Almost as soon as the Kurds announced their first direct export of oil via Ceyhan in Turkey, Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani embarked on a tour of Europe starting in France before a visit to Rome, where talks were hosted between Pope Francis and Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, with the Kurdistan flag in full view.
Last week Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani led a similar delegation on an official visit to the UK.
The interest and status of Kurdistan is growing and more EU partners clearly support the Kurdish position in Iraq but ultimately in its natural evolution towards formal statehood.
The first Kurdish crude was not purchased on the black market by some rogue state. It was purchased by Germany and Italy. It is no coincidence that oil majors from across Europe and the US participate actively in Kurdistan. Kurdistan would not embark on a bold move to export oil if it didn’t have prior support from European powers.
Kurdistan’s decades of attachment to Iraq was not through a marriage of choice but a forced pairing based on outdates imperial interests.
Most European powers realise that the Western leaning and secular Kurds, who open doors of economic and strategic interest, cannot be contained in an artificial state with little ideological or ethnic similarity with the rest of Iraq. Ironically, it is Washington that remains fixated with the principle of Iraqi territorial integrity and national reconciliation, even after their failure to bridge the Iraqi ethno-sectarian divide. The idea of a united and harmonious Iraq sharing power in a democratic and equal manner catches the imagination, but it is simply not going to happen.
Some analysts comment as though the first direct export of Kurdish crude was the reason for worsening of Kurdistan relations with Baghdad or indeed Turkey’s growing divide with Iraq. Turkish ties with Baghdad have deteriorated over a number of years with strong rhetoric exchanged between both sides on a number of occasions.
The poor state of relations between Erbil and Baghdad is a tale of over 10 years of foot dragging over previous promises and lack of implementation of constitutional articles. For example, a hydrocarbon law, first drafted in 2007, is still gathering dust on the Iraqi political shelf.
Years of disputes over oil exports, months of stalled negotiations and failed budget payments, not to mention disputed territories and many other constitutional issues, paint a much bigger story.
The decision to export oil by the Kurds was the straw that broke the camel’s back but it was a long time coming.
Control of oil and other key disputed issues between Erbil and Baghdad became a game of bluff. Baghdad wanted to impose its influence and control over all corners of Iraq whereas the Kurds insisted on autonomy and their constitutional rights.
Kurdish oil exports may not solve all of Kurdish budget issues. Of course, it takes more than one shipment and more than one pipeline to build a successful oil industry. But it served as a strong message that the Kurds would match threats with action if backed into a corner.
Furthermore, growing Turkish ties with Kurdistan is not merely underpinned on economic and energy grounds. Some question why Ankara would alienate Baghdad further to side with the Kurds. These viewpoints overlook the bigger picture.
Ankara’s ties with Baghdad have been weak over the past several years especially as Maliki continued to dominate power, sectarianism increased and Baghdad grew closer to Tehran. On the other hand, the Middle Eastern socio-political landscape is rapidly changing and Kurds have assumed a pivotal role.
Ankara is keen to resolve its own Kurdish dilemma and at the same time looks anxiously towards a Syria has broken into mini states. Sectarian is taken foot in the Middle East and the Kurdistan Region is a vital buffer and ally of Turkey in changing times.
In spite of legal action from Baghdad and objections from the U.S., Turkey confirmed that it would continue to export Kurdish oil. Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, in a defiant speech to parliament, expressed openness to dialogue but vowed to “…never give up control of our own oil”.
“We are open to dialogue, but if Baghdad chooses to close all the doors we will certainly not be standing there doing nothing,” the prime minister warned.