BLOOD FOR OIL : Syria’s Kurds Struggle With Islamist Factions for Control of Oil

By Bahzad Haj Hamo – AL Monitor – 2014-02-19 – In early November last year [2013], the Kurdish security forces, known as the Asayish, arrested Ayed al-Hamada, the associate director of the Rmelan oil fields in the Hasakeh province. He was detained on charges of cooperating and collaborating with the “forces of the radical armed opposition,” and in particular the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Hamada spent nearly a month in Asayish prisons without any party, not even the Syrian government, making a statement. This signals that the Asayish has “quasi-absolute” control over the region in general, and the oil fields and the local administration in particular.

Furthermore, the concerned Hasakeh security authorities, which control the Rmelan oil fields, fired Hamada from his job upon his release from prison. That showcased that the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is controlling and administering the oil in areas under its control in northeastern Syria, which the PYD calls Rojava (“the west” in Kurdish, short for “western Kurdistan”). The PYD announced the “democratic autonomy” project January 2013 in partnership with Kurdish parties and Arab powers, in the absence of any formal representation of the Kurdish National Council in Syria.

The oil-producing area of Rmelan

The British/Dutch company Shell started extracting oil from Rmelan in 1960, using modest production equipment. In 2010, before the Syrian events started, oil production had reached 90,000 barrels a day. According to estimates of sources in charge of this well, the production capacity reached up to 167,000 barrels per day.

The Syrians, however, are circulating a conversation that took place between a Syrian member of parliament and the speaker of the parliament in the 1990s, about how Syrian oil revenues are being spent, on the grounds that it was already well known that the product did not enter the country’s budget. The speaker [allegedly] replied, “Do not worry, oil is in good hands.”

The Rmelan oil fields directorate has 1,322 oil wells and 25 gas wells, all of which are under the control of the so-called People’s Protection Units (YPG). That happened after deals and negotiations were concluded between the YPG and the factions of the armed Islamist opposition, led by Jabhat al-Nusra. Later, fierce battles erupted between the two sides and ended with the Kurds controlling the entire region, including the oil wells.

Mr. Aldar Khalil is a leading figure in the Movement of the Democratic Society TEV-DEM, which includes a group of civil organizations and political parties, including the PYD, the party thought to control the decision-making of Syria’s Kurds. About the essence of these agreements, Khalil said, “It was a military tactic aimed at neutralizing the [western Kurdistan – northeast Syria] fighting. … Those agreements started when the armed opposition invaded the Kurdish city of Ras al-Ain/Siri last November. So we decided to hold tactical peace agreements with these undisciplined factions to spare our areas from danger.”

He added, “But these factions — after we ignored their control of some wells in our areas and their extraction of oil in such a way that they are stealing and selling it — have gone too far in their plans and started targeting us within our regions, which forced us to exercise our legitimate right in defending our people and towns.”

Then the YPG, deemed by its spokesman Redor Khali “the seed of the Syrian National Army,” finally managed to expel these armed factions and extend its full control over the region. The YPG strengthened its control by “liberating” the Tall Kojar/al-Yaarabiya border crossing with Iraq last October. Redor asserted that his forces “represent the real spirit of the Syrian revolution.”

A Kurdish oil company

Nearly eight months ago, the TEV-DEM organization founded the Distributing al-Jazeera’s Fuel organization, or KSC for short, to perform the same activity that used to be carried out by the former government company Sadcop. The latter company stopped working with the cessation of oil production on March 8, 2013.

Alwan Mustafa, an administrative officer at KSC, asserted, “There’s a group of self-powered wells from which we extract crude oil that we refine in several electric refineries. We bought [those refineries] at our own expense and sold them to civilian gas stations at symbolic prices.”

The company has recently brought several refineries to the region of Girziro/Tall Adas, which are affiliated with al-Malikiyya on the far northeast of the country. And according to Alwan, the company is currently working to bring in more modern electric refineries to develop and increase production. He noted that these refineries “have ended the phenomenon of primitive burners managed by citizens.”

The last period has seen an increasing number of these burners that rely on primitive methods to burn crude oil in large boilers and extract oil derivatives in the absence of security controls because the combatants are busy fighting. Experts in the region described that matter as “dangerous” because of its negative effects on the environment and health — with deaths being witnessed as a result of direct exposure to the toxic gases during the combustion. This is not to mention the wealth being wasted by the use of non-scientific methods. These self-powered wells produce about 400,000 liters of diesel fuel per day (the liter is sold for 30 Syrian pounds). That’s in addition to 150,000 liters of benzene, whose quality Mr. Alwan described as “super” (which sells for 150 Syrian pounds per liter). Mr. Alwan said that this price is “symbolic, and intended to face the blockade imposed by armed opposition forces on the Kurdish areas.”

Late last year, armed Islamist factions, including ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, issued a statement announcing the imposition of a blockade on the regions of Afrin and Ain Arab/Kobani in the Aleppo countryside, which are under the control of the PYD. The statement accused these areas of “supplying the Kurdish forces with money and weapons, which they use to fight [the Islamists].” About how the oil money is being spent, Khalil said, “We actually manage an area stretching hundreds of kilometers. [We provide it with] services, security, and military support. And this administration needs a lot of funding. … We have sought to pump oil through pipelines to government refineries in exchange for obtaining gas and other fuels that benefit the people of the region. But the armed groups have bombed these pipelines as part of their policy to suffocate the region.”

However, the Kurdish oil expert H.A. prefers to see the Syrian state controlling the oil wells instead of the Kurdish forces. He said that the latter forces are “draining the region’s resources in a scary way.”

The ambiguous fate of oil

Oil experts in al-Jazeera are afraid of what will happen to the oil wealth in the future. Official reports confirm that the oil reserves in al-Jazeera will be depleted in 2025, in accordance with the production plans set for them before the events started in Syria. Sources in the fields, who asked not be identified, helped us check [these plans].

Syria used to export nearly 100,000 barrels per day to world markets after refining the crude oil in the refineries of Homs and Banias, which have also stopped working.

“We don’t exactly know what will happen to the oil in these areas in the future.” With these words, Khalil summarized the confusion he has about the fate of oil in the region. He added, “We will certainly not move back, and we will not allow any party to act and monopolize the people’s money and country’s wealth from now on.”

To what extent can Khalil, and the Kurdish political and military forces he represents, commit to the fulfillment of the promise that “we will not allow any party to act and monopolize the country’s wealth …” in light of talk that the PYD is already monopolizing this wealth, not to mention the military and political domination?

Close to the oil wells in the northeast of Syria, and before “heaven” announces the depletion of its resources, the poor are fighting and their blood is being shed, amid concentrated efforts by both conflicting parties to prove their eligibility, and therefore to firmly establish themselves in the region, in light of the Syrian regime losing grip. The oil card is undoubtedly important as it moves its holder from “partisan militia,” “armed battalion” or even “the people’s committees,” to a political-military horizon that better accommodates the dreams.