Syrian Kurds Keep Eye on Country’s Oil

01/12/2012 RUDAW – By WLADIMIR van WILGENBURG – ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — The oil fields in the resource-rich province of Hasaka account for more than half of Syria’s 370,000 barrels a day. Although Hasaka is 60 percent Kurdish, the Kurds have not benefited from the oil.Syrian Kurds hope to profit from the oil in the future like the Iraqi Kurds were able to. However, most Syrian Kurdish parties have yet to put in place a plan for what to do about it.  

Both the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) and Kurdish National Council (KNC) confirm that they have not discussed the issue during negotiations, unlike the Iraqi Kurds who managed to attract many foreign companies after the fall of Saddam Hussein. According to a report by the Turkish think tank ORSAM, despite the fact that Hasaka is the richest part of Syria in terms of oil resources, there is no investment in the area due to government policies. In addition, says the report, “Arabs were placed within the Kurdish population through strategic projects and an aim to establish a demographic balance.”

Azad Mustafa, a Kurd from the city Amude, told Rudaw that Kurds have not benefited from the oil. “We have Kurds working in the oil industry, but only a few and not in manager positions. They prefer Arabs, not Kurds, even though the oil is in our lands,” he said. “When there is oil in Erbil, we have priority — not Baghdad or Mosul. But in Syria, it is not like that.”

Fifty percent of the oil block in Hasaka was being operated by Gulfsands, a London-listed company, covering an area of 5,414 square kilometers. Oil payments were made to Rami Makhlouf, the first cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Following the imposition of EU sanctions on Sept. 2, 2011, production by Gulfsands fell from 14,500 barrels per day (bpd) to 6,000 in October 2011. Production was completely shut down in March 2012 as a result of sanctions targeting Syria’s economy. It is unlikely the company will get any of its money back from the Syrian government. But an anonymous production manager working for the state Syrian Petroleum Company told Executive Magazine that the Syrian regime still operates the field without Gulfsands. “Before the war, the nearby fields were producing 166,000 bpd. As of September, due to the civil war and international sanctions on Syrian oil, only 80,000 bpd were being produced.”

Furthermore, Jihad Yazigi, editor of The Syria Report, told Executive Magazine that Hasaka’s oil could easily sustain the life of the 2 million people living in the area, “if you manage to produce and sell 50,000 barrels per day.” Reports indicate that although much of Hasaka province is controlled by the PYD’s armed group, the People’s Defence Units (YPG), the regime still operates the oil fields and controls the security. According to a recent report on the Kurdish news website Welati, the oil city of Remelan has been surrounded by Assad forces and handed over to Arab tribes.

Alan Semo, the foreign representative of the PYD, told Rudaw that the natural resources in Hasaka belong to the Rojava people — people living in Syrian Kurdistan — and that therefore “the YPG and the Kurdish Supreme Council [joint council of the PYD and KNC] are protecting it from attacks and violence, and once the regime loses control the supreme council will take over and distribute it fairly.”

Semo told Rudaw that the resources are still under the control of the regime. “But the distribution and regulation in the region is run by Kurds. We don’t want the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to come in and bomb it. We don’t want to ruin the infrastructure of the country and have the FSA take it for themselves.”  According to Semo, these resources do not belong not to Assad or the FSA; “they belong to the people.” Members of the KNC are critical of the PYD’s actions. Earlier this month, Mustafa Juma, secretary of the Kurdish Freedom Party (Azadî), alleged that “there is a secret agreement between the PYD and the Syrian government.” He stated that the “Syrian government is paying the PYD to protect these wells.”

Juma told Rudaw that the KNC does not have any concrete plans for the resources. “There are no direct plans. They have to think about this. The problem is the PYD itself is in control on the ground and they don’t let anybody interfere,” he said.

Moreover, Ismail Hame, secretary of the Kurdish Unity Party and also a member of the KNC, told Rudaw also that the YPG controls the oil fields and that they have not discussed this issue in recent negotiations. “We [Kurds] are not benefiting from the gas and oil [in Hasaka]. But maybe in the future,” he said.

Mohammed Mustafa, a member of the Kurdish Youth Movement (TCK), told Rudaw that the oil fields are still under operation and the oil is being sent all over Syria. “They pump the oil and sent it to Homs and Baniyas. Nobody has attacked the pipelines yet,” he said.

The PYD has been criticized over the way the YPG is controlling Al-Malikiyah (also known as Dêrika Hemko in Kurdish), 28 kilometers from the oil fields of Remelan. Two weeks ago, the YPG kicked out most of the remaining security units in Derek in order to prevent the FSA from having any excuse for taking over the area.

Both the PYD and Assad have denied any cooperation in interviews.

A Syrian German blogger told Rudaw that he was disappointed that the YPG had not stopped the oil flow. “Considering the size of YPG forces in Derek, the fact that the regime still refines oil from Remelan is very disappointing,” he said. “The regime is cash-strapped as is. If they lose these fields, it’ll be extremely hard for them to keep themselves afloat financially.”

Sinem Mohammed, co-president of the PYD-affiliated People’s Council of West Kurdistan (PCWK), told Rudaw that allegations that the YPG is protecting the field in a deal with Assad are not true.

“Remelan is still under government control,” Mohammed said. “We do not control it. It is not true. We do not have money. We do not have any support of any government or any other places. Our support comes from our own people.”

Moreover, Mohammed added that the PCWK did not discuss the issue of gas and oil resources in Hasaka during negotiations with the KNC in Erbil. Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, who was part of the rebel offensive on Nov. 9 that captured the town of Ras al-Ayn (Sere Kaniye), told Reuters that the FSA had plans to move into Hasaka in order to cut off the oil going to the Syrian government.

“The economic pipeline from Deir Ezzor has already been stopped. The FSA will receive a boost by moving into the oil and agriculture region of Hasaka,” he said.

Recently, rebels captured two major oil fields in Deir Ezzor which they will sell back to the population. But the PYD and the KNC do not want the rebels to enter the area, and after fighting between the Islamist rebels and the YPG in Ras al-Ayn, both sides have agreed to a ceasefire, which makes it more complicated for the Syrian rebels to move into other cities in Hasaka province.

Hame told Rudaw, “We refuse to have the FSA come to our areas. We can work together and have an agreement with each other.”

Talal Ibrahim Pasha, part of the foreign relations committee of the KNC, told Rudaw that the situation cannot be compared to Iraqi Kurdistan. “In Syria, it is more complicated. There are Arabs in the area. I think Hasaka consists of 35 or 40 percent Arabs and other minorities. It is difficult [for Kurds] to control the area easily.”On the other hand, Khaled Khoja, a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), told Rudaw that the Syrian opposition wants to share the resources of the area with all of Syria.  “The SNC has issued two documents: a national covenant of the new Syria and a road map of the transitional period in Syria. In these documents, the SNC emphasized equal rights and fair sharing of the wealth of the Syrian people under one united state.”

Sipan Sieda, who is close to the SNC and the cousin of its former leader, Dr. Abdulbasit Sieda, told Rudaw that the Kurds want to be part of the future government.  “We want to take our rights but in a new constitution,” he said. “In the constitution, we will share the benefits. The Kurds are very poor, but the situation will change in the future.”