Last month, fierce clashes broke out between armed Kurdish groups and Arab militias affiliated with the government of Syria’s embattled president Bashar al-Assad on the outskirts of Rumeilan, an oil-rich town in the far northeastern part of the country. The fighting signaled an outbreak of a dispute for control of the sprawling oil fields in the predominantly Kurdish region.
The Kurdish homeland lies on an ocean of oil and other natural resources. Thus, for the Kurds across the Middle East, oil has always been a factor in their ethnic plight. Many Kurds regard it as a curse rather than a blessing. Oil represents a wealth that has never fully belonged to them. Successive governments that ruled Iraq, for example, had always maintained a strong grip over oil fields in the Kurdish north.
But in Syria, as the civil war evolves and the violence turns bloodier, it becomes clearer that oil is going to be a profound dilemma in the future, regardless of Assad’s demise. Compared to its neighbors, Syria does not look like an oil giant. The country, however, has significant amounts of undiscovered oil reserves—as much 3.15 billion barrels—as well as 6.9 billion barrels of discovered reserves, according to a 2009 study by Damascus University. These reserves would meet domestic consumption demands for eighteen years. The majority of these oil fields are located in the northeast, where almost 65 percent of Syria’s Kurds reside.
The first attempts to drill oil in northern Syria date back to 1936, when the French-controlled government decided to look for the black gold. Those endeavors, however, were derailed in 1941 by the start of World War II. But the formal discovery of commercial oil was declared in 1957. The major oil fields were located in areas along the borders with Turkey such as Rumeilan, Qarachook and Swediyeh (approximately 600 miles from Damascus). Smaller fields were discovered later further south in Jebessa and Shadadi, where Arabs form a significant share of a mixed population.
In 1969 the Syrian government finally decided to establish a two-year college in Rumeilan. Since then, approximately fifty-nine students graduate from the relatively small school per year—mostly children of Syrian Oil Company employees. Although Rumeilan’s fields are the richest in Syria, its school has never specialized in refining, and there is the glaring lack of a refinery in the area. Local experts reaffirm that the Baathist regime has deliberately resorted to this particular policy for two reasons: first, to deprive the Kurds of any potential investment and economic development in their region; second, to keep the locals from acquiring sophisticated knowledge of all oil-industry techniques in order to dispel any dream nationalist Kurds might harbor that oil could become their main source of revenue if a Kurdish state were created.
Last July, Syrian forces tactically withdrew from many Kurdish cities and towns in order to focus on fighting rebels in Aleppo, the Damascus suburbs and other contested areas. Some security forces, however, remained deployed at strategic points in the Kurdish northeast. Oil fields in Rumeilan, for instance, have been controlled by regime forces. Shortly after that, the government announced its need to hire locals to take charge of security affairs around these fields. Nidal Ahmed, an engineer, who has worked in Rumeilan field for fifteen years, confirmed in a phone interview that members of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is close to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have seized the opportunity and applied for those available positions. As the months ensued and the government’s grip in the entire region loosened, these armed Kurdish groups managed to gain absolute control of the fields and other related manufacturing systems, according to the same account. The presence of the few Syrian forces—which are still there— cannot apparently change the de-facto situation. Technically, the majority of oil fields in northern Syria are in Kurdish hands.
The question that remains unclear to many, including Kurds, is whether Syrian Kurds can run these rich fields by themselves. Salih Muslim, leader of the PYD, is certain that his party, along with other Kurdish parties of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), is able to manage oil drilling and even exports. For him, it’s only a matter of time before the Supreme Kurdish Commission, an umbrella coalition for the PYD and KNC, develop a foreign-policy platform. In fact, the aforementioned commission has already formed a minigovernment in Kurdish-controlled areas in which security, financial affairs and even border controls with the Iraqi Kurdistan region are run quasi-independently. Another engineer from the Rumeilan asserted in an interview that “Kurds are capable of running the fields, if circumstances permit.” According to him, most of the workers, engineers, and other various technicians working in the fields—before operations were ceased by the government two months ago—were Kurds. People in charge of sensitive posts were often appointed by security headquarters in Damascus. But these, according to two other local oil engineers, were busy amassing wealth and drowning in corruption. Thus, local Kurdish employees were the ones who in fact ran the entire show.
There are also regional players in this game, beside the Syrian regime and the Kurds. Turkey is watching these developments on its southern borders cautiously. Ankara’s concerns come from the old theory that once the oil fields completely fall into Kurdish hands, an autonomous region in northeastern Syria would be a reality. And that’s something that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) doesn’t want to see. Kurdish nationalist leaders, on the other hand, don’t hide the Turkish greed over their rich region. The clashes that are currently taking place in the Kurdish town of Ras al-Ain (Sere Kaniye in Kurdish) between Kurdish fighters and Islamic radicals are a sign of direct Turkish involvement in the area, according to Hamid Hajji Darwish, a leader of the KNC.
From the Kurdish point of view, it is natural for them to take possession of oil since they deem themselves the legitimate heirs of the land. After years of deprivation, they argue, it is time to assert their right to exploit this resource.
The future of this issue depends on several factors. The outcome of ongoing peace talks between Ankara and PKK would bring a new dynamic to the scene. A less tense relationship between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Kurds would undoubtedly alter the Turkish approach to Syria’s Kurds. Moreover, if the Kurds succeed—as hard as it seems—in reaching a long-term agreement with Syria’s Arab opposition, their position would provide them an internal comfort that might further crystallize their quest for federalism, which in turn would consolidate their region’s stability.
But what if Assad stays in power for longer than even most pessimists expect? The national economy, due to the nearly two-year-long conflict and international sanctions, has plunged into complete chaos. The status quo would drag the nation into severe deterioration in all aspects. But oil would indisputably reemerge into the political arena. Assad and his clan would make sure to keep a tight hand over oil fields in Syria’s coastal region, where Alawites live. The newly-discovered fields have been untouched, while others in the rest of the country have almost reached the exhaustion stage. As for rebel-controlled areas (Sunni areas), the conditions might proceed in the current direction, in the sense that turbulence would dominate the scene. Rival groups can possibly carve out small cantons in order to maintain their control. As for Syrian Kurds, with the natural gas having recently been found in their areas, the regional factor might to remain in play for a longer period. The regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan, in agreement with Turkey, would perhaps want to stretch a stronger lead to their brethren to the west, especially if Kurds formally took charge of the oil fields.
Sirwan Kajjo is a Syrian-Kurdish journalist based in Washington, D.C.