Blasts From The Past; Pipeline attacks by PKK

Military outposts, websites and even political campaign buses have all been targeted in the last year, as a dwindling – if more resourceful – PKK renewed strikes against government and state targets. The diverse nature of the strikes targeted since a ceasefire ended in February has left those formally optimistic about the success of the AKP’s Kurdish reforms in little doubt that the next year will be rocked by further conflict. With some of the very first bombings of the summer targeting gas pipelines, questions are being raised in Turkey and elsewhere on what this means for the security of major energy conduits, as well as the potential damage.

A return to open conflict became certain almost as the ceasefire ended in February, coinciding with the beginning of the run-up to Turkey’s general election on June 12. Government rhetoric showed clear indications of a change in electoral strategy; The AKP’s populist dream of bringing Kurds into the fold of mainstream Turkish politics was exchanged for hawkish rhetoric and a familiar batch of mass arrests affecting journalists, politicians and academics with separatist sympathies. PKK ambushes and cross-border strikes by Turkey have duly picked-up once again, in a depressingly familiar game of cat-and-mouse.
Economic targets look likely to represent an important part of the PKK campaign. The Ministry of Finance, which claimed its website was hacked by the PKK for the purposes of “dirty propaganda” last month, served as the most recent warning of this. In real economic terms however, Turkey's large number of energy transit pipelines are providing the most tempting targets.

Pipeline Attacks on the Rise, Again

On November 20, Mardin police uncovered 200kg of C-4 explosives placed at three locations along a major oil pipeline owned by state energy firm Botas.

The discovery came just months after two attacks on either side of the Iranian-Turkish border incapacitated the Tehran-Ankara gas pipeline in July/August – cutting supplies for two weeks. The pipeline pumps 30 million cubic metres daily, accounting for 20% of Turkey’s gas needs. Although Russia and Turkey's Caucasian neighbours were more than happy to make-up the short fall in supply temporarily, concerns have been raised about the country's gas dependence. Energy experts agree that although Turkey is currently suited for short-term switches, a reliance on these would be volatile and unsustainable.

The PKK first declared energy supplies and services as legitimate targets during the height of the conflict in the 1990s – striking depots, tanks and pipelines in the South East of the country and disrupting lines to Iraq. The attacks caused speculation during regional energy talks regarding Turkey's suitability for situating future pipelines, demonstrating the competitive disadvantage the PKK have the potential to inflict.

Before this year, the last major attack took place on an oil pipeline along the highly strategic Batu-Tbisili-Ceylan line in 2008, resulting in over 12 000 barrels of oil being lost to fire and spillage. A risk to the BTC line sparked concern as it is the first pipeline to transit Caspian crude oil to Europe without entering through Russia in line with the EU's goal of diminishing reliance on that country for fuel.

How much is at Stake?

The impressive speed with which Turkey is able to switch to alternative suppliers, fix pipelines and play-down concerns about its vulnerability goes some way to revealing how much is at stake. State energy firm Botas oversees more than 10,000 Km of natural gas and oil pipelines in Turkey, whilst other pipelines funded by international companies and European governments are being established to supply Europe.

Nabucco is the largest planned pipeline, projected to be fully operational within the next decade to supply 25.5-31 bcma of gas to Europe with the greatest portion of the pipeline running through Turkey.

That Nabucco will constitute a solely private oil and gas pipeline raises the potential of the PKK's bargaining power in terms of Turkey's legal obligation to protect the pipelines. As is the case in Nigeria and South America, terrorist attacks do not fall under force majeure, and where attacks on pipelines have also been widespread, security of supplies rests solely with the state and any loses are subject to large resettlement claims.

In the immediate aftermath of that pipeline's attack in 2008, discussions about compensation demands were speculated upon, although BPs stated that a decision would depend on “how long the pipeline will remain closed.” At the time, BP in Baku stated that they would be "actively considering alternative routes," demonstrating the potential significance of even sporadic attacks.

This report on the PKK's pipeline target strategy was written for a Lebanese politics magazine last week. With a bit of editing and some tastey first-hand quotes, I hope it would be publishable. 

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