“Let’s drill the oil together.” Those words, uttered by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, came as a hard truth about the role played by oil in the Syrian war. Up to now, Turkey depicted its involvement in Syria as a moral duty. Only 15 days earlier, Erdoğan had castigated the West “We are not colonialists like you! Everybody’s priority is oil, except for us.” And if he is to drill oil, the income generated from it will be used to Turkey’s Housing Authority (TOKİ) to erect buildings for refugees. For Erdoğan’s actions are selfless, he insists, his priority is always that of the refugees. Besides, Syria’s Kurdish belt will become an Arab belt. The life vein of the Kurdish autonomous project will be dried up. The Turkish economy will also benefit from this enterprise.

Oil entices everyone, with no exceptions. Regardless of conditions or circumstances, oil will flow.

Even when Syrian oil fields such Tenek, Omar, Al Tabqa, Tabka, Harata, Ash Shula,  Teym and Rashid were controlled by ISIS, the oil found three directions in which to flow: smuggling routes near the southern Turkish province of Hatay, a route through Iraqi Kurdistan and another via refineries in Homs and Baniyas in zones occupied by the Syrian state.

It was very clear that diesel entered Turkey through such points as Hacıpaşa, Sarrin, Beşaslan, Güveçci and Cilvegözü. These operations were carried by smugglers with the blessing of the state. The government and its affiliates acted as buyers or mediators in this operation carried out through Iraqi Kurdistan. Oil from ISIS-held oil fields filled tank trucks and were transported to Duhok and Erbil. There they were mixed with Kurdish oil and sent to Turkey. The biggest buyer of Kurdish oil – some of it was refined in Turkey – was Israel. According to the Financial Times, 77 percent of Israel’s needs were met by Kurdish oil. The share of ISIS-refined oil in oil that was sold as “Kurdish” was unknown. 

Allegedly, the AKP government had granted the monopoly of tank truck transportation to the company Powertrans in 2011. It was carrying ISIS oil to Turkey. But after a while, the ties between Powertrans and the president’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, were reported. In several emails that were revealed by a leak attributed to Redhack, Albayrak’s correspondence regarding the staff and salaries at Powertrans were disclosed. The incident was brought to the parliament. The claims were fiercely denied though questions remained unanswered. Later, after Turkey downed a Russian plane in November 2015, Russia disclosed satellite images of hundreds of trucks transporting oil. That’s when’s the smooth flow of oil lost its immunity. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoli Antonov accused Erdoğan and his family of being partners in this trade. Moscow shelved the file after Turkey chose to cosy up to Syria, yet Antonov’s speech can still be found on the Russian Defense Ministry’s website. 

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Later still, the actors refining this oil changed, but the flow of oil remained unchanged. From 2017 onwards, a major portion of the oil switched to the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Syrian government remained the biggest buyer in this new setting. The Syrian deputy Hossam al-Katerji and his Katerji group bought oil from ISIS and transported it to Homs and Baniyas. The flow of oil through the route between Al-Bab and Jarabulus that was under Turkish control, was not interrupted either. Through cross-border transportation, the Kurdish route also continued to operate.

Last month, the silence on oil flowing to the Kurdish side was broken with an American confession. On November 23, at the Halifax Security Forum, US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brian, upon being reminded that the Kurds were violating the sanctions and selling oil to the Syrian administration made statements that drove Ankara berserk: “Some of [the oil] goes to the regime. Some of it is used locally. Some of it goes to Iraqi Kurdistan. Some of it goes to Turkey. The key, though, is not where the oil goes but where the revenue goes.” 

Al Monitor‘s Amberin Zaman explained this in detail. “We believe that around 300 tankers worth of oil goes to Iraqi Kurdistan per day,” a former Trump administration official told Al Monitor. The same source also said they also brokered a deal between the Iraqi Kurdistan administration and the Syrian Kurds. 

In other words, Turkey is, though indirectly, financially contributing to the side it is attempting to vanquish militarily. The “tank truck mechanism” that was run by ISIS between Habur and Silopi for 15-20 dollars a barrel – that is, one third of the price- is valid for the SDF. Had Trump not based his Syria policy on safeguarding oil, perhaps this issue could have remained a secret.

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Erdoğan’s demand with regards to oil coincides with another development. According to local sources, on December 13, a team from the Saudi oil company ARAMCO went to Omar oil field in Syria through Erbil. Egyptians were also present in a 15-person team made up of engineers and technicians. The team sought to increase production and train personnel. The involvement of the Saudis and the Egyptians in the oil business came after the SDF delegation traveled to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo in November. In Abu Dhabi, the General Commander of the SDF Mazloum Abdi was present. While the Kurds are reluctant to openly discuss this issue, those developments are unfolding under the shadow of Trump’s decision to leave around 600 troops in Syria to control the oil fields there.

 “The oil is so valuable, for many reasons… it can help us, because we should also be able to take some”, Trump said. “What I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly…and spread out the wealth,” he added.

Such statements were based on a general US strategy of seizure and sabotage balance. This strategy will rely the following conditions:

–        The region accommodating 70 percent of Syria’s oil fields will be prevented from changing hands to the Syrian state.

–        Damascus will not be able to access its grain depot, Jazeera.

–        Sanctions will crush the Syrian economy. 

–        The country’s rebuilding efforts will be undermined. 

–        Almost one third of the country’s territory will be used as a card against Damascus and its allies.  

Another part of this strategy consists in preventing the normalization of diplomatic ties with Damascus. Arab countries that were irked by Turkey’s military intervention and wanted to send envoys to Damascus were immediately told off.

Allegations put forward in America’s alternative media suggest the pro-Israel lobby convinced Trump to opt for this strategy. But if Trump might plan to deal with ARAMCO and Exxon Mobil, Russia has already made deals with Damascus that would guarantee oil as war damage compensation.

In September, the Russian companies Mercury and Velada signed deals to explore and drill from oil fields in the country’s Northeast as well as from a natural gas basin in the north of Damascus. These agreements have been approved by the Syrian parliament on December 16.   

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Placing oil at the center of the Syrian crisis may have deep repercussions on the war. The shooting of oil tankers at Al Bab and Jarabukus on Nov. 26 by unidentified planes served as a reminder to the oil war that is taking place.

Whilst making deals with the Syrian administration, Russia does not have a legitimacy problem. Moscow will encounter no difficulty in promoting its interests im the future and defending them in the international arena. On the other hand, the position of the U.S. is that of an occupier or invader. Guarding oil fields weakens the U.S.’ stature in the international arena as it exposes its military efforts to “sabotage”.

The oil file is an unfulfilled desire for Turkey, though it is burning. Erdoğan is attempting to turn the oil business, which has become somewhat of a “family matter”, into fuel for the “safety zone project”. As he has failed to attract funds from international finance, Erdoğan seeks to show oil as a financial resource for his housing enterprise. Yet each time the Turkish president brings up the issue of oil, his interlocutors remind him of Turkey’s trade with ISIS through smuggling routes.

The oil issue puts the Kurds in a conundrum. It is appealing insofar as it can be used as a bargaining tool. Yet the sustainability of the autonomous administration and the Kurds’ defense framework increasingly depend on oil. While this might temporarily save the day, it is also increasing the Kurds’ foreign dependency, and in fact renders the the autonomy project ever more fragile. Beyond that, it thwarts the joint future vision with the rest of Syria.