Kurdish and Turkish leaders have had a budding courtship for five years. But now Turkey is negotiating a massive deal in which a new Turkish company, backed by the government, is proposing to drill for oil and gas in Iraq’s Kurdish region and build pipelines to transport those resources to international markets. The negotiations were confirmed by four senior Turkish officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities.
“Turkey hasn’t needed to ask what we think of this, because we tell them at every turn,” said a senior U.S. official involved in Middle East policymaking, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with the media. The official said that any bilateral energy deals with the Kurdistan region would “threaten the unity of Iraq and push [Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki closer to Iran.”
Iraqi Kurdistan has already staked out significant autonomy, providing its own public services, controlling airports and borders, and commanding police and army forces. The energy deal with Turkey would all but sever Kurdistan’s economic dependence on Baghdad, which is perhaps the primary tie that still binds the two sides.
“We are having serious discussions with the [Turkish] company,” said Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. “We hope they participate in the region.”
The Turkish government has not made a final decision. Energy Minister Taner Yildiz is leading a review of the deal, according to senior Turkish officials, and expects to issue a formal recommendation to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by the end of the year.
Turkey’s moves come at an especially volatile time for the region. Along Turkey’s southern border, Syria’s Kurdish minority has gained control of a large expanse of territory in the midst of a civil war. That instability has worried Turkish leaders, who have used their sway over the Iraqi Kurdish leadership — both Prime Minister Barzani and his uncle, Massoud Barzani, Kurdistan’s powerful president — to help ensure that they exert a benign influence in Syria.
Iraq is also in crisis. On Nov. 16, a minor confrontation between Kurdish security forces and Iraqi soldiers combusted into a deadly firefight. Since then, both sides have deployed thousands of troops, as well as tanks and artillery, to each side of their contested border, where they remain within firing range.
Erdogan has left little doubt where his sympathies lie, accusing Maliki of “leading Iraq toward a civil war.”
Yet Turkey’s embrace of the Iraqi Kurds is not just a function of personal enmity. Rather, it represents a deliberate strategic shift that has upended the conventional wisdom that once governed Turkish policy toward Iraq.