Striking Pipeline, Kurdish Militants Deal Blow to Fellow Kurds

The PKK’s attacks on energy infrastructure in Turkey aren’t just directed at their longtime enemy in Ankara — they're also aimed at Iraqi Kurds they see as sellouts.


The already convoluted relations among Iraq, Turkey, and the regional and semi-autonomous Kurdish government located between them just got a whole lot murkier, with potentially grave implications for the one group that has so far carried the ground fight against the Islamic State in Iraq.

A long-active militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known as the PKK for its Kurdish name), attacked a pair of energy pipelines inside Turkey this week, including a natural gas pipeline from Iran on Monday and an oil export pipeline that snakes from northern Iraq to the Turkish coast on Wednesday. The PKK’s armed wing reportedly took credit for the oil pipeline attack; Turkish officials blamed the PKK for the gas pipeline attack, which bore all the hallmarks of similar PKK strikes over the years.

The attacks are in response to Turkey’s armed crackdown on the group, which is being carried out under the guise of Ankara’s offensive against the Islamic State. Turkish warplanes, finally unleashed against the Islamic State, have also targeted PKK camps in Syria and Iraq over the last week, reportedly killing nearly 200 PKK militants. The attack on Kurdish rebels angered Turkey’s NATO allies, who were glad to see Ankara finally take steps to push back militarily against the Islamic State after months of inactivity but are wary of the latest crackdown. That’s especially true because Syrian Kurds allied with the PKK have been among the most effective fighters against the Islamic State.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said this week that the United States recognizes Turkey’s right to retaliate against the PKK. The United States, NATO, Turkey, and the European Union consider the PKK a terrorist group, and Turkey has for decades battled the outfit, which seeks greater representation for the Kurdish minority. But Ankara and the militants had enjoyed a cease-fire since 2013, raising hopes of a political solution to the impasse.

Here’s where things get complicated: The oil pipeline that the PKK attacked carries crude from Iraqi Kurdistan to the Turkish coast for export. That pipeline is the financial lifeline for Iraqi Kurds: It is the only way to sell serious volumes of crude oil that the Kurdish regional government needs to keep functioning, including paying the salaries of Peshmerga fighters who have battled the Islamic State in Iraq since last summer. In other words, while the attack blew up a pipeline inside Turkey, it was directed as much toward fellow Kurds as it was against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

That’s because the Iraqi Kurdish leader, Kurdish Regional Government President Masoud Barzani, has made nice with Turkey — the PKK’s historic enemy — in order to make his own independence dreams come true. In recent years, ties between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey have grown closer, cemented by the oil pipeline agreement that, for the first time, gives Iraqi Kurdistan the chance to break free from Baghdad. But that has not sat well with fellow Kurds.

“The PKK has a reason to stick it to both Barzani and Erdogan,” said Matthew Reed, a Mideast expert and vice president at energy consultancy Foreign Reports, Inc. “Barzani has traded dependence on Baghdad for dependence on Turkey. They see him as a sellout.”

For now, the pipeline attacks haven’t crippled the energy infrastructure. Turkish and Iraqi energy officials expected the oil pipeline to be back in operation Thursday; Turkey’s pipeline operator is sadly well-versed in making quick repairs after years of grappling with PKK attacks. The fear is that a steady diet of PKK sabotage could choke Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil exports to a trickle.

“The question isn’t whether or not the pipeline can be repaired in short order; it’s how many times a week it is going to have to be repaired,” Reed said.

The immediate concern is for Iraqi Kurdistan’s finances. The pipeline can ship a maximum of 400,000 barrels of crude per day — though actual capacity is often far less– from oil fields in northern Iraq to the Turkish coast, where the oil can be loaded onto tankers. That translates to as much as $20 million a day in potential revenue at current oil prices. And that gives Iraqi Kurdistan an independent source of revenue. Previously, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region relied on cash transfers from the national government in Baghdad, but Kurds have long complained that the Iraqis shortchanged them on sharing oil money.

Longer-term continued threats to the operation of the Kurdish-Turkish pipeline could also torpedo an uneasy peace between Erbil and Baghdad. Over the past year, the two sides reached an agreement: The Kurds could export their own oil and still share some of the proceeds with the Iraqi government. Lately, the Kurds have also been letting Iraq pump oil through the pipeline to tankers in Turkey. Those shipments are worth hundreds of millions of dollars a month to the cash-strapped Iraqi government. But if the pipeline’s operations are diminished by steady PKK attacks, export volumes will almost certainly decline. And that could make relations between Erbil and Baghdad a whole lot thornier than they already are.

“If the volumes are diminished, will Baghdad get its tankers every month or are the Kurds going to prioritize their own needs? Because then you could see that fight getting much nastier,” Reed said.

Photo credit: SAFIN HAMID/AFP/Getty

Correction, July 31, 2015: The acronym PKK comes from the organization’s Kurdish name; its name in English is Kurdistan Workers’ Party. A previous version of this article said that the acronym came from its Turkish name.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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