Will oil deal for eastern Syria help or hurt those fighting ISIS? As with most things in Syria the actual reality on the ground is far more unclear than the simplistic narratives to be found on social media and among western commentators.

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Reports of an oil deal involving the eastern Syrian autonomous regional authorities have caused a controversy as radical left anti-American activists unite with the pro-Turkey, pro-Russia, pro-Syrian regime lobbies to slam what they see as a conspiracy of Americans “stealing” oil from Syria.As with most things in Syria the actual reality on the ground is far more unclear than the simplistic narratives to be found on social media and among western commentators.

In October 2019, the US under President Donald Trump suddenly decided to withdraw from part of eastern Syria, enabling a Turkish offensive that backed Syrian rebel extremists who attacked and ethnically cleansed Kurds and other minorities, driving 200,000 into refugee camps and spreading chaos and instability in an area of northern Syria that was recovering from ISIS.In the wake of the instability, the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition, which has trained tens of thousands of SDF members and successfully helped them defeat ISIS, remained in part of eastern Syria.Trump indicated the US would stay to secure the oil. In reality, the US also was staying to check Russian and Iranian forces, and to keep fighting ISIS sleeper cells. Oil was just a symbol, but it was a lightning rod of controversy because the US is often accused of waging “war for oil.” On July 30, Amberin Zaman at Al-Monitor reported that the “Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria has signed an agreement with an American oil company.” It was done with knowledge of the White House. The oil fields in eastern Syria are not major producers and years of war damaged their infrastructure. In addition, there is a glut of oil, historic low oil prices and a COVID-19 pandemic that means fewer people need oil for transport.

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  TOP ARTICLES1/5READ MORENetanyahu lashes out at media: Worse than NorthKoreaFor instance prior to the Syrian civil war the oil fields produced an estimated 385,000 barrels per day of crude oil, compared to Kuwait which produced some 2.5 million barrels per day.Nevertheless, oil is oil and people want some of it. Over the years, a variety of dreamers, charlatans, shysters, money-men, middlemen, snake oil salesmen, corrupt regional businessmen, tribes, random people and those linked to power structures from Damascus to Baghdad, Ankara, Tehran and Erbil, have all tried to put their fingers into the oil trading networks of eastern Syria.
Along the way there were stories of shadowy deals with Damascus, ISIS trafficking oil to Turkey, and even US and Israeli businessmen trying to conjure up oil deals that would link the SDF to Washington and somehow lead to profits somewhere.
Oil production smuggling, for instance when ISIS controlled some of the fields, was estimated at only 25,000-40,000 barrels per day. A Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimate in August 2019 said 16,000 barrels per day were being smuggled from SDF-controlled areas to the Syrian regime controlled areas.Only some 8,000 barrels per day were estimated to be moving to northern Iraq via an informal network. The amounts are tiny. Experts have said the autonomous region could produce 70,000 barrels per day and increase it to 125,000 with infrastructure upgrades.The reality is that there weren’t many profits to be had and the various charlatans who showed up in places like Washington talking oil deals in Syria tended to end up in hot water, accused of bringing with them false support from eastern Syria to market its oil.What is known today is that the North Press Agency reported on July 31 that the SDF “signed a deal with an American oil company to modernize oilfields in northeast Syria, Senator Lindsey Graham revealed.”It seems Graham lifted the lid a bit by mistake in an offhand comment about speaking to SDF General Mazloum Abdi and noting “apparently they’ve signed a deal with an American oil company.” He was actually asking this in the form of a question to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.Pompeo responded at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting that the US was aware of  the deal and that it would help northeast Syria. Implementation would proceed. It could be a powerful deal. Al-Monitor revealed that the oil company’s name is Delta Crescent. Officials from the Syrian Democratic Council confirmed the deal.The issue of the oil deal lacks clarity. First because Pompeo’s office has been known to have elements in it that are rapidly pro-Turkey, including those around James Jeffrey, the US anti-ISIS envoy.The US administration is so dysfunctional when it comes to Syria that when Trump chose to leave in 2019 he didn’t even tell Jeffrey and didn’t seem to have told Graham or Pompeo or even the US military. The US military, especially CENTCOM, is close to the SDF and views the partnership as vital to crushing ISIS.But the US State Department sometimes seems to work with Ankara against the Pentagon or at least to deceive the Pentagon last year when Ankara demanded security patrols in eastern Syria as way to scout future avenues for invasion. Amid this US internal competition to control eastern Syria, any oil company stepping into the frame must know that they face not only Turkey and the Syrian regime seeking to invade, but also ISIS threats and Russian maneuvering and competition for deals in Erbil and Baghdad, and lack of clarity over whether Trump might announce another troop withdrawal.Iran and its henchmen in the Euphrates river valley are also seeking to move int and grab the oil. So are Russian contractors and mercenaries, who already tried in February 2018 to grab one oil field. How any company could enter eastern Syria under such circumstances is unclear, even with Graham and Pompeo supporting their work. Matthew Petti at The National Interest noted on July 31 noted that the “oil fields remain undeveloped as US economic sanctions have blocked investment into the Syrian oil industry.”The range of reports about the oil deal unsurprisingly led to controversy online as radical left commentators who support the Syrian regime accused the US of “illegally” taking the oil.The Iraq Oil Report provided details of who was behind the Delta Crescent company. According to that report three key men, one with experience and interests in Syrian oil in the past, one with connections to Washington political circles and one with interests in a security firm, were involved.Basically the inference was that the deal brings together the necessary political support, security knowledge and experience.Let the conspiracy begin, seems to be the narrative of the pro-regime supporters. They argue that the oil deal somehow reveals the US agenda in Syria and tarnishes the SDF.The same SDF that was abandoned partly by the US in 2019 has been asked to keep housing tens of thousands of ISIS detainees by the international community but provided no financial support to do so.Now they also have to fund their own health care amid COVID-19 as the WHO and UN don’t provide support and the UN has cut off one of the transit points to eastern Syria at the behest of Turkey, Damascus and Russia. Isolated and cut-off, the SDF has no choice and would prefer to market the oil somewhere rather than be accused of smuggling it to Damascus in violation of US sanctions. This is the bizarre reality of eastern Syria. European countries tell the SDF not to release ISIS detainees but won’t pay them to keep them. Turkey wants to invade and destroy the SDF, which it accuses of being Kurdish militants.The US supports the SDF but also works with Turkey and doesn’t want the SDF sending oil to Damascus. Russia and Damascus don’t mind having the oil but don’t want the SDF working with the US and will only protect the SDF if they integrate into the Syrian regime forces.If the SDF sells oil to Damascus it suffers sanctions, if it sells it another way it is accused of being a tool of the Americans. Meanwhile, Turkey’s Syrian rebels continually cut the water flow to areas in the SDF so people can’t get running water. It is not clear who in eastern Syria signed the oil deal and by what opaque multi-layered autonomous bureaucracy any kind of infrastructure investment will actually happen.Given the lack of clarity and uncertainty over what may happen to eastern Syria in the next year, depending on the US election and other factors, the story of the oil deal may be less than meets the eye. From the SDF perspective having a way to export oil and get around sanctions and having more connections to Washington is important.So far they have been systematically sidelined, even as US military partners, from any real relations with the US State department. Jeffrey even said in 2018 that the SDF future lies with Damascus, while US officials working with Turkey sought to sideline the SDF from taking part in any constitutional committee discussions in Geneva or elsewhere as part of the opposition’s discussions with Damascus.Thus, the US told the SDF to work with Damascus and made it impossible for them to do so, then some in the US administration accused them of working with Damascus and worked with Turkey to weaken the SDF, while the US military was working at the same time to strengthen them.Anyone in the SDF watching this state of affairs couldn’t but wonder if US support for an oil deal reflects reality or yet another contradictory policy. With one hand the US thus worked with the SDF to fight ISIS while sidelining them politically. Isolating them economically was the third way the SDF was curtailed.In the case of the oil it seems it may have, after more than half a decade, they may have found a light at the end of the oil tunnel, if the reports are accurate.