Ankara wants to flirt with both Arbil and Baghdad

Ankara wants to flirt with both Arbil and Baghdad

“You know, they call this place Kurdistan,” said the businessman from Turkey who I met on an Arbil–Istanbul flight, after I kept referring to the region as “northern Iraq.”

Old habits die hard. Interestingly enough, while the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) image that it would shed some old habits in the sphere of fundamental rights and freedoms has been short-lived; the one place that remains an area where the ruling party can quickly kill old habits is the economic sphere. There is no red line for the AKP if economic gain is in the picture. That’s why the AKP government has fast reversed Turkey’s old paranoia about the possibility of the creation of an independent state by Iraqi Kurds.

Turkey’s initial red line with regard to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) attempts to directly export its oil and gas is fast disappearing.

A fundamental turning point has been the accumulation of reports confirming that the KRG sits on vast oil and gas resources, much vaster than original estimations assumed. There is a rush by international oil companies (OICs) to the region. “A new Azerbaijan is being created here,” a representative of an energy company - in Arbil to see the prospects for his company, which is not yet present in the region - told me.

Turkey is a natural export market for the KRG, which is said to be offering Turkey lucrative production deals. So why has an energy hungry Turkey not yet struck these deals?

Is it the fear that it might lead to the disintegration of Iraq?

“The KRG is not going to become independent by Turkey purchasing its gas,” said a representative of an OIC active in the region.

Most energy experts are of the view that Arbil differentiates itself from Baghdad by its administrative professionalism and in this sense is fast distancing itself from Baghdad.

Is it Washington that is tying up Turkey’s hands, as it has been sending some warning signals about the consequences of a Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement at the expense of antagonizing Baghdad?

According to benign comments, the U.S. wants Ankara and Arbil to wait for the new U.S. secretary of state to mend fences between Arbil and Baghdad, which have increasingly been at odds with each other.

According to other, not-so-benign comments, if Turkey lays its hand on the Iraqi Kurdish oil and gas resources no one can stop the emergence of Turkey as a global player; something undesired by the U.S.

Avoiding a stance that could harm Iraq’s political unity and or allow Washington time to solve problems between Arbil and Baghdad might play a role in Turkey’s decision to delay a full-fledged cooperation with the KRG. But the overriding reason behind Turkey’s position is economic interest. Iraq’s south promises business deals as lucrative as the ones in being found in the north, and not just in the energy domain.

Ankara believes that it is in its best interests to make the most out of both the north and south of Iraq. That is probably why Baghdad’s obstruction of the Turkish energy minister’s attendance to a conference in Arbil, forcing the minister’s plane to turn around in mid air and spurring a huge diplomatic scandal, was downplayed by Ankara.