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    Turkey, Kurds in Duel over Energy



Analysis of the Russia-Turkey gas supply situation in the light of worsening conflict.

by: John Roberts

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Turkey, Kurds in Duel over Energy

The intensification of ground warfare in Syria, internal strife in Turkey and the rhetoric of combat throughout the region are jeopardising prospects for both a gas pipeline from northern Iraq to Turkey and independence for the Iraqi Kurds.

On February 18, Kurdish separatists in Turkey warned against attempts to build a gas pipeline from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey, saying this would only stand to benefit Turkey’s ruling Justice Party, known by its Turkish initials as the AKP.

The statement from the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), an offshoot of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is leading the revived war against Turkish rule in Kurdish areas of southeastern Turkey, came at a critical juncture. The day before, at least 28 people were killed in a car bomb attack on buses carrying soldiers to a military barracks in Ankara while a second attack, in the southern district of Lice on February 18 killed a further six members of the security forces.

Also that day, the natural resources minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq issued a statement saying that the main pipeline from Kirkuk to Ceyhan, on which the Iraqi Kurds depend for almost all their income, had been out of action since an attack on February 16, near the Turkish city of Urfa. It did not name the attackers, but almost certainly they would have been PKK militants.

On plans agreed by Turkey and the KRG for a gas pipeline from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey, which the KRG sees as a lifeline enabling it to export some 10bn m³/yr by 2020 and subsequently as much as 20bn m³/yr, KCK spokesman Demhat Agid had this to say: “We will not accept such an agreement to bolster Turkey and to let it stand on its feet since this agreement is a conspiracy putting the lives of the Kurdish nation at risk."

Turkey is preparing a tender out for construction of the planned 185-km gasline from the border at Sirnak to a junction with Turkey’s existing gas network at Mardin. The tender was due to open February 9, but so far there has been no public announcement of this.

The KCK, which is assumed to be speaking on behalf of the PKK, is particularly incensed because not only has it been engaged for the last seven months in what amounts to a renewed war with the Turkish state for either autonomy within Turkey or outright independence from Turkey, but because of an increased perception that the Turkish army , now mustering along Turkey’s southern border, might be unleashed upon the Kurds of Syria.

One of the key developments in the Syrian conflict in recent weeks has been the emergence of a de facto coalition involving not only the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and his Russian and Iranian allies, but also including Kurdish forces in Syria who now control large swathes of borderland along the Turkish frontier in northern Syria.

Russian support for Kurds in Syria

In Moscow, on February 18, the head of the Syrian Kurds’ newly-opened representative office, Rodi Osman, declared that Russia had promised to protect Kurdish fighters in Syria in the event of a ground offensive by Turkey.

Such statements will likely serve to further antagonize Turkey, which categorizes both the Syrian Kurds and the PKK, who have very close ties with each other, as terrorists, and which is therefore determined to prevent the Syrian Kurds gaining or maintaining control of border areas from which they could provide direct assistance to PKK forces inside Turkey.

Turkish-Russian relations have been strained for several months, with Ankara saying that Russian warplanes carrying out military operations in Syria have overflown Turkish territory and, on November 24 it shot down a Russian warplane.

These strains have caused Turkish leaders, notably the president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to seek alternative gas suppliers to reduce the country’s reliance on Russia for around 60% of its gas imports.  

With Turkish companies involved in a number of energy ventures in Iraqi Kurdistan, and with the Anglo-Turkish Genel Energy company the principal source of the intended gas supplies to Turkey, the planned Sirnak-Mardin pipeline constitutes a key element in Turkey’s gas diversification strategy.

For Turkey the question now is how to balance two contrasting elements. Should it pay more attention to Kurdish threats concerning the pipeline and Kurdish warnings concerning Russian support for their cause? Or should it take seriously the latest statement to emanate from Russia? That was a declaration February 14 by the head of regulatory affairs for Gazprom Marketing & Trading Alex Barnes that it might yet be possible to develop the planned Turkish Stream gasline from Russia’s Black Sea coast to Turkey, a project first unveiled by the Russian president Vladimir Putin on December 1, 2014 when relations between Turkey and Russia were far more friendly.

As for the Kurds of northern Iraq, they face increased isolation. They depend on the oil pipeline from Kirkuk to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan for almost all their oil revenues, which totalled close to $4bn last year. That line is now cut, and their planned gasline is threatened as well. And without a way to sell their oil and gas, then how will they be able to afford independence?


John Roberts, Chief Analyst