QAMISHLI, SYRIA —
When Kurdish-led forces took control of Shaddadi in northeastern Syria in February, they not only pushed back Islamic State militants who had been there for nearly one year, but they also got hold of the sprawling oil fields that stretch into the desert.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are primarily commanded by the Kurds. Their advances against IS have given the Kurds an opportunity to take charge of their local affairs, including oil production.
Shaddadi has been known for its abundant oil and natural gas fields. In addition to Shaddadi, Kurdish groups have been controlling other strategic oil fields in northeastern Syria.
“We’re not only providing fuel oil to our local people,” a Kurdish oil field technician who didn’t want to be identified told VOA. “Now we are able to produce the oil.”
Analysts say the control of more oil fields would allow Syrian Kurds to be more effective in their fight against IS militants in Syria.
Since 2012, the oil-rich Kurdish north has been run by local Kurdish forces, also known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), after forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad largely withdrew to focus on fighting anti-government rebels elsewhere. Despite minimal presence of government forces, local Kurds were able to restart the operation of Rumeilan, the largest oil field in Syria.
Before the conflict erupted, the oil from the Kurdish region was transported to two major refineries — one in Homs, in central Syria, and one in Banias, in the west. Now it is being refined locally with machines that are less professional and more dangerous to the environment.
The local technician said that Kurds have devised machinery to refine fuel oil and gasoline, but that other, less needed types are also produced.
Revenues generated by oil production have allowed Kurds to run their area and pay salaries of their fighters.
“We are self-sufficient now with regards to oil,” said Nawaf Khalil, an official with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the ruling party in the Kurdish region. "It would be good if we could produce more oil and sell it abroad. But the war in the country makes it very difficult.”
According to local officials, the oil production reaches up to 20,000 barrels per day.
“They [Kurds] reportedly generate nearly $288 million annually from oil production,” said Musallam Talas, a Syrian Kurdish economist who teaches at the Mardin Artuklu University in Turkey.
He told VOA that there are other stakeholders involved in the process, “so it is hard to predict where all the oil money is going.”
“I’m sure a large percentage [of that money] goes for the [Kurdish YPG] fighters,” Talas said.
But Kurdish officials say the war has prevented them from being fully independent in dealing with oil.
“We don’t export oil to the outside world,” said Khalil of the PYD. “Our technical capabilities, among other issues, don’t allow us to do that.”
Private businessmen, however, have been able to purchase refined oil from the local Kurdish administration, local news reports said. It is unclear where that oil has been sent.
Experts say that a self-reliant economy in the Kurdish region depends on how the overall situation in Syria unfolds.
“Once [international] sanctions [imposed on Syria] are lifted, Kurds would be able to build a more stable local economy,” Talas told VOA. "They would have more freedom in profiting from oil sales.”
With military support from the U.S.-led coalition, Syrian Kurds have been largely successful in making advances against IS militants in Syria.
For now, Kurdish officials say that having control over oil is helping them effectively continue the fight against Islamic State.