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Multiple explosions rock Turkish gaslines

The ability of pipelines to resist hostile attack is being sorely tested in Turkey, with Kurdish separatists attacking the gaslines

The outbreak of armed strife between the Turkish authorities and the separatist forces of the PKK, deemed a terrorist organisation by Turkey and its Nato allies, is the immediate cause for the latest assaults on three major pipelines within Turkey, while Turkish intervention in Iraq and Syria adds a fresh element to the threat posed by Islamic State saboteurs to the Iraq-Turkey oil pipeline.

And in the background is the uncertain role being played by Russia with regard to the security of major pipelines in the Caucasus.

Attacks on the two lines, bringing in some gas from Iran and Azerbaijan are not new, but their intensity has grown after talks between the Turkish government and the militant Kurdish separatist forces of the PKK collapsed in July. Turkey launched air strikes against both the PKK’s bases in northern Iraq and IS targets in Syria on 24 July, saying that PKK gunmen had killed two Turkish policemen two days earlier. Since then, there have been at least four major attacks on pipelines within Turkey, all of which were almost certainly carried out by the PKK.

Allegedly, the PKK attacked the Iran-Turkey gasline near the eastern Turkish city of Agri on 27 July. Two days later, it attacked the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline in southeastern Sirnak Province. On 4 August, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE) gasline was attacked near Sarikamis in the northeastern province of Kars. And it launched another attack on the BTE line, again near Sarikamis, on 24 August.

In all cases the lines were back in action within a few days, so in terms of energy supply, the attacks were more of a major nuisance than a serious threat. The Iran gasline routinely delivers around 27.5m cm/day, while the line from Azerbaijan supplies around 18m m³/d. Turkey uses around 125m cm/d.

But attacks on the Kirkuk-Ceyhan line are more serious, with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil stating in August that it had lost some $250m in export income as a result of those disruptions.

Moreover, the ease with which the lines have been attacked naturally raises concerns about the longer-term security of pipeline systems in both northeastern and southeastern Turkey. The southeast, the core of any projected Kurdish state within the confines of modern Turkey, is now on the verge of all-out civil war, if it is not already in its grip.

Moreover, the porosity of Turkey’s border with both Iraq and Syria renders the Iraq-Turkey oil pipeline, the export-revenue lifeline for the autonomous government of Kurdistan-Iraq, vulnerable not only to PKK attacks but also to possible assaults by IS forces which have regularly blown up sections of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline within Iraq.

The revival of open warfare between the Turkish state and the PKK bodes ill for Turkey, and casts in grave doubt the question of whether the Turkish general election, due to be held on 1 November, will yield a conclusive result that is acceptable to all parties concerned – or even that it will necessarily take place at all. 

A destabilised Turkey would in turn pose severe problems for Azerbaijan’s state-owned producer Socar, UK BP, and their Turkish partner, Botas, in developing the 1,850-km TransAnatolian gasline from the Turkey-Georgia border to the Turkey-Greece border. Major contracts are in place for development of the $10bn pipeline, intended initially to carry some 6bn m³/year from Azerbaijan’s giant Shah Deniz field to Turkey and a further 10bn m³/y to countries beyond Turkey – notably Italy – and eventually twice that.

But the persistence of PKK attacks in an area through which the line will have to pass remains a worrisome factor. After all, it was in Kars province that the Tanap partners officially launched the pipeline’s construction last March.

So far, the northern oil pipelines have not been targeted in the latest round of PKK attacks. But these pipelines are no less vulnerable. On the night of 5/6 August 2008, there was an attack on the BTC line at Block Valve 30 near Erzincan in north-central Turkey.

At the time, official Turkish sources said it was an accident while the PKK claimed responsibility and, in a subsequent statement, BP acknowledged that the line was breached in a terrorist incident, but without naming the suspected perpetrators. Intelligence sources, however, argue that the attack – which took a line that was then carrying some 700,000 b/d out of service less than 48 hours before the start of the Georgian-Russian war – was a cyber-attack, the kind of operation for which Russia’s crack military unit Spetsnaz possesses the capability, but not the PKK.

Moreover, Russia’s movement in July of its forces right up to the southern boundary line of Russian-occupied South Ossetia with government-held Georgia, which has isolated a couple of kilometres of the 140,000 b/d Baku-Supsa oil pipeline behind Russian-patrolled fences, is another uncomfortable reminder of Russian power in the area. 

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