Turkey’s KRG en­ergy part­ner­ship

The Kurdish Globe - - EDITORIAL - By Gonul Tol – For­eign Pol­icy

Only a few years back, the idea of an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dis­tan bor­der­ing Turkey would have had Ankara up in arms. Not any­more. Past ten­sions have been sup­planted by a new en­ergy part­ner­ship and Turkey seems far less wor­ried about the prospect of an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dis­tan. In May 2012, Turkey and the Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Government (KRG) cut a deal to build one gas and two oil pipe­lines di­rectly from Kur­dish-con­trolled north­ern Iraq to Turkey with­out the ap­proval of Bagh­dad, tak­ing the rap­proche­ment started be­tween the two in 2009 one step fur­ther. If re­al­ized, the Kur­dish pipe­lines will for the first time pro­vide the Kurds di­rect ac­cess to world mar­kets, by­pass­ing the Bagh­dad con­trolled KirkukCey­han (Turkey) pipe­line bring­ing the KRG one step closer to the long-held dream of Kur­dish in­de­pen­dence.

Some pun­dits have ar­gued that for this very rea­son Turk­ish ap­proval of a Kur­dish pipe­line is a long shot. But the con­struc­tion seems to be un­der­way. Ac­cord­ing to Turk­ish press, the KRG has al­ready be­gun con­struc­tion on the oil and gas pipe­lines which are due to be op­er­a­tional by early 2014.

A cou­ple of fac­tors ac­count for the sea change in Turkey's KRG pol­icy. The first be­ing Turkey's en­ergy strat­egy. Turkey is an en­ergy hun­gry coun­try with a six to eight per­cent an­nual in­crease in de­mand. In or­der to sus­tain its eco­nomic growth, Ankara wants to strengthen its en­ergy se­cu­rity, en­sure di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion of sup­pli­ers, and es­tab­lish it­self as an en­ergy hub be­tween the en­ergy-pro­duc­ing coun­tries to its east and the en­ergy-con­sum­ing coun­tries to its west. Cur­rently, Turkey re­lies heav­ily on im­ported en­ergy from Rus­sia and Iran. Re­cently, how­ever, Ira­nian sanc­tions have driven up Turkey's en­ergy costs. More­over, the Syr­ian cri­sis has re­vealed that en­ergy de­pen­dence on Iran and Rus­sia might re­strict Turkey's room for diplo­matic ma­neu­ver. This is where the Iraqi Kur­dish en­ergy sup­ply comes in handy. The Kur­dish re­gion sits on sig­nif­i­cant, nearly un­tapped oil and gas re­serves. The KRG would of­fer Turkey a high qual­ity low cost en­ergy alternative to Iran and Rus­sia while Turkey might serve as a con­duit for KRG en­ergy ex­ports to Europe.

There are also geostrate­gic con­sid­er­a­tions be­hind Turkey's volte-face. The Syr­ian upris­ing has strained Turkey's once strong ties with Iran and Syria. In re­tal­i­a­tion for Turkey's sup­port of the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion, Bashar al-As­sad has given the Demo­cratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK's Syr­ian off­shoot, a free hand to es­tab­lish it­self in the coun­try's north. Turk­ish in­tel­li­gence re­ports in­di­cate that Iran has been pro­vid­ing shel­ter and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port for the PKK to launch at­tacks against Turkey as well. The KRG, on the other hand, has banned proPKK po­lit­i­cal par­ties, ar­rested PKK politi­cians, closed down PKK of­fices, and closely mon­i­tors pro-PKK ac­tiv­i­ties. Against the back­drop of shift­ing dy­nam­ics in Turkey's im­me­di­ate neigh­bor­hood and mount­ing PKK at­tacks, cul­ti­vat­ing closer ties with the KRG has be­come one of the most im­por­tant com­po­nents of Turkey's anti-ter­ror strat­egy and the government's most re­cent "Im­rali process," the peace talks with the PKK's jailed leader Ab­dul­lah Öcalan.

Yet an­other in­tri­cacy for Turkey's re­gional pol­icy has been the face off with Bagh­dad. An al­ready strained re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ankara and Bagh­dad due to di­verg­ing stances over Syria came to a head af­ter the U.S. with­drawal. In an ef­fort to con­sol­i­date his power, Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki is­sued an ar­rest war­rant for Sunni Vice Pres­i­dent Tareq al-Hashemi on ter­ror­ism charges. Turkey granted refuge to Hashemi and re­fused to ex­tra­dite him deal­ing yet an­other blow to bi­lat­eral re­la­tions. The en­ergy deals Turkey signed with the KRG are the lat­est in the Bagh­dad-Ankara con­fronta­tion. Bagh­dad is ac­cus­ing Ankara of med­dling in Iraqi af­fairs by "back­ing rad­i­cal Sunni el­e­ments" in the coun­try and sign­ing "il­le­gal" en­ergy deals with the Iraqi Kurds, while Ankara is charg­ing Ma­liki of pro­vok­ing sec­tar­ian ten­sions and lead­ing Iraq into civil war. Ma­liki's grow­ing tilt to­ward Iran has only ex­ac­er­bated the ten­sion.

Fac­ing a host of new chal­lenges in­clud­ing an in­creas­ingly an­tag­o­nis­tic Ma­liki government, grow­ing Ira­nian in­flu­ence in Iraq, mount­ing PKK at­tacks, and in­creas­ing en­ergy de­mand, Turkey seems to have found an un­likely ally in its or­deal.

Strange as it may sound, the United States is not happy about Turkey's courtship with Iraqi Kurds. Since the first Gulf War, Turk­ish-U.S. re­la­tions suf­fered mul­ti­ple crises over the lat­ter's sup­port for Iraqi Kurds. This time, how­ever, it is the other way around. Last week, Feridun Sinir­li­oglu, Un­der­sec­re­tary of the Turk­ish Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs, had a meet­ing with the State De­part­ment in which the United States re­it­er­ated its op­po­si­tion to the en­ergy deals di­rectly be­tween Ankara and the KRG fear­ing that closer en­ergy ties might push Bagh­dad's Shi­ite government closer to­ward Tehran and threaten Iraqi unity.

De­spite op­po­si­tion from Bagh­dad and the United States, there seems to be lit­tle that can stop the ball from rolling on en­ergy co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Ankara and the KRG. In an in­ter­view with Turk­ish daily Hur­riyet on Jan­uary 8, Namik Tan, Turkey's am­bas­sador to the United States, made it loud and clear: we will not turn our back on the KRG's en­ergy re­sources.

The en­ergy deals fore­shadow a ma­jor shift in Turkey's Iraq pol­icy. Gone are the days when the KRG was seen as part of the prob­lem; it is now viewed as part of the so­lu­tion. Turkey can­not only tol­er­ate an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dis­tan but also ben­e­fit from it, as long as it re­mains de­pen­dent eco­nom­i­cally on Turkey. An in­de­pen­dent Kur­dis­tan could of­fer a source of en­ergy, a buf­fer against a hos­tile Bagh­dad and Iran, and an im­por­tant ally in Turkey's fight against the PKK.

Yet it is not all roses; risks abound for both par­ties. The oil pipe­line deal will al­low the Kurds to ex­port up to one mil­lion bar­rels per day, but it might also make rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween Er­bil and Bagh­dad harder to achieve. If the KRG does not find a con­sti­tu­tional so­lu­tion to its dis­pute with Bagh­dad over its con­tentious hy­dro­car­bon law, the con­flict will be­come re­gion­al­ized invit­ing fur­ther med­dling in Iraqi pol­i­tics by neigh­bor­ing pow­ers. En­su­ing in­sta­bil­ity car­ries the risk of scar­ing away badly needed for­eign in­vest­ment. Ad­di­tion­ally, by by­pass­ing Bagh­dad in its bi­lat­eral agree­ments with the KRG, Turkey risks los­ing in­vest­ment in south­ern Iraq which holds the coun­try's largest ex­plored oil and gas re­serves.

Re­gard­less, Turkey seems ready to take the risk. In light of Turkey's long tor­tured his­tory with the Kurds, such a rad­i­cal shift seems noth­ing short of as­ton­ish­ing.

Turkey’s Min­is­ter of En­ergy and Nat­u­ral Re­sourcesTaner Yildiz speaks at the "En­ergy and the Kur­dis­tan Re­gion's Road to Devel­op­ment" Con­fer­ence in Er­bil, May 21, 2012.

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