While the western media remains largely fixated on the existential Iran nuclear threat and the gory slow-motion Syrian civil war, other momentous events are occurring in the world’s most volatile region, with potentially enormous consequences for the west’s addiction to Middle Eastern oil. One of the most brutal Middle East insurgencies, largely overlooked by the Western media, involved Turkey and the Marxist Kurdish separatist Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK).
The Turkish government, led by Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is apparently considering negotiations with jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Ankara’s outreach initiative has enormous energy implications, as Turkey currently imports 90 percent of its energy supplies and many pipelines run through Turkey’s eastern Kurdish regions, a tempting target which Kurdish militants have attacked in the past, while Turkey is also seeking to develop itself as a major energy transmission hub for European markets.
Ocalan was captured in Nairobi, Kenya on 15 February 1999 and extradited to Turkey. The PKK leader was sentenced to death under Article 125 of the Turkish Penal Code, which was later commuted to life imprisonment when Turkey abolished the death penalty in support of its bid to join the European Union. Despite his imprisonment Ocalan remains visible, having published several books from prison, as recently as 2011 and apparently still the titular head of the PKK, despite his imprisonment.
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Despite Ocalan’s removal from the scene, the PKK continued their attacks in Turkey. In their most notable success, on 5 August 2008 the PKK attacked the $3.6 billion, one million barrel per day, 1,092-mile Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which traverses 669 miles of Turkish territory to ship Azeri Caspian oil to Turkey’s Mediterranean Ceyhan port, nearly all of which contains significant Kurdish populations. An international consortium constructed the BTC pipeline, which began operations in May 2005, transiting high-quality crude from Azerbaijan's offshore Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli fields to Turkey's deepwater Mediterranean terminus at Ceyhan.
An explosion devastated the BTC pipeline segment at Turkey’s Yurtbasi village; after Ankara was notified, valves 29 and 31 were closed as officials waited for the oil contained in the 4-mile segment of No. 30 terminal to burn out. BTC operator BP declared force majeure. When BTC resumed operations 20 days later, Azerbaijan had been blocked from shipping approximately 17 million barrels of crude and the US Department of Energy estimated that Azerbaijan's final cost for the lost shipments was more than $1 billion.
The PKK subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack. As the BTC represents the West’s sole outlet for Caspian energy, the stakes were enormous. More than a decade ago Vice President Dick Cheney, then Halliburton CEO, remarked, "I can't think of a time when we've had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian."
According to recent media reports Turkey, as always absorbing Western experience, has sent a diplomatic team to the UK to see if Britain’s experience in ending its “troubles” with the Irish Republican Army has relevance for Turkey’s traumas with the PKK. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, leader of the political branch of the IRA, has told reporters that Sinn Fein's executive committee is advising a joint Turkish-Kurdish team visiting London, Belfast and Dublin to learn methodology and psychology that led to negotiations breakthrough in favor of the Good Friday agreement in 1998.
Ayla Akat, a Kurdish MP who took part in the discussions said, "Although there are historical differences between Northern Ireland and Turkey, it was very important. I learned a lot.”
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From his imprisonment on Imrali island in the Sea of Marmara, Ocalan posted a 20 page letter with his conditions in a “three stage plan, which included, 1 – the withdrawal of PKK forces from northern Iraq, from where they have mounted attacks into Turkey; 2 – creating an infrastructure for talks with Ankara via a Parliamentary “truth commission” and 3 – a period of “normalization,” whereby PKK elements based in northern Iraq who have not committed crimes can return to their families.
Amidst the chaos and bloodshed of the Middle East, the fact that an Islamic government is seeking a peaceful resolution to a conflict that has killed more than 50,000 Turkish citizens is a unique opportunity that both Washington and Brussels should grasp with both hands. Given the increasingly significant amounts of oil and natural gas that traverse Turkey, they would be stupid not to do so.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com