ERBIL — After much anticipation, Turkey now has its first ever consulate in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. It effectively opened up when its consul general, Aydin Selcen, arrived in Erbil on March 11. It was a low-key affair which has largely fallen below the radar of most press reporting. However, it is a significant development and it is symbolic of how far KRG-Turkish relations have improved over the past few years. Not long ago, the idea of a Turkish consulate opening up in Erbil would have been unthinkable.
I met with the new Turkish consul general on March 15 in hopes of learning more about KRG-Turkish relations and the role that the Kurdistan Region’s oil and gas sector plays in that relationship.
The temporary office of the consulate is currently located in the Erbil International Hotel, also known as “The Sheraton.” Consul General Selcen said that the Turkish delegation is now surveying the city for the location of a permanent consulate office. This marks the 17th foreign representation based in the KRG. The Turkish consul general expressed his hope that Turkey will soon have the largest and most important foreign diplomatic presence in the Kurdistan Region.
Mr. Selcen said that political, economic, and security cooperation between Turkey and the KRG have enabled the opening of the consulate. The economic relationship has been especially important. The trading volume between the two sides is around $5 billion per year and the Kurdish Region of Iraq is among the top ten trading partners of Turkey. One major benefit of having a consulate in Erbil is that Turkish citizens working in Kurdistan do not have to travel to the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad or to the Turkish consulate in Mosul. There are several hundred Turkish companies operating in Kurdistan and Turkey is the Kurdistan Region’s largest trading partner. Turkish investment, while existing prior to 2003, has increased dramatically since that time. When asked if the growing economic relationship has the ability help calm any tension in the political relationship, Mr. Selcen stated unequivocally that there is absolutely nothing to calm in the relationship. “Opening a Turkish consulate marks the take-off point in relations between the two sides,” Selcen added.
After arriving in Erbil, the Turkish consul general made his rounds meeting with the Kurdish leadership based in Erbil. On March 12, he met with the head of the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations, Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir. The following day he met with the speaker of the Kurdistan regional parliament Kamal Kirkuki, and Prime Minister Barham Salih. That same day, President Massoud Barzani hosted Selcen at his residence. “Upon my arrival, I could see the welcoming sparkle in their eyes,” Selcen said of the Kurdish leadership. He went on to say that all of his meetings were extremely positive and that he is confident that he has capable partners to work with in Erbil.
In October 2009, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Erbil. This landmark visit was the first ever by a Turkish foreign minister. During his visit, Davutgolu stated his hope that Turkey would soon open up a consulate. The Iraqi cabinet approved the opening of the Turkish consulate in Erbil on January 26.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry named Aydin Selcen as consul general on March 5. Selcen previously served as charge d’affaires in the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad from 2005 to 2006. Since that time, he has served at the Turkish Embassy in Washington and at the Foreign Ministry in Ankara. Selcen has a close working relationship with Turkey’s current Ambassador in Baghdad, Murat Ozcelik. Ambassador Ozcelik was Turkey’s special envoy to Iraq prior to his appointment as ambassador in 2008.
There are a number of factors which have led to the improved relationship between Turkey and the KRG. One international energy expert based in Erbil suggested that Turkey has implemented a hedging strategy over the past few years between all parties in Iraq. If the rest of Iraq begins to disintegrate into another round of civil war, for example, he suggested that Turkey would move to the KRG to build its relationship and effectively use the Kurdistan Region as a buffer against the rest of Iraq. It could also put itself in a position as a mediator between the KRG and Baghdad if Kurdish-Arab tensions increase in the future.
Selcen said that the trilateral cooperation between Turkey, the KRG, and the U.S. has helped facilitate the development of positive relations between Turkey and the Kurds. He stressed that the Turkish-KRG bilateral relationship can sustain itself and does not depend on American facilitation, but added that the U.S. has played an important role in the process because it understands both the Turkish and Kurdish viewpoints. He also pointed out that Turkey’s close relationship with the Kurds did not begin recently. For example, when Saddam was attacking the Kurds in the 1990s, Turkey opened its doors to the Kurds out of goodwill and that the Kurdish side has not forgotten this. He attributed the opening of a consulate to a natural outcome of their long-term relationship.
Selcen said that Turkey is not concerned by the development of the Kurdistan Region’s oil and gas sector, and to the contrary, that Turkey wants to continue helping the KRG utilize its oil resources. He discussed the work of Genel Enerji, a Turkish oil company operating the Taq Taq oil field in Kurdistan, and said that other Turkish companies are also interested in assisting in the development of Kurdistan’s oil and gas sector. He said that opportunities presented with the future Nabucco natural gas pipeline could help breathe life into the Kurdistan Region and Iraq in general.
Despite its desire to develop its oil and gas sector and maintain an independent and decentralized oil policy, the KRG also remains highly dependent upon both Baghdad and Turkey. Baghdad controls the national pipeline which transports oil from northern Iraq to markets through Turkey. Turkey insists on dealing officially with Iraq’s central government on issues dealing with oil exports as well as other matters. The KRG’s relationship with Turkey has historically been influenced by Turkey’s own Kurdish minority. Consequently, the KRG must somehow maintain complex relationships with both Baghdad and Ankara as it exploits its oil and gas resources which help sustain its autonomy and develop its economy.
The opening of a Turkish consulate in Erbil is an important step for KRG-Turkey relations and this recent development should bode well for the future political and economic trajectory of the Kurdistan Region.