Ankara’s trade off with Arbil: PKK vs Oil

Ankara’s trade off with Arbil: PKK vs Oil

It is not uncommon for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to sabotage oil and natural gas pipelines in Turkey. The Turkish section of the pipeline bringing gas from Azerbaijan via Georgia was targeted for the first time when an explosion took place on May 29. The explosion, which has been claimed by the PKK, came shortly after the May 18 visit of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani to Ankara. The talks in Ankara were followed by Energy Minister Taner Yıldız’s visit to Arbil to attend an energy conference.

“This time the address of the PKK’s message was the KRG,” an energy expert told me. “They are warning the KRG against the deal it is about to close with Turkey.”

The radars of everyone interested in the region’s energy sector are currently turned to the Ankara–Arbil line, to pick up the not-so-ordinary signs. These signs have been saying for some time that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is preparing for historic agreements with the KRG, which will be one of the latest in a series of steps breaking away from Turkey’s two decade long policy vis a vis Baghdad and Arbil.

That policy was to avoid taking any steps that would help the KRG to stand on its feet, which might speed up the partition of Iraq, something undesired by Turkey. The AKP, however, started to distance itself from that policy by improving political dialogue with the KRG, as well as increasing trade relations. As of today, there is almost no city left in Turkey that does not export to Northern Iraq.

Cooperation on the energy sector, however, remained limited. This is because it is the key to the KRG’s economic independence, and also because there is fear about antagonizing the central government. However, today every signal shows that the government took the decision to buy oil from the KRG and open the way for the KRG’s access to world markets via Turkey some time ago.

I say some time ago, because the amendment bringing an exception to the ban on exporting or importing crude oil via land routes and railways was published in the Official Gazette last November.
In the Arbil energy conference, KRG Minister for Natural Resources Dr. Ashti Hawrami told of plans for a new gas pipeline to supply Turkey’s gas grid, as well as a million-barrel oil pipeline to connect to the Ceyhan pipeline.

The amendment of last November shows that Turkey is not going to wait for the construction of the pipeline.

“To me it’s clear. Ankara is in a trade off with the KRG. In exchange for cutting the life lines of the PKK in northern Iraq, Turkey will buy the energy sources of the KRG - at the expense of antagonizing Baghdad,” the energy expert told me.

It was no surprise to see Nechirvan Barzani meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday in Istanbul, their second meeting in 15 days.

The energy deals with the KRG will obviously not help the already strained relations with the Nouri al-Maliki government, which will perceive this as a further step to make his life difficult. But if efforts to topple him succeed, Ankara will spare no effort to explain to the central government that bilateral energy deals with the KRG do not mean that Turkey has given up on its policy of a united Iraq. On the contrary, a division of Iraq is still undesired by Ankara -at least, this is what the high level foreign ministry officials told me.