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Analysis: PKK's oil attack requires new Turkish strategy

By BEN LANDO, UPI Energy Editor   |   Nov. 25, 2008 at 4:36 PM
The Kurdish separatist group PKK has claimed responsibility for bombing the Turkish side of the oil pipeline linking Iraq's northern oil fields to the Ceyhan, Turkey, export hub. It's not the first time the PKK has targeted Turkey's energy sector, but it is the first time the group has set ablaze Iraq's oil.

Iraq's government will now have to take more seriously Turkey's complaints, but it's up to Turkey to address the root cause of the PKK's popularity and motivation.

The PKK -- the Kurdistan Workers' Party -- said the bombing Friday night that stopped Iraq's northern oil exports was part of its nearly 30-year struggle against Turkey.

The PKK is labeled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and Europe, among others. It has killed civilians in attacks throughout Turkey, challenged Turkish military in outpost attacks and targeted infrastructure. Turkey has responded by cracking down on its border and the Kurdish areas of its country, and it has restarted and re-energized an air and sometimes land assault into northern Iraq to target PKK camps.

Turkey is a major energy consumer and one of the most strategic energy transit countries in the world. Although an explosion earlier this month on the same Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline was an accident, not sabotage, according to Turkish officials, the early August attack on the major Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was a PKK job.

"It was extraordinarily effective," said Gareth Jenkins, a PKK expert at The Jamestown Foundation who has lived in Turkey for nearly 20 years. "I don't know why PKK hasn't attacked energy infrastructure more."

The latest attack came days before Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani and leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq set aside protracted disputes over the draft Iraqi oil law and the oil deals the KRG has signed. During their meetings Monday in the KRG capital, Erbil, the two announced that oil from two of the KRG deals -- with Norway's DNO and the joint venture with Turkey's Genel Enerji and Canada's Addax Petroleum -- would be allowed to be exported.

The oil will be piped into the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline and sent to Turkey.

"Given that PKK is hitting Turkey out of bases on the Qandil Mountain in the KRG, hitting the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, if it starts carrying KRG oil, might prove self-defeating," said Samuel Ciszuk, Middle East analyst for IHS Global Insight. "The risk that attacks could create animosity between the two KRG parties and the PKK makes it justified to assume that PKK attacks against the pipeline might decrease, should Iraqi Kurdistan oil exports commence through it. That raises the question whether PKK has acted somewhat as a proxy in stepping up its attacks against the pipeline to show that it would be in the Iraqi central government's interest to involve the Kurds more deeply in the welfare of the pipeline."

The PKK originated as a nationalist movement for Turkey's Kurds, defending it against an oppressive state. In the past it has had ties to both the KRG's main parties -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party -- but its role in the broader Kurdish movement is still being defined.

"PKK's ties to the KRG political parties are nevertheless elusive, and the movement seems hell-bent on disrupting Turkish infrastructure and aspirations," Ciszuk said, "which naturally involves trying to hit and weaken the country's proposition to become Europe's strategic energy bridge to the Caucasus and the Middle East."

According to an expert in threats and vulnerabilities to the energy sector worldwide who speaks to United Press International on condition of anonymity, there have been more than "164 PKK attacks, attempted attacks or suspected PKK attacks on energy infrastructure in Turkey since 1989."

The most recent attack came a day after a new committee of Turkish, Iraqi and U.S. officials first met to plan their PKK offensive. Turkey has demanded Iraq and the United States be more active militarily in combating the PKK, which is camped in the rugged terrain of northern Iraq's mountains. Ankara says the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq is turning its cheek to PKK activity, transit and trade routes, if not providing some assistance.

"In the long run, they (KRG) have to make up their minds, whether they want to have good relations with Turkey or bad one," a top Turkish Foreign Ministry official told a visiting group of American journalists, bloggers and think tankers. The official reiterated the Turkish line that the PKK "has to be dissolved," that there's no role for the group in the region.

An estimated 24 million Kurds live in a large swath of land from Syria to Turkey, Iraq and Iran. More than 12 million are in Turkey. Each country has persecuted its Kurdish populations, from recent Syrian laws restricting human rights to Saddam Hussein's mass killings.

Turkey's relations with its Kurdish citizens are complex. The government boasts of a history of key politicians with Kurdish ethnicity. The closest it comes to officially recognizing its abuse of Kurds is by touting new laws protecting -- or an ease of laws restricting -- human rights.

"If you look just into this room, the Turkish citizens who are sitting here with you, there might be some that are of Kurdish origin here, this is not known, this is not something that we dwell on, there is no division, there's no labeling of who is of what ethnic origin in Turkey, be it Kurdish or other," President Abdullah Gul told the visiting American group in a recent interview in his office building with a half-dozen aides present. "That is the way it is in Turkey, that's the way it's always been. Nobody defines themselves or is excluded according to their ethnic origin."

Gul added: "The real problem that we had on this issue, as well as other issues, is one where we had a serious lack of democracy, and this reflected on this issue and other issues in our country. And that is something that we have addressed. Certainly the Kurdish issue is not … because of a more racist outlook on the issue, but one where there wasn't enough democracy. Today, you can have books printed in Kurdish, you can have televisions that broadcast in Kurdish, you can have billboards posted in Kurdish, you can have newspapers that are published in Kurdish, and, if you wish, you can have a school that educates in Kurdish. Now all of this was forbidden. Of course, the Kurdish issue and terror, we divide and separate these when we're talking."

That division, however, may harm Turkish security more than it helps. During a casual meeting with prominent Turkish journalists and academics, the visiting American group heard a more frank explanation: The "PKK question" is the result of an unanswered "Kurdish question" in Turkey. The Kurdish population was long oppressed, threatened if they spoke their own language and considered second-class citizens. Officially that time has passed. But poverty and joblessness are extensive in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey, which has a massive youth population. Kurdish nationalism is a strong sentiment, and while the semiautonomy of Iraq's Kurds is empowering for Turkey's Kurds, it's nearing a red line for Turkey's government.

Jenkins, the PKK expert, was in the southeast Turkish town of Diyarbakir when the PKK launched its most startling attack against Turkish security personnel, just days after Turkey suffered mass casualties when the PKK attacked Aktutun military outpost. This sent the Turkish public reeling and officials demanding action from Turkish, Iraqi and U.S. forces.

"The PKK can't win militarily; there's only about 4,000 of them," Jenkins said. "It's a psychological and a propaganda war, and the Turkish authorizes do not always understand this."

He said any PKK attacks increase clout among Turkish Kurds looking for a champion, and any violent Turkish response is the best tool for conscription.

"The PKK has never had a problem recruiting," he said, "and when they suffer mass casualties, they recruit more."

Added to this deadly Catch-22, Turkey is attempting to funnel economic aid and development to the southeast and roll back the letter and spirit of previous anti-Kurdish policy, but PKK attacks are fueling "the most worrying development over the past two years," Jenkins said, "the rise of anti-Kurdish racism."

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(e-mail: blando@upi.com)

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