Complex calculations in Syria regarding oil and the Kurds

It is difficult to estimate how the U.S.’s Syria policy will look after the U.S. presidential elections, but, for the moment, oil is a factor that extends the stay of U.S. troops. Despite Trump's back-and-forth positions, the Kurds are the most important base for this framework.

Oil was a card the U.S. regime pulled out last October to make President Donald Trump concentrate when it came to the Syrian game. Trump decided to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and leave the area to Turkey. He changed this decision after looking at a hydrocarbon map put in front of him. He then decided they would stay in the region with a limited number of troops to guard the oil fields.

Then he wanted U.S. companies to enter the oil region in Syria, in Deir el-Zour and al-Hasakah. This region, which holds 90 percent of Syria’s hydrocarbon resources, is under the control of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the spine of which is made up of Kurds. Less than 10 percent of the oil is drilled today, but even this amount is adequate to meet the expenses of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Ultimately, an oil deal emerged last week. Amberin Zaman from Al Monitor wrote that the deal was signed with the U.S. company Delta Crescent Energy. According to Zaman, the deal covers the marketing of the oil and the development and modernization of existing fields.

Zaman also reported that the company had obtained its license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a financial intelligence and enforcement agency of the U.S. Treasury Department, in order to operate in Syria. Also, the U.S. government agreed to provide two modular refineries to the autonomous administration.

The same sources confirmed that Lindsay Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina who was influential in changing Trump’s decision to withdraw, had spoken with Mazloum Kobani, the commander in chief of the SDF, on July 29, and that Kobani had informed Graham about the deal. Graham asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the committee hearing whether the administration was supportive of it. “We are,” Pompeo responded, adding, “The deal took a little longer…than we had hoped, and now we’re in implementation.”

The deal also assures that the autonomous administration is exempt from the Caesar Act, a piece of legislation that sanctions the Syrian government.

Damascus has defined the agreement as “stealing” and strongly condemned it. The deal changes the dimensions of the relationship between the Kurds and the U.S. The deal may also affect the autonomous administration’s thoughts and plans about Syria’s future.

The entry of the Americans into the oil business, before anything else, will leave the Syrian government totally deprived of its own oil. Since the Syrian government lost control of the region, it had been buying oil through mediators such as Husam Katırcı. This flow will stop. This is the first goal, in any case. The second one is to provide steady financing for the project in the east of Euphrates.

The Kurds want to interpret the deal as “political recognition.” Despite their military partnership, the ground was always slippery when it came to relations with the U.S. greenlighting Turkey’s Peace Spring Operation demonstrated that the partnership could suddenly, overnight, become “revocable.” Becoming partners in this oil agreement creates a small anchor that would prevent this kind of sliding; however, it does not meet the demand of recognizing the autonomous administration.

It is difficult to estimate how the U.S.’s Syria policy will look after the U.S. presidential elections, but, for the moment, oil is a factor that extends the stay of U.S. troops.

Despite Trump's back-and-forth positions, a framework supported by significant names in Congress exists that contains the preferences of the Pentagon, State Department and CIA; the Kurds are the most important base for this framework. The Kurds are the most organized and disciplined force Americans were able to find in all its interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The only problem is the PKK connection. The partnership with the Kurds provided space in Syria for the U.S. to put its feet. Now, with the higher hand it has obtained in the east of Euphrates, it is imposing its own conditions on Syria and its allies.

Adding oil to the relationship to their relationship with the U.S., while strengthening the trump card against Damascus, has also taken the Kurds out of their typical zones and will force them toward open-ended U.S. plans. The size of this relationship will affect the local partnerships that the Kurds have established and the option of a dialogue with Damascus, as well as the general road map for the future.

The American presence is an extremely fundamental threat for Damascus. For this reason, ending the relationship with the U.S. is becoming a prerequisite of talks. Damascus and its allies will surely regard the oil deal as the new stage in the conspiracy to break off the east of the Euphrates. The thing that strengthens the hand of the Kurds can also turn into a factor that will collapse the talks in advance.

The oil issue not only shapes the viewpoint of the rest of Syria on the Kurds, but at the same time, it also tests the Kurds’ local partnerships. The U.S. partnership against ISIS provided Kurds access to Arab regions. However, Arab consent achieved with the ISIS threat on one hand and with the American help on the other has reached a crossroads. Oil is feeding the flames against the Kurds on a number of levels.

The effects triggered by the deal will be seen in Damascus and in Moscow. It is possible that Russia will take the talks that have been stuck between the Kurds and Damascus more seriously, increase pressure on Damascus and somehow neglect Turkey’s warnings.

Another front this would typically affect is Turkey. We do not know what the Turkish-American bargain contains, but it is apparent that Ankara wants to extend the anti-Kurd corridor from Euphrates to Tigris, starting with Kobani. Nevertheless, we are also hearing that another bargain is taking place nowadays. It is said that Ankara was informed in advance of the oil deal and remained quiet.

The Americans, on the other hand, are trying different things to make the situation in the east of Euphrates sustainable against both Ankara and Damascus, and also against local destructive dynamics.

Creating a budget for the autonomous administration and depriving Damascus of oil are another dimension of this. Another is peace between different Kurdish groups. On the other side of Kurdistan, efforts are ongoing to make the Syrian Kurdish National Council (ENKS) be protected by Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masoud Barzani, a partner in the autonomous administration. After the initial understanding was reached in June based on the Duhok Agreement, the second phase started.   

What the Americans understand as peace between the Kurds is not limited to a simple union of Kurds. At the first glance, with the inclusion of ENKS, one can talk about the intention of perhaps “diluting” the “pro-Apo” (Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK) characteristic of the autonomous structure. This was the first thing that came to the minds of the Americans to lessen Turkey’s objections. Ankara’s categoric reaction is “Whoever partners with the PYD-YPG (Democratic Union Party/People’s Protection Units) will be treated as a terrorist.” However, one should not exclude the possibility that this might be a bargaining chip. The convergence of the KDP line and the PKK line also involves the perspective of preparing South Kurdistan and Rojava for a common future. If the U.S. cannot achieve what it wants through the east of the Euphrates, and if a solution becomes impossible within Syria, this is a scenario that opens a window for a long-term separation. However, circumstances are very far away for such a construction.

For this reason, one has to look at what can happen in the short term. Before they enter the long bend, the Americans are doing something else to harmonize, first, the east of Euphrates politically. The dialogue between the Kurds is the first leg of this. In the second leg, the effort to condition the Kurds and the Arabs towards the same goal can be seen. The inter-Kurdish dialogue concerns the Arabs and the Assyrians supporting the autonomous administration. On the other hand, the Syrian and Russian administrations are trying to entice the tribes as well. Because of these two reasons, Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the SDF, met with the tribes and listened to their problems in Tabqa on June 22, in Raqqa on July 4, in Deir el-Zour on July 15 and in Bakara on July 18. He tried to remove their doubts and ascertain their loyalty to the autonomous administration. We see the third leg of the U.S. planning somewhere else. After dialogue between the PYD and ENKS, an alternative structure emerged among opposition Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians. Could it be that the return of the ENKS is the pioneering step for reassembling the opposition forces in the east of Euphrates — the same groups that lost the region to jihadist forces over the past nine years, that were fractured between the axis of Istanbul and Doha and the axis of Riyad and Cairo, and that could not coordinate together during the Geneva process? 

What makes one ask this question is that certain groups who were part of the national Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC) have emerged in Qamishli under the name “Freedom and Peace Front.” In the new front, ENKS, Syria’s Tomorrow Movement, the Assyrian Democratic Organization and the Arab Council of Jazira and Euphrates are present. In this initiative that emphasizes the integrity of Syria, the name that comes forward is the former president of SNC, a man of the Saudis, Ahmad Jabra. He is also the founder of the Syria’s Tomorrow Movement and he has been playing the role of “Arabic legion” within the SDF. In other words, Qamishli emerges as a new deployment field for those left outside the opposition forces Turkey has gathered and upon which they have been imposing their own agenda under the tag of “National Army.”

As far as these groups can share an agenda with the Kurds under the guarantorship of the U.S., they may have some counter weight. In the course of events east of the Euphrates, the role of the Saudi-Emirates-Egypt axis — which is also feuding with Turkey in Libya — is important.

If we cut to the chase, oil is a tempting form of wealth. However, for the Middle East, it is the source of “misfortune” and “a different type of captivity.” Before oil, the Kurds also had a “third way” option. Which narrative will prevail? To be able to see what is next, sometimes it takes one night, sometimes it takes 1001 nights. The Americans are going beyond Rojava and talking to both the Kurdish side and the Turkish side in a wider move. What is the story there? A new peace initiative with the PKK? Is it pressure on the PKK to leave Rojava? Another process of give-and-take in Syria?

Again, we are on the eve of critical developments.