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The realpolitik of Turkish-Kurdish energy cooperation

The AKP-KRG energy deal presents unique opportunities for the Turkish government, but it lacks international recognition

One of the top priorities for the AKP (Justice and Development) government has been making sure that Turkey becomes an energy hub between eastern suppliers and Western markets.

The Iraq crisis, despite posing a threat for Turkish interests, brings the government closer to its aspirations. However, the government may have to delay, if not totally relinquish, the ideal of being a game setter and assume a more unassertive position as a regional player that pragmatically adapts itself to the changing conditions.

The current policies indicate that this is actually what the Turkish government is set to do. After the Islamic State (IS) seized control of several oil refineries and pipelines adjacent to the Kurdish region, the AKP-KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) bloc saw the eventual emergence of a new regional “energy status quo” as the awaited occasion to increase the international legitimacy of their energy agreement.

The shipment of 1m barrels of Kurdish oil from the Turkish town of Ceyhan to the Israeli port of Askhelon on 20 June sends a message that the bloc would try diverse alternatives for creating a market for the 45bn barrels of crude oil lying under the Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq. 

Authentic agenda

A similar reading can also be suggested for Israel - the first country to receive the disputed Kurdish oil - which, according to Baghdad, cannot be commercialised without its supervision. This stance is also supported by the United States who have declared their “concern” over the independent export of Iraqi energy resources.  

However, being boycotted by Iraq as a knock-on effect of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the third Netanyahu government has not much to lose with regards to pursuing its singular interests. Israel’s inclination to adopt an anti-Baghdad tone in the Iraqi crisis was particularly confirmed when Netanyahu stated that Iraqi Kurds had to be supported for independence.

A few years ago, such an Israeli approach would be severely condemned by Ankara, but now it signposts a shared posture between the two countries. Although not as explicitly revealed by the Turkish government, the idea of the Iraqi Kurds’ independence was also hailed by the AKP spokesman Huseyin Celik:

“If Iraq is divided and it is inevitable, the KRG are our brothers. Unfortunately, the situation in Iraq is not good and it looks like it is going to be divided.”

Actually, both the Israeli and Turkish sides would be content to back the Iraqi Kurds. 

The two governments have currently almost no regional allies and also lost each other’s diplomatic assistance. Both would be interested in enlarging their networks in the Middle East and the authentic agenda of the Iraqi Kurds, focusing on trade and the economy, makes the KRG a potential partner they would like to align themselves with.

With regards to Turkey, its indulgence for the KRG stems from its rather capitalist stance, while the Turkey-focused PKK (Kurdistan’ Workers Party), a self-deemed “socialist” party, has a much more sociopolitical vision over the Kurdish question, and accuses both the AKP and KRG for pursuing narrow economic interests over the genuine needs of the Kurdish people.

The AKP’s rapprochement with the KRG is based on the idea of economic interdependence, however, with a focus on trade and energy issues. The partnership could also usher in political advantages for the Turkish government who, engaged in domestic peace process with the PKK, is seeking to alter the ideological rhetoric used in the handling of the Kurdish question by domestic actors.

In a region where religious and ethnic divisions persistently function as catalysts for violence, Ankara sees in the KRG the opportunity to talk “business”.

International recognition

There is, however, a stern question regarding the sustainability of the AKP-KRG partnership, as the energy agreement still lacks international recognition. The shipment to Israel was the second attempt at commercialising the oil, while the first in May had failed due to Baghdad’s threats of legal action and US disapproval. The Turkish minister of energy Taner Yildiz made public two other shipments, however the details about the buyers remain undisclosed.

According to the minister: “Turkey does not know who bought the oil, but it is believed [to be] markets in the Mediterranean Sea.”

The energy deal stipulates exporting 400,000 barrels per day, however this is very difficult to attain without a stable market. Deprived of international recognition, the deal does not yet allow the definition of clear strategies according to the specific demands of permanent customers.

Hence Israeli involvement could be a crucial opportunity in breaking down international reticence:  

Firstly, as the Iraq crisis increases risks for the energy sector, Israel can be expected to persuade its biggest ally, the US, to withdraw its disapproval with respect to the commercialisation of Kurdish oil or at least constrain its objections.

Secondly, since the exploration of rich natural gas resources within the Leviathan gas field in 2010, Israelis have been reasoning over energy routes from the eastern Mediterranean, and have considered exporting the region’s energy supplies not only westwards but also eastwards through the Red Sea. The Israelis might consider transporting the Kurdish oil through the same route as there is a large demand by the Asian markets who are the world’s largest oil consumers. Obtaining their interests would mean incorporating more stakeholders in commercialising the oil.

Nevertheless, the most critical matter appears to be the Turkish government’s readiness to act along with Israel in its energy policies.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said recently that while Turkey was prepared to take certain steps with Israel, the offensive in Gaza had once again showed the impossibility to act together. This was despite renewed efforts at a rehabilitation of relations after the Mavi Marmara raid. Indeed the energy sector was eager to see better relations, as reconciliation between Israel and Turkey was expected to lay the groundwork for an energy partnership.

Towards a new energy triangle?

Despite a lack of diplomatic dialogue, a mild energy partnership already exists. Both sides are already engaged in energy cooperation, as 90 per cent of Israel’s energy resources arrive through Turkish ports. Moreover, the political orations had no effect on “business”, as the trade volume between the two countries has doubled since the Mavi Marmara raid.

Whether the latest tragedies would reverse the tendencies is questionable. Despite Erdogan’s anti-Netanyahu posture, the Turkish foreign ministry adopted the most balanced tone in recent years towards the deadly Israeli offensive, calling on both (Israel and Palestine) sides to act with common sense to prevent a new cycle of violence.

Akin to the temperate reaction to the Iraq crisis, the remarks regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict echo a similarly reasonable tone in the Turkish foreign ministry’s appraisal of regional developments. This is also observed by Turkish foreign policy experts, who suggest that the AKP is gradually retreating from the assertive “strategic depth” doctrine and beginning to prioritise Turkey’s own security and economic interests instead of aiming to transform the region.

Actually, the AKP government would prefer to abstain from engaging itself in the dynamics of the Middle East and pursue pragmatic strategies, notably in interest-based energy policies.

The Turkish government had last year proven its inclination towards pragmatism when Yildiz declared that Turkey did not have to wait until a solution in Cyprus for cooperating with the Greek side, a political authority that Ankara does not recognise, in commercialising the Cypriot gas.

Similarly, it might not wait until the end of the Gaza blockade for complying with the enlargement of the Turkish-Kurdish energy deal towards Israel.  

 - Ozan Serdaroglu has research experience on Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean, with a focus on political and economic development, Euro-Med relations, conflict management, regional cooperation and energy issues.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo credit: Turkey's Prime Minister and presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) welcomes Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani (AA) 

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