The Middle East can be an ironic stage. Only a few years ago, the US administration, deep in its Iraqi quagmire, was reassuring the Turks about the unity of Iraq and pressing an anxious Ankara towards diplomacy over potential conflict with Kurdistan.
Fast forward to 2013, and it is the Americans who are worried that increasingly close alliances between Ankara and Erbil is fuelling the disintegration of Iraq. American views are mirrored by Baghdad who accuses Turkey of dividing Iraq.
There is no doubt that ties between Turkey and the Kurdistan Region are miles apart from that of 2008 when Turkey invaded, harsh rhetoric was the norm and even recognition of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was a bitter pill to swallow.
But in the fast changing socio-political whirlwind of the new Middle East, 5 years is an awfully long time. Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds have become natural allies and have much to gain politically and economically, in particular from Kurdistan’s immense energy potential.
And it is these energy ties that continue to underpin and consolidate strong relations between both governments that are the source of discomfort for Baghdad and Washington.
Baghdad’s all too frequent cries and threats against KRG energy deals with foreign firms is hardly a new phenomenon nor has it deterred the Kurds or oil majors who have started to stream in. The underlining question is what are the Kurds doing illegally? Are they breaking laws or is Baghdad’s only gripe Kurdistan’s growing strategic clout and economic prominence?
In a further twist of irony, while Washington has tried to slow down Kurdistan’s growing independence and close ties with Ankara, US oil majors Chevron and Exxon-Mobil have signed key agreements with the KRG. This is in addition to Total and Gazprom who have joined the ranks.
If it was so illegal to deal with Kurdistan and such deals were “unconstitutional”, why would oil majors flock to do business?
There is growing talk of a “secret” framework agreement signed between Turkey and the KRG around the transportation and marketing of oil and gas from Kurdistan directly to Turkey.
Kurdish plans to build an independent pipeline to Turkish ports are hardly a secret or a new initiative. Broad plans including oil pipe-lines were announced publicly last year at the international energy conference hosted in Erbil.
It goes without saying the political importance of a national hydro-carbon law for Iraq, but 6 years since the last draft was sidelined, efforts to reconcile differences have been lacking and Nouri al-Maliki’s government has done little to bridge major disputes with Kurdistan, and not only in the energy sector.
The Kurds are faced with a predicament to either wait indefinitely on Baghdad and be at their mercy on oil exports or drive their own destiny with the legal basis to do so.
The stop start nature of oil exports via Kurdistan and the bitter disputes over payments to foreign companies is synonymous with many other disputes between Erbil and Baghdad.
The control of oil exports is one remaining noose that Baghdad has around Kurdistan and this is also manipulated in other political struggles against the Kurds.
Recently, KRG has started to export independently via trucks to meet domestic demand much to the fury of Baghdad. But it appears that with Turkish support and growing confidence, the Kurdish patience with the Baghdad waiting game is running thin.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a major boost to Kurdish ties, defended Turkish energy cooperation with Kurdistan. Erdogan deemed such ties as legal and in line with Iraq’s constitution and stated they were merely helping their neighbour meet their needs.
There is no doubt that Turkish ties with America has rapidly cooled, especially as Turkey has looked increasingly east. Turkey is attempting to adapt to a new Middle East, seeks a proactive role in current conflicts, particularly in Syria, while it perceives the Obama administration as increasingly distant, slow and indecisive.
Washington is particularly uneasy about deteriorating Turkish ties with Israel and cautioned Turkey on recent “inflammatory” statements.
Turkey has also realised necessity of peace at home at a time of Middle Eastern sandstorms with a new reach-out to the PKK and its own Kurds. It deems new strategic relations with the Iraqi Kurds as a bridge with its own Kurdish community.
Closer cooperation with Iraqi Kurds comes at a time when Turkey is increasingly wary of Maliki and his Iranian influence.
U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Francis J. Ricciardone, warned that “If Turkey and Iraq fail to optimize their economic relations… There could be more violent conflict in Iraq and the forces of disintegration within Iraq could be emboldened.”
This follows previous warnings by Ricciardone and other senior US diplomats.
With Maliki at the helm and with a continuous policy of lip-service to implementation of key constitutional articles, division and the disintegration of Iraq is intensifying. There is no fear of something breaking when it is already broke.
With a fragile government, monopolisation of power under Maliki, renewed sectarianism, a lack of security and deep distrust and discord throughout Iraqi circles, is it really the Kurds who are the source of the Iraqi divide?