Through modern history Kurdish nationalism has constantly posed challenges to Iraqi national unity but it has assumed a criticality lately. The process of defining the regional autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which began in the early 1990s when the US-led «no-fly zone» was imposed on Iraq by the western powers in league with Turkey in the aftermath of the Gulf War, has led inexorably to its natural conclusion – the de facto independence of Kurdistan as a political entity.
But then, Kurdish national question is not a mere Iraqi matter, since only 4-5 million ethnic Kurds as such live inside the territorial boundaries of Iraq out of a total Kurdish population estimated variously at around 25 million, the bulk of whom live in the southeastern and eastern parts of Anatolia, and the rest in Iran or Syria.
Apart from the emergence of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, the civil war in Syria is also undermining Iraq’s unity as the balance of power between the Sunni and Shia communities begins to change. Patrick Cockburn, author and longtime observer of Iraqi politics, wrote recently in Britain’s Independent newspaper that the Sunni minority in Iraq, which has lost power in Baghdad and is increasingly embittered and angry at the discrimination against it by a hostile state, «is emboldened by the uprising of the Syrian Sunni, as well as growing sense that the political tide in the Middle East is turning against the Shia and in favor of the Sunni».
Yet, neither the Shia religious authorities in Najaf – the Marji’yyah – nor the nationalist religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr wants the sectarian card to be played in Iraqi politics by appealing to Shia solidarity. Paradoxically, the Shias of southern Iraq have become stakeholders in upholding the banner of Iraqi nationalism today. All the same, the Sunni community in Iraq is largely united. The government in Baghdad alleges that the Sunni protests are orchestrated by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. There could be an element of truth here, but, equally, the bitterness among the Sunnis of Iraq over the discrimination runs deep. Thus, as Cockburn points out, the government in Baghdad led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki «has military superiority but not dominance in Iraq, fully controlling only about half the country. It has no authority in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s three provinces or in the Kurdish-held disputed territories further south. Its authority is contested in the Sunni majority provinces and cities in western and central Iraq».
Meanwhile, enter Big Oil. The international oil companies have been migrating from southern Iraq to the northern Kurdistan region despite fierce opposition from Baghdad to the outside world’s direct dealings with the government in Erbil headed by Massoud Barzani. ExxonMobil (United States), Chevron (United States), British Petroleum (UK), Total (France), Gazprom Neft (Russia) – they are all in the game, taking advantage of the liberal terms offered by Barzani while granting exploration rights in Kurdistan’s fabulous oil reserves. However, the towering presence in Erbil today is of Turkey. Ankara and Erbil are apparently finalizing the construction of new oil and gas pipelines from Kurdistan to Turkish export terminals on the Mediterranean, bypassing Baghdad’s state pipeline network to Turkey.
Turkey hopes to kill many birds with this single shot of the arrow from its bow. Evidently, Turkey, which is a net importer of energy, hopes to cut down its heavy dependence on Russian and Iranian supplies by dipping into the Kurdistan’s massive reserves, while at the same time projecting itself as an «energy hub» linking the energy producing countries of the Middle East with the European market. In 2011 Turkey met 60% of its gas requirements through imports from Iran and around 20% from Russia. In addition, the United States Energy Information Administration estimates that Turkey has been importing about half of its crude oil from Iran. Ankara views this state of affairs as an unhealthy level of dependency on two countries with which Turkey’s relations have become problematic lately. Apart from the blatant Turkish interference in Syria, Ankara’s decision to deploy the US missile defence system has annoyed Moscow and Tehran.
In political terms, Ankara is offering a vital lifeline to Kurdistan, which is land-locked and whose economic viability as a separate entity independent of Baghdad’s control depends solely on its access to the world energy market. But Turks seldom give away anything for the sake of mere friendship and goodwill. In this case, they expect a solid helping hand from Barzani to finesse the separatist Turkish Kurds who take shelter in his fiefdom of Kurdistan, and prompt them to come to the negotiating table.
The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is making a renewed attempt to win Kurdish support for the constitutional changes his government is seeking. Erdogan is offering a measure of autonomy for the Kurds in lieu of their support for his main agenda, which is to create an executive presidency (which he himself probably covets). On Thursday, Erdogan approved a list of pro-Kurdish politicians to visit the militant leader Abdullah Ocalan who is interned in the Imrali Island near Istanbul. There is growing speculation that Erdogan is inching toward striking a deal with Ocalan. On the other hand, Ankara expects Barzani to coax the Syrian Kurds to rally behind with the opposition in Syria pressing for «regime change» in Damascus.
But in Ankara’s estimation, the glue that really binds Barzani to it lies in the burgeoning business ties between Turkey and Kurdistan. Put differently, Ankara is offering to Erbil the honeypot of vastly increased revenues from oil exports through Turkey from northern Iraq and flourishing Turkish trade and investments in Kurdistan. The indications are that Kurdistan is inching toward replacing Germany as Turkey’s number one trading partner. More than 1000 Turkish companies are currently operating in Kurdistan. Clearly, Turkey hopes that in the fullness of time, its much bigger economy would integrate and assimilate Kurdistan. Thus, the earlier mood of angst in the Turkish mind about the emergence of Kurdistan in northern Iraq has given way to one of optimism about new opportunities for Turkish regional expansion.
In terms of its regional agenda also, Ankara sees a convergence of interests with Kurdistan. Simply put, Turkish regional policies are increasingly feeding into the Shia-Sunni tensions fostered by Saudi Arabia and Qatar across the Middle East. Thus, Ankara openly encourages the Sunni Iraqi aspirations, which militate against the Shia empowerment in that country. Ankara’s refusal to extradite Tariq al-Hashemi, former Iraqi vice president who was charged with running death squads and sentenced to death in absentia in 2012 can be seen in this light. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has gone to the extent of alleging that Ankara has made a deal with Kurdistan «aimed at dividing Iraq».
To be sure, Iraq is also becoming a turf where Turkey’s rivalries with Iran are playing out and Ankara resents the Baghdad-Tehran axis supporting the Syrian regime. (On Tuesday Iraqi cabinet approved Tehran’s proposal to construct a 1500-kilometre natural gas pipeline connecting Iran’s giant South Pars fields to Syria and other export markets via Iraqi territory)…
Thus, Ankara estimates that in every sense it stands to gain from the weakening of Baghdad’s authority and effective control over the Iraqi territories. Baghdad has hit back by blocking the Turkish national energy firm TPAO from bidding for a lucrative oil exploration contract in southern Iraq but Ankara is undeterred. But Ankara has begun cutting its losses in an atrophied relationship with Baghdad. The Baghdad-controlled oil pipeline to Turkey is operating way below its capacity of 70 million tonnes annually.
Significantly, the United States has distanced itself from the manner in which Ankara is pushing the envelope in Kurdistan. This was evident in the recent public warning administered to Ankara by the US ambassador Francis Ricciardone who waved the red flag at Turkey’s dalliance with Kurdistan. Ricciardone said, inter alia, «Turkey and Iraq have no choice but to pursue strong ties if they want to optimize the use of Iraq’s resources and export them via Turkey. If Turkey and Iraq fail to optimize their economic ties, the failure could be worse than that. There could be a more violent conflict in Iraq and [the chances of] disintegration of Iraq could be [strengthened]». He added ominously, «And that would not be good for Turkey, the United States, or anybody in the region».
Of course, at the end of the day, the trust deficit between Barzani and Ankara, which is a legacy of the violent history of the region, cannot evaporate overnight. Also, Barzani is fighting for his turf, as new political forces are raising their head in the Kurdistan region and increasingly challenging his and his family’s leadership role. Ata any rate, his bonhomie with the Turks will not go down well with the Kurdish «peshmerga» and Barzani would know he is actually skating on thin ice. Moreover, the recent illness of Jalal Talabani (Iraqi president) also puts strains on the unity between the Kurdish Democratic Party [KDP] and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] and Turkish-Iranian rivalries could further fracture Kurdish unity. A period of intra-Kurdish violence seems to lie ahead.
Barzani is not new to eddies of regional politics. He knows Bashar al-Assad is still ensconced in power and Erdogan’s doomsday predictions for the Syrian regime turned out to be vacuous posturing. The reluctance on the part of the Barack Obama administration to come to the aid of the Syrian rebels militarily is apparent to him. All factors taken into consideration, Barzani is savvy enough to realize the fallacy of keeping all his eggs in the Turkish basket.