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 Iraqi 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 5 percent. To sustain that growth — and the enormous popularity it brought Erdogan — Turkey would need new energy supplies.
Moreover, Turkey’s ambitious leaders aspired to elevate their country to the highest echelons of international diplomacy. To do that, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has argued, 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.
“The Foreign Ministry’s analysis was that relations with Baghdad are important, but relations with the Kurds are strategic,” said Serhat Erkmen, the Middle East political adviser at ORSAM, a research institute connected to the Foreign Ministry. That idea now frames Turkey’s Iraq policy, according to several officials charged with implementing it.
Ozcelik said he initially envisioned that a strong relationship with the Kurds could help Turkey referee the persistent disputes between Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, and Baghdad.
But political progress has been elusive. Instead, Baghdad and Irbil have fought their battles largely through their oil policymaking. Iraqi Kurdish leaders enlisted international companies to develop oil and gas resources, including in territory whose official status is contested. Baghdad responded by banning any company that contracted with the Kurdish regional government from southern Iraq’s much larger oil fields — a policy that secured the loyalty of the world’s biggest energy companies, including Turkey’s state oil company, Turkish Petroleum, or TPAO.
That stalemate was broken in October 2011, when Exxon Mobil, which was already developing an enormous oil field under a contract with Baghdad, decided to defy the ban and sign contracts with the Kurdish government, including three swaths of disputed land. By doing so, it implicitly endorsed Irbil’s expansive claims of contracting and territorial authority.