This article was published in Arab News on October 24, 2017.
Turkey’s interest in the Kurdish conundrum
President Masoud Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan bet high and lost. This loss may foreclose the Kurdish bid for an independent state for the foreseeable future.
The defeat that he suffered is partly due to the inclusion of Kirkuk in the scope of the independence referendum. If Barzani had not blocked implementation of the procedure contained in article 140 of the Iraqi constitution to determine the status of the disputed territories, including Kirkuk, he could have obtained more than what is available to him now. The negotiations between Baghdad and Irbil will probably focus on the status of Kirkuk, where two thirds of Iraq’s oil is produced.
The consequences of the crisis are more complicated for Turkey. One of them is the close pre-referendum relations between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Trade volume with the KRG is about $2.5 billion, which is more than 30 percent of total trade volume with Iraq. They also had close cooperation on oil-related issues. In June 2013, KRG officials released a document saying that shares had been given to a state-owned Turkish company in six areas, though the Turkish authorities refused to comment.
The KRG was exporting oil through Turkey, which it justified by citing Baghdad’s refusal to allocate 17 percent of Iraq’s oil revenue to the KRG, which corresponds to the proportion of Kurds in the Iraqi population. Oil is being pumped from northern Iraq to the Turkish oil terminal in Iskenderun and transported by tankers to Israel. In a 2015 interview, the KRG Minister of Natural Resources Ashti Hawrami explained how this functioned: “Oil is funneled through Israel, transferred directly between ships off the cost of Malta, and decoy ships used to make it harder for Baghdad to track.”
This operation caused tension between Ankara and Baghdad, because the complicated process was traced back to Turkey. After the Kurdish defeat last week in Kirkuk, the Iraqi Ambassador to Turkey, Hisham Al-Alawi, said Iraq had asked the Turkish authorities to deposit the money from oil pumped through Turkey into the account of the Iraqi government instead of “Barzani and his clan’s unknown accounts.” The ambassador said: “Turkish authorities told us that they are not part of the sale of oil from Kirkuk or from the region.” Turkey now has an obligation to clear up any residue from this murky oil business.
The second dimension for Turkey is Kirkuk, which is inhabited by a sizeable Turkmen community with whom Turks have close cultural, ethnic and linguistic ties. Ousting the Kurdish peshmerga from Kirkuk is only the beginning. Baghdad may not settle for the Kurds agreeing to go back to 2014, when they declared that Kirkuk and the surrounding areas were annexed to Kurdistan. It may insist that they go back to before 2004. Kirkuk’s demographic composition has been subject to forced changes on at least two occasions. One was Saddam Hussein’s “Arabization” campaign; the other was when Kurds brought in their kinsmen from northern mountain villages, claiming they were the residents of Kirkuk before Saddam’s campaign. To restore the pre-2004 situation involves certain difficulties, because Kirkuk’s land and population registry offices have been set on fire by Kurds in order to destroy evidence of the earlier demographic composition and the real estate situation in the city.
With deals in the oil trade, ethnic Turkmen to protect and troops already deployed, Ankara is much more than just a bystander in northern Iraq.
This is the reason why it was decided to take a census in Kirkuk only after certain conditions were met. These conditions were that unlawful occupation of some property had to be eliminated, and non-indigenous residents brought to Kirkuk after the US invasion of 2003 should prove that they were in fact residing in Kirkuk before that date.
Turkey’s contention goes even further back. In the last reliable census taken in 1957, before the 1958 coup that overthrew the Iraqi monarchy, 84.5 percent of Kirkuk’s population was Turkmen (92,725 out of Kirkuk’s population of 109,725). It remains to be seen to what extent Baghdad will take into consideration this background of the original ethnic composition of Kirkuk’s population.
The third dimension is the future of Turkish-Iraqi relations. Baghdad will be eager to cooperate with Iran; first, because of Iran’s strong influence on Baghdad; second, because the recent history of Ankara-Baghdad relations were less than friendly.
The fourth dimension is the status of the Turkish military detachment in Bashiqa, northern Iraq. Baghdad invited Turkey on more than one occasion to withdraw these forces from Iraqi territories. Turkey insisted that they were there to train peshmerga forces according to an agreement with the KRG authorities. This may come up as another thorny issue between Turkey and Iraq. A proposed visit to Baghdad by the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has been postponed several times because of this.
Turkey may need to work hard to make Baghdad forget the recent past.