Improving relations between Baghdad and Ankara put KRG on edge

Recent promises to mend relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad have not led to any real progress on disputes over politics, land and oil. And as Baghdad makes overtures towards its former sparring partner – and close Kurdish ally – Turkey, the government in Erbil is feeling not only frustrated, but vulnerable. Published in Gulf States News, 14 November 2013

The 29 April framework accord signed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani was intended to steer the process of resolving disagreements over issues such as customs and border procedures, proposals for a new oil law, and the status of disputed areas. It was followed by a series of meetings in June and July, when the two sides promised further co-operation. But beyond the verbal reassurances, there has been little concrete progress, and long-running issues – most notably oil and gas resources – are once again rearing their heads.

Of great concern to Erbil is Baghdad’s nascent rapprochement with Turkey. After a significant period of open hostility, Ankara and Baghdad seem to be taking a more pragmatic approach to relations, and have been trying to patch things up. In late October, federal foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari visited Ankara, where he and his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu agreed to co-operate more closely on issues such as Syria. Davutoglu started a two-day visit to Iraq on 10 November, making his first trip to Baghdad since March 2011.

Maliki is said to have started the overture of friendship, dispatching parliamentary speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi to Ankara in mid-September, at the head of a parliamentary delegation. Kurdish politicians have expended a lot of energy building relations with Turkey in recent years, and drawn considerable strength from the animosity between Baghdad and Ankara.

Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute in London on 17 October, head of the KRG’s department of foreign relations (and thus de facto foreign minister) Falah Mustafa Bakir said the friendship had come of strategic need.

“We wanted to make sure that with Turkey we had good relations because we knew that we needed each other,” he said. “Turkey was the easiest way for us to connect with the outside world. We encouraged trade relations, commercial relations, hoping that they would understand that we are a safe neighbour and that we can be friends… In 2008, they had close to 100,000 Turkish troops at our border. We were able to change that confrontation into co-operation. Just two years afterwards, we had, on 10 March 2010, the first ever Turkish consul general arrive in Erbil and sit in my office to strike a new era in our relations.”

Since then, things have further improved. On 30 March 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first Turkish premier to visit the KRG region, and stood side by side with KRG President Massoud Barzani as they opened Erbil International Airport. Erbil’s energy plans with Ankara have at times felt like a kick in the teeth for Baghdad, with a new pipeline to Turkey due to be completed by year-end, and Erdogan stating in March that the animosity between Erbil and Maliki had driven the KRG straight towards Ankara.

The recent turn of events will therefore be ringing alarm bells in Iraqi Kurdistan. On 1 November, Turkish energy minister Taner Yildiz was quoted by Reuters as saying Ankara would take Baghdad’s views into account when considering any new deal to import oil from Kurdistan – an alarming suggestion to the KRG, which is not only building an export pipeline to Turkey, but would also like a second one. At a joint news conference with Zebari in Baghdad on 10 November, Davutoglu underlined the message. “We set no limits to our relations and our co-operation,” he said.

In an interview with the Turkish paper Today’s Zaman that same day, Dr Aziz Barzani, a professor at Salahaddin University and a nephew of the Kurdish president, articulated Kurdish nerves. “Iraqi Kurds have concerns over the recent thaw between Ankara and Baghdad because the KRG has not yet solved its problems with Baghdad,” he said. “Ankara’s support for Iraqi Kurds against the central government in Baghdad is of great importance. We hope that the recent thaw will not affect the strategic ties between the KRG and Turkey.” Erbil’s reliance on Turkey extends beyond oil. Some 35,000 Turks are living and working in Kurdistan, and Turkish firms often play a prominent role in major projects. For example, two Turkish firms, Makyol and Cengiz Holding, built Erbil International Airport and have recently won a contract to build the Kurdish region’s third international airport, at Dohuk.

Erdogan is due to travel to Diyarbakir in south-east Turkey on 16 November, to attend a wedding, and is expected to tack on a meeting with Massoud Barzani. That could smooth things over, although it is hard to conceive of a solution that would satisfy all sides. For the Turks, the trade benefits offered by Kurdistan will have to be weighed against the political and diplomatic benefits of mending links with Baghdad.

Kurdish frustration

The KRG has been getting increasingly frustrated with Baghdad over the lack of progress since April. While in London, Bakir made that quite clear. “Relations with Baghdad are not easy,” he said. “There is no political will. There is no partner. We had agreed on a seven-point memorandum on all the outstanding issues. But we have not seen any progress.”

Oil-related disputes are also simmering. Baghdad’s recent awarding to BP of a contract to revive output at the Kirkuk oil field which straddles the border with Kurdistan is highly controversial. The KRG’s Ministry of Natural Resources declared it unconstitutional – not an uncharacteristic response, but one that again highlights the desperate need for a federal hydrocarbons law.

The Kurds will take some heart from the passing of an amended electoral law on 4 April, which should work in their favour. Washington may have played a role in securing Kurdish support for the law, which was only passed after weeks of wrangling. US vice-president Joe Biden telephoned Massoud Barzani on 28 October, and emphasised the importance the US placed on holding the elections on time. This echoed the calls between Barzani and both US President Barack Obama and Biden in late 2009, when they urged him to drop Kurdish objections to the election law then on the table.

Bakir also voiced Kurdish frustration at the lack of international action on Syria. “Some people are arguing that there should be a safe haven [in Syria], that there should be a no-fly or a no-drive zone. We were of course advocates of that because we have benefitted from that,” he said. “It is unfortunate that we have seen inaction from the international community. The regime’s days are numbered… [There is] still no solution in sight. What we have seen is no commitment for a military intervention, no commitment for boots on the ground, no commitment for a no-fly zone, not for a safe zone.”

When it comes to Iran, the KRG has to toe a more cautious and neutral line in public, not least because of Baghdad’s close ties to Tehran. Iran has in the past warned the KRG against threatening its interests in Syria. “With Iran we have tried to keep a balance to our relations. We do not want to be in this camp or that camp. We have to have manageable relations, but it is not easy,” said Bakir.