Turkey and the Kurds: A Perfect Storm?

A perfect storm appears to be brewing as tensions rise between Turkey and the main Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey itself. And this at a time when there are fears in Ankara that Russian support for Kurdish fighters in Syria might be accompanied by covert assistance for Kurdish groups at war with the Turkish state.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq is caught in the middle of these tensions. Since mid-February, its oil lifeline through Turkey has been out of action, almost certainly as a result of landmines laid by fighters from the PKK, the hardline Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party. As a result, one senior Kurdish source told the New Atlanticist: “We’re losing $13 million to $14 million a day. And without this the government (of Kurdistan-Iraq) cannot pay the peshmerga or government salaries.” And the peshmerga, of course, are on the front lines of a US-led coalition’s efforts to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq, and are expected to play a crucial role in operations to recapture Mosul.

But why should the PKK, which is fighting to achieve either autonomy or outright independence for Turkey’s Kurds, seek to undermine the autonomy already won by Iraq’s Kurds?

The key issue here is that while the United States and many of its allies consider the Kurds of Syria to be worthy of help in the broader struggle against Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus, Turkey considers them to be virtually indistinguishable from the PKK, with whom much of the Syrian Kurdish leadership does, indeed, have very strong ties. At a time when Russian and Assad’s forces appear to have reached a de facto agreement with Syria’s Kurds to leave each other alone, for the Turkish government in Ankara it is absolutely crucial to prevent the Syrian Kurds from having full control along the Syrian side of the Syria-Turkey border for fear they will aid the PKK on the Turkish side.

Increasingly, the PKK seems to regard the KRG as an ally of Turkey. So cutting the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which previously carried around 600,000 b/d of crude for sale on Mediterranean and Atlantic markets, is seen as a way of hurting Turkey, not least by apparently demonstrating its impotence in pipeline protection.

But is it as simple as that, or are there more sinister forces at work?

The Kurdish source specifically fears that Iran—presumably in the form of the Revolutionary Guards, rather than President Hassan Rouhani’s administration—is aiding the PKK and that Russia, too, may be reverting to a Soviet-era policy of support for the PKK.

Moscow’s relations with Ankara have been strained since Turkish warplanes downed a Russian Sukhoi-24 bomber over the Turkish-Syrian borderlands on November 24. Russia has allowed the Syrian Kurds to open a representative office in Moscow. One of the office’s first announcements, on February 18, was a statement that Russia had promised to protect Kurdish fighters in Syria in the event of a ground offensive by Turkey.

On the same day, a statement by the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), an offshoot of the PKK, described plans for a pipeline to supply Turkey with gas from Iraqi Kurdistan as “a conspiracy putting the lives of the Kurdish nation at risk.” It implicitly threatened to attack the pipeline, saying it would “not accept such an agreement to bolster Turkey.”

With both these statements coming just forty-eight hours after the Kirkuk-Ceyhan line ceased to function, it is no wonder that Erbil is worried about the future if its energy relations with Turkey are severed.

For the KRG, there are two particularly worrisome factors. The first is that the oil pipeline delivers almost all the government’s revenues—and that means there is no cash to pay its employees. Moreover, the Kurdish source said, as many as 1.3 million of Kurdistan-Iraq’s 8.5 million population are on the KRG payroll.

The second factor is the lack of communication from Turkey on the details of what caused the pipeline shutdown.

“The pipeline went down on 17 February but the Turks only reported an explosion on the 25th,” said the source. One possibility, the source added, was that the line was mined and that one of the mines may have exploded on the February 25.

For the Iraqi Kurds, both their immediate and long-term future is at stake. And so, perhaps, are Turkey’s hopes of reducing its reliance on Russian gas.

Kurdistan-Iraq is looking to export some 10 bcm/y of gas to Turkey by 2020 and a further 10 bcm/y shortly afterwards. This would help Turkey deal with its own gas problem, which is how to compensate for rising gas demand. This demand is expected to increase from around 50 bcm last year to close to between 65 and 70 bcm by 2025, while taking into account the prospect that Turkey will no longer receive some 14 bcm/y of gas from Russia via the western Balkans route because Russia wants to cease exporting gas via Ukraine from 2020 onwards.

While Turkey is preparing a tender for construction of a 180-km line that would enable Kurdish gas to access the main Turkish network, the Kurds remain worried. From the KRG’s perspective, the Kurdish source said, the issue is stark: “If they can’t protect the oil lifeline for Kurdistan-Iraq, then how can they protect the gas lifeline for Turkey?”

The crisis is prompting official KRG acceptance of the need for reform.

“We have to cut subsidies and shed workers. That’s what’s happened in the Gulf states and they have more money than us. And we’re subject to the same market pressures as they are—only it’s taking us longer to realize it,” the source said.

For Turkey, and for its NATO allies and friends in the European Union, the issue is quite simply how to ensure a revival of the peace process with its own Kurds, since only that might be able to resolve the tensions inherent in relations between Ankara and the Kurds of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Those are tensions that Russia is in a fine position to exploit.

John Roberts is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center and Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.

Image: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (second from left), Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (left), and Turkish Army Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar (third from left) look on as an honor guard carries the flag-draped coffin of Army officer Seckin Cil during a funeral ceremony in Ankara, Turkey, on February 18. Cil was killed during the clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants in Sur district of the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. (Reuters/Umit Bektas)