MESOP COMMENTARY : Syria’s Kurds and the Struggle for Oil

Sirwan Kajjo – National Interest – February 13, 2013

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.