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Turkey: Ocalan's Capture Could Mean Trouble For Caspian Oil Plans

Boston, 22 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's success in capturing the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan could mean more trouble for its plan to pipe petroleum from the Caspian Sea.

The preferred pipeline routes from the Caspian carefully skirt Kurdish strongholds where Turkey has fought to exert its control. But the pipelines also stretch across the borders of a volatile region, like the Kurdish people themselves.

It is hard to predict whether catching Ocalan will lead ultimately to peace with the Kurds, or further war. But with the violence of the past week, countries from Canada to Israel have already felt the spreading effects of the ethnic conflict.

Now that it has captured Ocalan, Turkey seems to be of two minds on how to proceed. It has already sent 4,000 troops into Iraq in one of its many raids and cracked down on Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK. At the same time, it has offered leniency to the rebels and promised increased investment in Kurdish areas.

(Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit says that Turkish troops have wrapped up their operations against PKK in northern Iraq after a six-day military incursion there.)

If Turkey chooses force, it seems doubtful that the strategy will end the country's problems with the region's 20 million Kurds. The aspirations of such a large stateless minority are also unlikely to be subdued by the arrest of one man.

One sign of how serious the risks are for foreign countries is their reluctance to admit any role in helping to apprehend Ocalan, despite international charges of terrorism against him.

If clashes with the Kurds continue, pipelines are bound to become a target. In November, Turkey blamed the PKK for blowing up an oil line from Iraq near Diyarbakir, a Kurdish center 400 kilometers east of Ceyhan. The Mediterranean port of Ceyhan would also be the outlet for Caspian oil from Baku. A trans-Caspian gas line from Turkmenistan would run parallel to the oil pipeline for most of its length.

Pipelines on the fringe of the Kurdish region could represent the most sensitive and attractive target for attack. The question is whether efforts to pacify both the Kurds and the pipeline routes will succeed or backfire.

Like the Kurdish issue, the Caspian pipelines through Turkey are an international problem. It seems inevitable that some elements will see sabotage as a way to raise both international awareness and the costs of continued neglect. Conversely, Turkey could use pipeline security to gain international support for tight controls on the Kurds.

The danger is that all of the interests involved will take sides, turning Caspian competition into a conflict that cannot be stopped. Some alliances have already formed, in part because of arguments about national security and Caspian oil.

The United States, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Israel are aligned in promoting the Baku-Ceyhan and trans-Caspian routes. How long will it take before countries that are left out of the pipeline schemes find reasons to support rebel Kurds if they cause disruptions?

Added to pipeline polarization is a troubling tendency for investment and military involvement to take place side by side. U.S. oil companies are only interested in the Caspian for profits, but some form of alliance between Azerbaijan and the United States looks likely as interests become entrenched.

Similarly, Israel's role in the trans-Caspian pipeline through the Israeli Merhav Group is strictly business. But Israel's growing military alliance with Turkey is also becoming difficult to ignore as a factor in regional policy. If commercial projects are seen as benefiting from military protection, there is the danger that rebel groups will target them as military ventures rather than business deals.

Despite the push to make the Baku-Ceyhan and trans-Caspian schemes work, the Kurdish conflict may weigh on projects that already face treacherous terrain and many other ethnic danger zones. Clearly, these are plans that need no additional risks.

Unless the conflict is calmed, the advantage could go to Russia's plan to construct a gas pipeline to Turkey under the Black Sea with help from Italy's ENI. Although the project is an engineering challenge, it avoids multiple border crossings and Kurdish areas.

Despite Turkey's claims to the contrary, analysts doubt that the country will need gas from both the trans-Caspian and Black Sea lines. The competition between the U.S. and Russian projects may ultimately depend on which encounters more difficulty.

Last week, Turkish Energy Minister Ziya Aktas pledged that the trans-Caspian gas line from Turkmenistan would take priority over any other gas deal, including the Black Sea project, known as Blue Stream.

That edge may be needed to offset the difficulties that the trans-Caspian project faces, despite backing from U.S.-based General Electric and Bechtel Corp. In addition to crossing a large waterway and four borders, it must also survive the U.S. strategy of pairing it with the Baku-Ceyhan oil line.

The idea is to increase the economic viability of the route by putting two lines together. But any problem, like Kurdish resistance, could reduce the feasibility of both the U.S.-sponsored oil and gas projects.

The very existence of the Russian alternative may also undercut the plan for a trans-Caucasian energy corridor to Turkey. Disruptions could tip the balance against Turkey's preferred route if Ankara fails to make peace with the Kurds.

(Michael Lelyveld is chief correspondent at the Journal of Commerce. This analysis was written for RFE/RL)