Strange things are afoot in northern Syria. According to U.S. media reports, a previously unknown U.S. oil company with no exploration experience but deep connections in the U.S. military, has somehow secured a deal with Kurdish authorities who control the region with American backing, to begin drilling and refining operations in the oil-rich Deir Ez-zor region.
The deal comes only a few months after President Donald Trump announced he would keep some troops in Syria to “secure the oil”.
The deal has raised eyebrows in western diplomatic circles and has been met with anger both from the Assad regime and the Turkish government. What does in this latest resource-related intrigue mean?
Adnan R. Khan: What do you make of this development?
Ilter Turan: The U.S. has been working for a long time with the YPG/PYD to achieve of this region. The overarching idea has been to deprive the Syrian government of the income that it would generate from the oil, though initially, the goal was to deprive ISIS of oil revenues, when the area was under its control. Now that ISIS defeated and the area cleared of Jihadists, this move raises some uncomfortable questions, the most important being: If the Syrian government is not going to get the money, then who is?
The obvious answer is the YPG/PYD. This is a highly problematical choice from Turkey’s perspective, which defines the YPG as a major security concern. Turkey opposes the American action on grounds that this oil belongs to the Syrian nation. Apart from that, there is the fact that the company to which the oil contract has been awarded is almost completely unknown, suggesting that it may have been purposefully set up or called in from obscurity by the American government for this purpose.
Adnan R. Khan: How exactly will the YPG/PYD and this obscure American company plan to export this oil?
Ilter Turan: This is indeed a very interesting question. At the time of ISIS, it was said that the Syrian government was buying some of its oil from this area. Naturally, the Americans would not want this oil to go to the Syrian regime. The most internationally attractive shipping route to export the oil is through Turkey. It may be possible, for instance, to connect it at some point to the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline. Turkey itself would also be able to buy some of this oil. In fact, there has been some speculation that Turkey had already been buying some. This oil would be attractive to Turkey from two perspectives: It would likely be cheaper and it would also reduce Turkey’s dependence on other suppliers of oil, including Russia and Iran. But at the moment, politics renders it is exceptionally difficult to happen.
Adnan R. Khan: Do you believe the Americans actually want to help the YPG/PYD set up their own autonomous region, or even an independent state, in northern Syria?
Ilter Turan: It is often speculated that the U.S. is in fact working to gradually build a Kurdish state in this area which will take territory away from Syria and also from Iraq. In Iraq, you have a Kurdish regional government and a region identified as Kurdish. The line of thinking is that American policies have been working to achieve a similar sort of outcome in northern Syria. But the only way to build a viable state there is with extensive and sustained American support.
I do not find this line of thinking sufficiently convincing. It overlooks the fact that Turkey continues to be in an alliance relationship with the U.S. and although there are many problems, if one examines Turkey’s behavior in NATO, one would observe that Turkey is delivering on all its commitments and continues to be an important member of the alliance. In other words, Turkey is too valuable to be dispensed with.
Adnan R. Khan: Indeed, the U.S. tends to treat the Kurds as tactical allies. Do the Americans really have an interest in a long term strategic plan for an independent Kurdistan?
Ilter Turan: If history offers lessons, the answer would be no. There have been similar tactical moves in the past and some Kurdish leaders have come to think that if they side with the Russians or with the Americans, this would be a ticket to an independent state. They discovered later that this was not the case and that they had simply been a minor actor in what appeared to be tactical undertakings in big power games. There is no reason to think that a similar fate might not be awaiting the Kurds at this particular time. In the end, they’re dealing with three major societies: Turkey and Iran, both very large countries; and Iraq and Syria, which are middle sized but belong to a larger community of nations called the Arab world. It doesn’t appear as if the Arab world will tolerate what they consider to be Arab territory being taken away for establishing a home to others. So, my hunch would be that any American or Russian commitment to the Kurds is likely to be tactical, no matter how solid it may appear at any particular time. They are more valuable as an asset that may be used in America’s or Russia’s power games than an independent state for whose survival they would be reluctant to assume major responsibility.