Ankara's already strained relations with Baghdad have taken yet another turn for the worse thanks to a recent deal signed between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq to export oil and gas from that region to Turkey. Reports the Associated Press:
The agreement envisions the Kurdish region exporting not only oil but natural gas through a web of pipelines through Turkish territory to the international market.
"Exporting oil from the Kurdistan region to Turkey is illegal and illegitimate," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement. "The oil and gas are the property of all Iraqis and those exports and revenues must be managed by the federal government which represents all Iraqis," al-Dabbagh added.
He accused Ankara of "participating in the smuggling of Iraqi oil ... and this issue will affect the relations between the two countries, especially the economic ones."
The Kurds and the Arab-led government in Baghdad have been at loggerheads over the right to develop and export the north's natural resources. Baghdad maintains that the region has no right to sign deals unilaterally and that exports must go through the state-run pipelines, while Kurds argue that the constitution does in fact give them the right to sign agreements without consulting Baghdad.
There is little chance either the KRG or Ankara will listen to Baghdad's complaints. For Turkey, making a separate oil and gas deal with the Iraqi Kurds makes sense on a number of levels. For one, the deal help further cement Turkey's role as an transit country for energy resources heading west. Two, working closely with the KRG helps Ankara insure the energy supply for its own growing economy, particularly at a time when it is being forced to cut back on its use of Iranian oil. Three, the energy deal with the KRG gives Turkey further access into the economy of northern Iraq, where Turkish companies have already become major players, particularly in the construction field.
But some analysts are also pointing out that while economics and energy politics play a role here, from Ankara's perspective, the deal with the KRG is really about dealing with the Kurdish issue, both inside Turkey and regionally. As Gonul Tol, director of the Washington, DC-based Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies, recently wrote in the National Interest:
While the warming of relations between Turkey and the KRG dates back to 2008, the current push for a strategic alliance signals a new era in bilateral relations in which cooperation is not only desirable but also necessary given the unfolding events in the region.
From the Turkish perspective, closer ties to the KRG serve Turkey’s strategic interests in Syria. Turkey would like to use the clout of Barzani with the Syrian Kurds to sideline the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK offshoot in Syria, and to gain some influence with the Syrian Kurds in a post-Assad scenario. The Syrian Kurds, however, are skeptical. On several occasions, high-ranking PYD officials have criticized Turkey’s involvement with the Syrian opposition, accusing Turkey of trying to turn Syria into a “satellite state” and preventing Kurds from having any role in the country. Although the Kurds in Syria are fragmented, the PYD’s stance vis-à-vis Turkey represents the majority attitude.
It also appears that Ankara believes that deepening its energy, economic and political ties with the KRG will help it in its fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which operates out of northern Iraq. Indeed, during an April visit to Turkey, KRG President Massoud Barzani called on the PKK to "lay down its arms." Those are only words, of course. What remains unclear, though, is how far Barzani is willing to go if and when Ankara asks him to take more concrete action against the PKK and its activities inside the region he controls.