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US-Allied Syrian Kurds Reportedly Sell Oil to Damascus Government

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FILE - A convoy of oil trucks passes a Kurdish police (Assayesh) checkpoint, as they transport fuel produced in Kurdish-held areas in the east to other areas controlled by the same U.S.-backed group to the west, on a highway in Hassakeh province, Syria, April 4, 2018.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday the U.S.-allied Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has been selling oil from fields that it controls in the east of Syria, despite U.S. economic sanctions. The Syrian government and the Kurds have been discussing possible autonomy conditions with Damascus in light of the expected U.S. pullout from the north of the country in April, and Arab media reports that oil resources are one of the main topics of negotiation.

Arab media reports say Kurdish negotiators from the U.S.-allied SDF in the north of Syria and Syrian government officials, including intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk, have been holding autonomy talks since mid-January, in Damascus and at the Russian Hmeimem Airbase in Latakya.

The Syrian government is reportedly discussing control of oil fields in the northeast of the country, now under Kurdish control, along with Kurdish demands to continue an education program in Kurdish, which Damascus rejects.

The U.S. daily Wall Street Journal reported Friday the Syrian-owned Qatirji Group is purchasing oil from the SDF and refining it for use in areas of the country that it controls. The head of the group was recently placed under U.S. economic sanctions.

A pond of oil at an oil field controlled by a U.S-backed Kurdish group is seen in Rmeilan, Hassakeh province, Syria, March 27, 2018. The Syrian Kurds have been in control of some of the country's largest oil fields in Hassakeh province in the northeast starting in 2013.
A pond of oil at an oil field controlled by a U.S-backed Kurdish group is seen in Rmeilan, Hassakeh province, Syria, March 27, 2018. The Syrian Kurds have been in control of some of the country's largest oil fields in Hassakeh province in the northeast starting in 2013.

University of Paris Professor Khattar Abou Diab tells VOA he thinks the oil sales are mostly "black market" deals and the Islamic State group had also sold oil from the same fields to the Syrian government when they controlled them.

He says U.S. forces are planning to complete their withdrawal by April, and that (all parties) are preparing for that moment in order to fill the void to the east of the Euphrates River. In this race against the clock, he stresses, Turkey is negotiating with both the United States and Russia, while the Kurds are negotiating with the United States and the Syrian government.

American University of Beirut Political Science Professor Hilal Khashan said the parties in the Syrian conflict are involved in "pragmatic business dealings", rather than issues of "morality."

"The war in Syria is a proxy war and everyone there is fighting on behalf of someone else. The Kurds need cash. If they do not get it from the Syrian government through the sale of oil, then they might be asking the United States for the money. So, I do not see any ideological issue for the United States. Politics is about pragmatism. These people are selling oil. If Assad does not get oil from the Kurds, he will get it from another source," said Khashan.

A former farmer works at a primitive refinery making crude oil into diesel and other products in a village in Rmeilan, Hassakeh province, Syria, April 6, 2018.
A former farmer works at a primitive refinery making crude oil into diesel and other products in a village in Rmeilan, Hassakeh province, Syria, April 6, 2018.

Lebanese economist and former finance minister Georges Corm told VOA he believes the Kurds in the north of Syria have an "interest in establishing a constructive dialogue with the Syrian government," given the "threats by Turkish President Erdogan to set up a security zone in northern Syria."

He said Syria is being aided by powerful countries with economic resources like China, Russia and Iran, so he does not think U.S. economic sanctions will have a major effect on the Syrian government. He also argues the Syrian economy has traditionally been self-sufficient, so it is less dependent on outside forces.

Arab media, however, reported in recent weeks the Syrian currency has lost more of its value to the dollar, currently trading on the black market at between 600 and 700 Syrian lira to the dollar, causing increasing economic hardships for many people.

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