Massud Barzani (center), the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan… (MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/GETTY…)
ANKARA, Turkey — American diplomats are struggling to prevent a seismic shift in Turkey’s foreign policy toward Iraq, a change the U.S. officials fear could split the foundations of that fractious state.
The most volatile fault line in Iraq divides the semiautonomous Kurdistan region in the north from the Arab-majority central government in Baghdad. As the two sides fight for power over both territory and oil rights, Turkey is increasingly siding with the Kurds.
Kurdish and Turkish leaders have had a budding courtship for the past five years. But now Turkey is negotiating a massive deal in which a new Turkish company, backed by the government, is proposing to drill for oil and gas in Kurdistan and build pipelines to transport those resources to international markets. The negotiations were confirmed by four senior Turkish officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities.
“Turkey hasn’t needed to ask what we think of this, because we tell them at every turn,” said a senior U.S. official involved in Middle East policymaking, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to talk with the press. The official said any bilateral energy deals with Kurdistan would “threaten the unity of Iraq and push [Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki closer to Iran.”
Kurdistan has already staked out significant autonomy, providing its own public services, controlling airports and borders, and commanding police and army forces. The energy deal with Turkey would all but sever Kurdistan’s economic dependence on Baghdad, which is perhaps the primary tie that still binds the two sides.
“We are having serious discussions with the [Turkish] company,” Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said. “We hope they participate in the region.”
The Turkish government has not yet made a final decision. Energy Minister Taner Yildiz is leading a review of the deal, according to the senior Turkish officials, and expects to issue a formal recommendation to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by the end of the year.
Turkey’s moves come at an especially volatile time for the region. Along Turkey’s southern border, in the midst of a civil war, Syria’s Kurdish minority has gained control of a large expanse of territory. That instability has worried Turkish leaders, who have used their sway over the Iraqi Kurdish leadership — both Prime Minister Barzani and Kurdistan’s powerful president, Massoud Barzani, the uncle of the prime minister — to help ensure that they exert a benign influence in Syria.
Iraq is also in crisis. On Nov. 16, a minor confrontation between Kurdish security forces and Iraqi Army soldiers combusted into a deadly firefight. Since then, both sides have deployed thousands of troops, as well as tanks and artillery, to either side of their contested border, where they still remain within firing range.
Erdogan has left little doubt where his sympathies lie, accusing Maliki of “leading Iraq toward a civil war.”
Yet Turkey’s embrace of the Iraqi Kurds is not just a function of personal enmity. Rather, it represents a deliberate strategic shift that has upended the conventional wisdom that once governed Turkish foreign policy toward Iraq.
After the U.S.-led invasion, Turkey advocated against giving autonomy to Iraqi Kurds, fearing that such a precedent might strengthen Turkey’s own Kurdish minority in its quest for greater rights and self-governance. Turkey was also wary that any Iraqi Kurdish territory would become a safe haven for the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by the acronym PKK, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization.
But in 2007, Erdogan began to soften that stance. He took primary responsibility for his Iraq policy away from the military, and gave it to a diplomat named Murat Ozcelik. “My instructions from the prime minister were to build ties with the Kurds,” Ozcelik said.
U.S. diplomats encouraged the rapprochement. By pursuing economic cooperation, Turkey could form a bulwark of mutual interest with mainstream Iraqi Kurds who might otherwise be inclined to sympathize with the PKK’s nationalism.
Turkey also recognized the strategic value of Kurdistan’s abundant oil and gas resources, which had barely been explored under previous regimes. Turkey’s economy was growing rapidly, at an average annual rate of about five percent. To sustain that growth — and the enormous popularity it had brought Erdogan — Turkey would need new energy supplies.
Moreover, Turkey’s ambitious leaders aspired to elevate their country into the highest echelons of international diplomacy. To do that, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has argued that Turkey should leverage its geographical position at the crossroads of East and West into geopolitical power. One way to accomplish this, he suggests, is to make Turkey a transit hub for energy.