In May the Turkish state oil company agreed a oil exploration deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq alongside US company ExxonMobil.
Iraqi oil resources are vast, but heavily concentrated in Northern Iraq under the administration of the KRG. That and the KRG’s relative stability has attracted many multinationals, and governments (Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Israel) to the autonomous area.
There has been increasing pressure on the KRG by the Iraqi Federal Government to stop all further deals and for all investment decisions to be made at the national level. The KRG have said if that happens they will seek a new basis for relations with Baghdad.
Meanwhile the KRG say they are almost ready to launch their a new oil pipeline (a converted gas line) which will end their reliance on central government for exporting and potentially pave the way to self-sufficiency.
A recent visit by Iraqi President Nouri Al-Maliki to Northern Iraq was an attempt at reconciliation.
Al-Maliki is already feeling the pressure from the conflict in Syria (Al-Maliki supports Assad), alongside a wave of attacks from Iraq Sunni sectarian militia against his Shia led government. Further autonomy for the Kurdish areas would further damage Al-Maliki.
On the other hand Al-Maliki might try to enlist the Kurds as a stabilising influence against Sunni Arab protests and to stop Sunni extremists coming into Iraq from Syria.
The KRG do not necessarily have a free hand politically. In 2009 the KRG coalition government (of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Kurdish Union (PUK) passed a draft constitution. Now the PUK have now withdrawn their support for the constitution being put to a referendum. The constitution would enshrine the KRG as a presidential rather then parliamentary system, giving the President absolute power including the power to declare a state of emergency, issue decrees that have the force of law, dissolve the parliament and dismiss ministers.
The suspicion is that President Massoud Barzani (KDP) will use these power to run for another term and eschew democratic checks and balances in the system.
Tensions have also arisen over clashes between the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) and jihadist groups. The PYD say the KDP (Turkey’s ally in Iraqi Kurdistan) had been training the fighters and helping them cross into Syria.
The Turkish-KRG oil deal had the potential to ease a negotiated solution to the “Kurdish question”, an end to attacks from the armed Kurdish group, the PKK, in Turkey. Will this be destabilised by the protests in Turkey?
PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has publicly supported the protests. He has also said the demonstrations should not to be hijacked by Turkish nationalists. That will count in his favour with Erdogan’s government. Salih Muslim, the leader of the PYD (linked to the PKK), has called for greater rights and autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds. That would strengthen Syrian Kurdish ties with Turkey and win Syrian Kurds away from Iranian influence. A stronger relationship with the Kurds in Syria would give Ankara greater leverage with any post Assad government.
Meanwhile Turkey has adjusted its attitude to Assad; previous they had argue he could be defeated by military intervention, now they are trying to engage with Assad and the Ba’ath Party to resolve the conflict. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said Turkey acted too swiftly and on the assumption that there would be a western backed military intervention.
Iran, Turkey’s main regional imperialist rival, has opposed peace negotiations between the Turkish Government and the PKK. The PKK’s relationship with Iran has cooled.
Islamist attacks on 26 May in the Syrian Kurdish village of Afrin reinforced the de facto autonomy of the Kurdish region in Syria. Islamists are seeking to gain control of the Kurdish areas and facing no official Government opposition.
Rumours of mass kidnappings of Kurds by the Free Syrian Army (the nominal umbrella group of Syria’s opposition militias) have been denied; there have been claims that the attacks on Afrin were coordinated by the Assad Government to discredit the opposition in the eyes of the Kurds. A minority of Kurds have joined the FSA and other opposition groups, but the forces under control of the PYD are the dominant military presence.
The PYD has continued to deny that there is agreement with Assad for the withdrawal by Syrian government forces from the Kurdish region. There are reports of continued attacks by the PYD forces against Kurds who have supported the opposition or who have tried to arm themselves without giving allegiance to the PYD’s military wing, the PYG.
Some Kurds in Syria say the PYD is the face of the Assad regime. The PYD itself maintains an uneasy position, declaring itself in opposition to Assad but without fully backing any of main strands of the opposition.
Ankara has told the PYD that if northern Syria is used as a base for incursions and attacks into Turkey, then the Turkish army will intervene directly into Syria. This threat, alongside the peace negotiations with the PYD’s parent the PKK, will increase support for the potential of a Kurdish state under the protection of Turkey. That prospect will be opposed by Iran and Iraq’s central government.
The rapprochement between Ankara and the PKK may make collaboration more likely, but the instability of all the groups involved — including the Turkish government — could lead to these alliances collapsing.