Middle East Partnership Cultivation

ERBIL/BERLIN | | iraktuerkei

ERBIL/BERLIN (Own report) - In light of the extensive transformations taking place in the Middle East, the German government is seeking to strengthen its influence in Northern Iraq. On the occasion of German Development Minister, Dirk Niebel's visit to Iraqi Kurdistan a few days ago, it was reported that the "strategic partnership" with "the Kurds" must be carefully cultivated. They are important "partners" even beyond the Iraqi context. Berlin has been intensifying its contacts to the Kurdish autonomous government in Erbil since 2005 and more intensively since 2008. At that time, the focus was primarily on obtaining access to Northern Iraqi natural gas, to supply the planned "Nabucco" pipeline. However following that project's collapse, German influence has focused on the regional reorganization of the nations. Foreign policy experts are currently discussing a tighter affiliation of the Kurdish-speaking regions in Northern Iraq, Syria and Turkey, with the possible perspective of forming a sort of "Kurdistan Province" integrated in a federally restructured Turkey. A "Kurdish National Conference" - due to be convened soon in Erbil to unite Kurdish associations from Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran - will probably also focus on these plans.

Old Ties

For decades West German politicians have had close ties to Kurdish-speaking Northern Iraq and particularly to the Barzani Clan, whose leader Masud Barzani has been serving as president of "Autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan" since 2005. The contacts date back to the time of Bavarian Prime Minister, Franz-Josef Strauss, who was said to have had the best ties to Barzani. Strauss died in 1988. Using this as a starting point, Berlin was able to obtain a foothold in war-torn and civil war-shaken Iraq following the 2003 US invasion of Baghdad. The Iraqi Kurdistan's political maneuverability had grown enormously and the relatively stable Northern Iraq served as Berlin's base. Angela Merkel - even before she became Chancellor - had grabbed the initiative and met with Barzani in early November 2005, to initiate a rapid expansion of relations.[1] Barzani has long-standing close relations with the CDU Party. Most recently, a delegation of Barzani's "Kurdistan Democratic Party" (KDP) attended the CDU Party Congress in Hannover in December 2012. Masud's brother Dilshad Barzani, who, already during the reign of Saddam Hussein, had been the residential KDP contact person in Germany, was a member of the delegation. Today, the "Pflüger International Consulting GmbH" owned by the long-time CDU foreign and military policy politician, Friedbert Pflüger, has the best connections to Northern Iraq.

New Activities

After hesitant initial attempts, Berlin began approaching a closer cooperation with Northern Iraq more confidently in the fall of 2007. At the time, a delegation of German parliamentarians were returning from a visit to Erbil with the demand that the expansion of relations be granted higher priority.[2] The German government, in fact, started new initiatives beginning in 2008, organizing trips to Northern Iraq for business representatives, founding, in 2009, a "European Technology and Training Center" in Erbil, which also trained administrative personnel, and is seen in the German Foreign Ministry as a sort of "leadership academy" and in 2010, establishing a "German trade office," under the direction of German "development aid employees." Germany has also forged plans for a sharing of power in Kirkuk.[3] Kirkuk is one of the centers of the Iraqi petroleum industry and therefore economically very important. However, for years it has been contested, whether the city should remain part of the heartland of Iraq or be placed under the authority of the regional government in Erbil. Because of the financial consequences of this decision, this conflict, in which Berlin is now interfering, is considered exceedingly sensitive.

Access to Gas Deposits

Over the years, German interests had been focused on the rich deposits of natural resources in Northern Iraq, particularly of natural gas. The idea was to obtain direct access to the natural gas resources of the Caspian Sea Basin with the planned "Nabucco" pipeline project. However, supplementary gas sources would have been required to render "Nabucco" profitable. Because Iran, as a source, seemed politically out of the question, Northern Iraq was considered. In late summer 2010, RWE concluded a contract with the regional government in Erbil, allowing the German company to pump up to 20 billion m³ of gas annually into the planned "Nabucco" pipes. Baghdad protested. The Iraqi Constitution does not permit regional governments to enter extensive natural resources contracts without the accord of the central government. Berlin sided with Erbil in this dispute. It is still a mystery, whether an incident occurring at the beginning of 2011 is directly connected to this interference. At the time, Minister of Development Dirk Niebel's first trip to Iraq was overshadowed by an extraordinarily annoying pre-flight clearance check at Baghdad's Airport, preceding the next leg of his journey - to Erbil. What has been confirmed is that Niebel held talks in Erbil with Masud Barzani on "Nabucco" and Northern Iraq's link-up to the pipeline. A few weeks later, the German government reiterated that the pipeline is "of high significance, both to the EU and the German government." Niebel, therefore had sought to include Northern Iraq in the gas sources and, if successful, German businesses would show significant "investment willingness."[4]

Turkish Protectorate

In the meantime, the "Nabucco" project has collapsed. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[5]). The balance of power in Northern Iraq has also completely changed. Today, enterprises from Turkey have the upper hand. "Sixty percent of all foreign firms registered in Northern Iraq are from Turkey," the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) recently reported. "Iraq is the second - after Germany" - "export destination" for Turkish goods. Ankara is systematically pursuing "economic integration," not least of all, because Northern Iraq has "the energy resources" that "Turkey is lacking."[6] Oil production in the area under Erbil's control, which currently stands at 300,000 barrels/day, is set to grow to a million by 2015. The first oil pipeline directly linking Northern Iraq to Turkey is scheduled to go into operation this year, to which the SWP predicts "with this scenario, Iraqi Kurdistan would, at least, practically, have withdrawn from the Iraqi national union to become a sort of Turkish protectorate."[7]

Comprehensive Restructuring Plans

The secessionist intentions have been accompanied for quite a while by plans for a comprehensive territorial restructuring of the entire region. According to these plans the Kurdish regions of Northern Iraq could join together with those of Syria and Turkey to form a sort of "Kurdistan Province" within a federally restructured Turkey. These eccentric plans are the themes of current debates among foreign policy experts, also in Germany. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[8]) They are also having an impact on a "Kurdish National Conference" scheduled for August 24, 2013 - but may have to be postponed until September. The conference is supposed to unite approx. 40 Kurdish organizations from Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.

Strategic Alliance

It was in the context of this situation that Development Minister Niebel has again visited Northern Iraq and held talks in Erbil with representatives of the autonomous "Iraqi Kurdistan." Officially, - as on Niebel's visit in early 2011 - the purpose of his trip was questions concerning the "development" of the region, but particularly the war refugees from Syria, who are arriving in Northern Iraq in growing numbers. Niebel promised 20 million Euros of support. However, unofficially, one reads in reports that, of course, it was also because "friends in this region are needed." "For Germany" the "Kurds are the only real partners in the Middle East." Berlin has a quasi "strategic partnership," with them "that must be cultivated."[9] Whereas during his visit at the beginning of 2011, Niebel was concentrating on saving the "Nabucco" pipeline with Northern Iraqi gas, his intentions, this time, are the consolidation of relations to a regional government, whose plans for secession are of great significance for the restructuring of the Middle East. If such reorganization does take place, Berlin would not like to be watching from the sidelines.

Other reports and background information on Germany's special relations to Kurdish-speaking Northern Iraq can be found here: Lever for Destabilization, Lever for Destabilization (III), From Baghdad to Erbil (I) and From Baghdad to Erbil (II).

[1] see also (Irakisch) Kurdistan
[2] see also Deutsche Brückenbauer
[3] see also From Baghdad to Erbil (I), From Baghdad to Erbil (II) and Von Bagdad nach Erbil (III)
[4] Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Ute Koczy, Thilo Hoppe, Uwe Kekeritz, weiterer Abgeordneter und der Fraktion Bündnis 90/Die Grünen; Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 17/4990, 03.03.2011
[5] see also Das letzte Kapitel
[6] see also The End of Artificial Borders
[7] Guido Steinberg: Der Irak und der syrische Bürgerkrieg, SWP-Aktuell 46, August 2013
[8] see also Brücke in die islamische Welt and The End of Artificial Borders
[9] Im toten Winkel; www.merkur-online.de 12.08.2013