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Turkey’s Political Crisis and Relations with the KRG

David Romano David Romano December 28, 2013 Columns
Turkey’s Political Crisis and Relations with the KRG
Since 2008, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) relations with Turkey have steadily improved. Even before then Turkish investments and trade with the Kurdistan Region reached impressive heights, eclipsing Kurdish economic relations with any other country. Turkey’s interests in Iraqi Kurdistan also dwarf its involvement in the rest of Iraq, to the tune of 70% Kurdistan and 30% Arab Iraq. In December 2013, a massive energy deal between Ankara and Erbil was even announced – apparently setting the stage for very imminent Kurdish oil and gas exports to Turkey even without Baghdad’s consent.

It remains unclear, however, if the KRG will seek to completely switch its present dependency on Baghdad for a new dependency on Ankara. More likely, they will use the threat of an independent Ankara-Erbil hydrocarbons regime to pressure the Maliki government to finally come around and stop trying to monopolize oil and gas policy throughout Iraq. Iraq’s 2005 Constitution (Article 112) grants regions and even governorates significant authority over their own oil and gas fields, of course, and even complete authority over fields that were not producing at the time the Constitution went into effect. The Maliki government is quickly finding itself in a position wherein the separate oil deals of Kurdistan and several governorates may force it to abide by the Constitution and sign a national hydrocarbons law acceptable to Kurdistan or forfeit any role in much of the industry.

KRG leaders would rather that authorities in Baghdad cede some power and remain involved in the process, although not to the point of surrendering any Kurdish authority over Kurdistan’s hydrocarbons. They are willing to cooperate with Baghdad in exporting oil and gas and they have always maintained their readiness to share all hydrocarbon revenues with Baghdad. This is the Kurdish preference because failing a deal with Baghdad, they will become completely dependent on Turkey for their oil and gas exports and resulting revenues. Erbil would do much better to navigate a path between Baghdad and Ankara, using one against the other if necessary and thereby maintaining as much autonomy as possible.

Adding to the uncertainty is the corruption scandal that has rocked Turkey since the story broke on December 17th and seriously threatens to undermine Prime Minister Erdogan. Several cabinet ministers have already resigned, and talk has even begun about the involvement of Erdogan’s son in the corruption scandal. One of the ministers who resigned made a surprise call for Mr. Erdogan to step down as well, which came as a real shock to the Turkish political establishment. With a series of crucial elections coming to Turkey in 2014, the expectation is now of a very rough political season as Mr. Erdogan and his government go into crisis mode, focusing on domestic politics and attempts to contain the scandal’s damage.

How might this effect Turkey’s relations with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq? Could a Turkish government in crisis turn away from the KRG, and in particular forsake the growing energy cooperation between the two? We know that the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the far-right National Action Party (MHP) do not support Ankara-Erbil energy policies that freeze out Baghdad. Might Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) therefore cease to push the policy, given its serious domestic political problems?
Probably not. While the current crisis in Turkey may well sour relations between Ankara and Western states, especially as Mr. Erdogan bluntly talks of conspiracy theories blaming the likes of Washington and Europe for the corruption probe, relations with the KRG should not suffer. To understand why the AKP government will not turn away from the KRG, we need only consider the biggest reasons why Ankara got close to the Iraqi Kurds in the first place: economics, Turkish thirst for more energy sources and Ankara’s inability to solve Turkey’s Kurdish problem on its own.

In terms of economics, KRG leaders have wisely done their utmost since 2003 to attract Turkish business and investments into their region. Ten years later, the incredible results of a deep and growing economic relationship include a whole class of Turkish business elites with a vested interest in good Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations and an economic revitalization of Turkey’s impoverished southeast near the border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Since the AKP government’s main electoral selling point has been Turkey’s economic success under its stewardship, and also given that many AKP voters in Turkey are ethnic Kurds, it is difficult to imagine Turkish-KRG economic cooperation ceasing any time soon.

In terms of energy, Turkey needs especially gas but also oil to continue its economic growth. Some 19% of Turkey’s gas and 51% of its oil imports come from Iran, while 58% of its gas and 12% of its oil comes from Russia, while another 17% of Turkey’s oil comes from Iraq. We know how Turkey’s relations with Teheran, Moscow and Baghdad have been going lately, especially with the civil war in Syria. What’s more, present gas imports are barely meeting demand several months of the year, and cannot be increased without laying more pipelines. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdistan offers Turkey both oil and gas, and much more cheaply than Russia or Iran offers it for. The Iraqi Kurds would also rather not sell any oil and gas than turn over control of their industry to Baghdad, so Turkey is left with a simple choice – pursue a separate hydrocarbons regime with the Iraqi Kurds or remain dependent on Russia and Iran and even unable to fuel further economic grown within Turkey. That’s no choice at all, of course, especially given that other sources of gas do not appear so nearby or procurable so quickly.

Finally, it was the Iraqi Kurds who helped mediate a cease-fire and withdrawal agreement with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). If Mr. Erdogan is going to survive his current political crisis, he could certainly use some quiet when it comes to PKK attacks in Turkey. A resumption of the PKK’s guerrilla war would cost him politically, allowing his opponents in parliament to claim he made a mistake negotiating with “terrorists” and their incarcerated leader on Imrali Island. Ankara therefore needs continued help for KRG leaders to contain the PKK in Turkey and even its affiliates in neighbouring Syria.

Given all of this, it’s hard to think anything occurring within Turkey will sour Turkish-Iraqi Kurdistan relations in the short-term. The longer such relations endure, the more likely they deepen as well.