Kurdish peace process key to Turkey’s energy security

Kurdish peace process key to Turkey’s energy security

The fate of the Kurdish peace process will influence how Ankara interacts with the Kurdish populations of other countries, and may affect Turkey’s ability to procure much needed Kurdish oil.

Recent political developments in Iraq and Syria raise the stakes of Turkey’s domestic Kurdish peace process. Soon, Turkey will come to discover that its neighbors to the south and the southeast are under Kurdish authority more so than Iraqi or Syrian.

While the Kurdish populations of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria remain deeply divided, primarily along political lines, seeds of cohesion amongst the various groups are emerging. The November Kurdish national conference – once an unthinkable development – demonstrates an easing of internal differences. The emergence of a potentially more cohesive Kurdish diaspora occurs at a time when the population has found greater space to operate its own affairs.

It also emerges at a time when Turkey’s ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) seems on the verge of collapse. On September 9th, the PKK halted its withdrawal from Turkey, claiming the government had not done enough since March – when the ceasefire began – to compel the movement to lay down its weapons. Ultimately, the peace process in Turkey will impact foreign policy, including its ability to procure much-needed oil from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

In northern Iraq, the Kurds have long possessed some semblance of independence. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is the primary governing body in northern Iraq and is ignoring threats from Baghdad of tough action for what it terms illegal exports of oil to Turkey. While the rest of the country struggles with ongoing violence, the Kurdistan region is enjoying relative peace and an economic boom convincing some to declare it one of the most promising growth markets in the Middle East. The Kurdistan region of Iraq has Ankara to thank for an influx of foreign investment and the means by which to export its vast energy reserves. Currently, a pipeline connecting Kurdish oil to Turkey’s Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline is under construction, a move that would surely facilitate mutually beneficial economic, political and security ties.

In Syria, the PKK-linked Kurds appear to be the sole beneficiaries of the ongoing war, having managed to occupy a somewhat autonomous zone in the north. If the various Kurdish populations continue to coalesce, a complicated relationship with Syrian Kurds could jeopardize Turkey’s ability to procure Kurdish energy resources from northern Iraq. This likely explains Ankara’s recent engagement with the Syria’s PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its aggressive denial of any links to radical Islamist groups fighting against both the Kurds and the Assad regime. This is a marked turnaround from Turkey’s prior approach, when the Turkish General Staff labeled the party “a separatist terrorist organization.”

Energy from Iraqi Kurdistan is essential to Turkey’s goal of becoming an international energy hub, and any opportunity for Ankara to warm up to current KRG president Massoud Barzani will likely be taken seriously. Barzani’s ambitions of becoming a pan-Kurdish leader, which requires reaching out to the PKK and its affiliates, compel Ankara to catalyze peace negotiations with its Kurdish population sooner than later. As Abramowitz and Zarpli assert, “Turkey needs peace with its own Kurds to help preserve good relations with the Iraqi Kurds.”

Turkey’s Kurdish issue has long been a stubborn barrier tarnishing the country’s reputation. The three-decade long conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK has claimed over 40,000 lives, according to official statistics. The March 2013 ceasefire sparked renewed hope for a lasting peace, however the Turkish government is slow to announce reforms, the most important of which requires altering the constitution.

With a coming election, Prime Minister Erdoğan is stuck between committing to the peace process and appealing to a nationalist voting base distrustful of the Kurds. The conflict has demonstrated that the Kurdish movement is an ongoing reality that cannot be pushed to the side, particularly as the Kurds emerge as the winners of shifting dynamics in the Middle East. For Turkey’s political, economic and security ambitions – and indeed for the region’s development more broadly – serious headway in the peace process is essential.

Categories: International, Politics

About Author

Eli Lovely

Eli is an analyst at Kroll Associates and has worked at the National Democratic Institute and the U.S. Department of State. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wheaton College (MA) before earning his M.A. with distinction in Democracy and Governance Studies from Georgetown University. The views expressed on this site are Mr. Lovely’s and do not necessarily represent Kroll’s positions, strategies or opinions.