How weird: Iraqi Kurds reassure US that Turkey won’t divide Iraq

How weird: Iraqi Kurds reassure US that Turkey won’t divide Iraq

I could not believe my ears when I listened to Ashti Hawrami, the natural resources minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), speaking at the Atlantic Council’s meeting in Istanbul. He was reassuring the Americans that Turkey was not trying to divide Iraq!

Not too long ago – which means four or five years ago – it was the U.S. that was pushing the Turks to have good relations with the KRG, trying to assure them that the administrative gains of Iraqi Kurds wouldn’t lead to the disintegration of Iraq.

Over the course of these last four or five years, Turkey has done what Washington ideally would want to happen: it improved its relations with the KRG. A tremendous economic integration process started, which unlocked a landlocked country (to use the words of Joost Hiltermann, from the International Crisis Group). In addition to the economic benefits, Turkey’s intention was also to provide an incentive to Iraqi Kurds to further isolate the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Letting the KRG directly export its natural resources without an agreement with Baghdad was the latest red line that Turkey scrapped.

But this cooperation went a bit “too far” for Washington. It is currently telling Ankara and the KRG not to go that fast.

In the past, Iraqi territorial and political unity was a priority for Turkey, a priority that needed to be upheld if necessary at the expense of antagonizing the Iraqi Kurds; that’s why Ankara would warn Washington not to be so supportive of Iraqi Kurdish demands from the central government. As the coalition of Shiites and Kurds against the Sunni groups suited the interests of Washington at that time, it saw no problem in supporting Iraqi Kurds, which owe their current autonomy to American support.

It seems that the Americans are now feeling the negative consequences of the support they gave in the past, since the strains in relations between the KRG and the central government lead by Nouri al-Maliki are a source of headache.

The Americans want to pull out of Iraq, leaving behind a relatively stable country which will not necessitate a comeback. It therefore wants to cease the tension between Arbil and Baghdad and strike an energy deal between the two. The fact that Turkey has now given a green light to Arbil to export its energy sources without a deal with Baghdad has not pleased Washington at all. Turkey’s (or the Turkish Prime Minister’s) dislike of al-Maliki has certainly played a role in the Turkish green light. Ankara is now warned that its cooperation with the KRG could lead to the division of Iraq.

Securing additional energy supplies, as well as maintaining the KRG’s cooperation in fighting against the PKK, are important priorities, but so is the territorial and political integrity of Iraq. It is ideally Turkey’s preference to have a deal between Arbil and Bagdad before it intensifies cooperation with Kurds on the energy field. The U.S. is probably aware of that. The main problem is the personal feud between Erdoğan and al-Maliki. The day al-Maliki is gone it will be much easier to hold relations in the Baghdad–Arbil-Ankara triangle. But it seems that al-Maliki is here to stay, and I would not be surprised to see Washington trying to mediate, not only between Arbil and Baghdad, but also between Erdoğan and al-Maliki.