and our brother [Hussain al-] Shahristani? Our discussions are ongoing. After we reassess the situation we will inform the public.”

Fine, so what happened this time?

Ankara and the KRG signed agreements that were not approved by Baghdad. To get the approval of Baghdad is not a divine command. Yes, you can sign those accords but by calculating the consequences and being ready to deal with them. But, if your subterfuge is exposed — after declaring that “agreements have not been signed” to hoodwink the entire world and give the impression that “there is no need to worry, we can persuade Baghdad and Washington” — then the results could be grave.

This is not the way to run foreign policy

Not two weeks have passed since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweet-talked us about how matters were improving with Baghdad, that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be visiting Ankara and then he will go to Baghdad. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had just gone to Baghdad after a long break [in visits], and we were all set for a new page in relations.

Now, are we going to say that Baghdad’s closure of its air space to Turkish registered planes is a sign of improvement in relations?

We were all expecting several agreements to be signed between Turkey and the KRG during the visit of KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. But when there was no signing ceremony, news was leaked that “the signing would follow contacts with Baghdad and Washington and after persuading Baghdad to get its approval.”

Following this leak, Baghdad and Washington immediately reacted. After the three-hour meeting with Erdogan and Barzani, Maliki’s spokesman [Ali al-] Musawi declared, “We informed the Turkish ambassador in Baghdad that we are against the signing of the pipeline agreements. If there are such agreements, Baghdad-Ankara relations will be seriously damaged.”

A similar statement was issued from the US State Department by spokesperson Jen Psaki in Washington: “We don’t support oil exports from any part of Iraq without approval of the Iraqi federal government. We continue to call on the Iraqi federal government and Kurdish Regional Government to find a constitutional solution.”

Following these developments, I wrote on efforts to reset Turkish foreign policy for Al-Monitor:

Turkey's most important move is related to political and economic rapprochement with the Iraqi Kurds, who happen to be the only neighbor with zero problems. A short time after Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani visited Diyarbakir — a place that Kurds see as their "spiritual capital" —  KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani came to Ankara. It was expected that Turkey and the KRG would be signing the long-ready oil and natural gas agreements during this visit. But this was postponed for a few months, as the full consent of Baghdad and Washington was not yet secured. It was thought best to postpone the signing to a date following Nechirvan Barzani’s visit to Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s visit to Ankara and Erdogan’s planned visit to Baghdad and Erbil.

But, guess what? The accords had already been signed. Erdal Saglam’s scoop in Hurriyet under the headline “Six signatures in three hours” informed us in detail that the signatures had already been inked. I read Saglam’s report and had it confirmed by a “very reliable source.” Then Reuters ran the same report. The Iraq Oil Report, one of the most authoritative publications on this issue, had a news analysis by its managing editor, Ben Van Heuvelen, under the title “Turkey, Kurdistan cement massive energy deal,” that said that despite the efforts of Baghdad and Washington to the contrary until the last minute, many agreements had been signed, and Turkey was entering into an energy alliance with the KRG.

Then came the report that Iraqi air space was closed to “planes registered in Turkey.”

I learned yesterday that our side, Turkey, after signing the deal, had told Washington and Baghdad, “There was no signing. First Minister Taner Yildiz will go to Baghdad to seek approval.” This pleased Maliki, and he said as much to the Turkish ambassador in Baghdad. But when the story broke of the done deal, he called the ambassador to ask what was going on and did not receive a satisfactory answer. He then said there was no need for Yildiz to come and decided to close the air space.

I have always favored close energy cooperation between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. In the beginning of 2007 after listening at length to Kurdistan Oil Minister Ashti Hawrami, I was the one who wrote in Referans, “To Northern Iraq not with the Turkish army, but to Iraqi Kurdistan with Turkish petroleum.”

I think cooperation with Massoud and Nechirvan Barzani is justified, and I support it. But none of this legitimizes a foreign policy based on lies.

Worse, it is a foreign policy that cannot even manage to lie.

Can you call a lie that was exposed in 48 hours and whose cost will be paid over months, even years to come, a foreign policy?

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