By Ahmad Salah*
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated armed faction who emerged as the key U.S. partner in the Syrian conflict and seized control over the oil-rich areas of northeastern Syria after breaking down the ISIS so-called territorial khalifate in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, is now reaping the fruits of its labors. The Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria (AANES), an administrative body established to govern the areas under the SDF rule, collects profit from selling oil to both the Syrian government and the Turkey-backed opposition.
Due to an acute lack of fuel in the government and opposition areas alike, the Kurdish administration has effectively become a monopolist on the Syrian oil market. Despite the evident grudge against the advantageous position of the Kurds and their dominance over the country’s natural resources the Syrian authorities had no other choice but to engage private mediators to buy the oil for covering the basic needs of the population.
In turn, the SDF has not limited itself by domestic trade alone and sought to expand its reach to obtain maximum profit from the oil fields. This desire ultimately led to an agreement with people close to the Iraqi Kurdistan’s influential Barzani clan, according to Kurdish sources. The AANES currently exports around 50 percent of the oil produced in northeastern Syria to the Iraqi Kurdistan, while 20 percent are used to meet its own needs and the remaining 20 percent are sold at the domestic market.
The export of the Syrian oil to the Iraqi Kurdistan would have been nothing out of the ordinary but for new details confirming that the final benefactor of the smuggling scheme is none other than the Turkish authorities, while the trafficking route that connects Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey was reportedly set up with the help of people close to the Barzani family.
Sources who asked to remain anonymous indicated that on paper the AANES only sells oil to the Iraqi Kurdistan in order to avoid accusations of cooperating with Turkey, who has been conducting military operations against the SDF on Syrian territory since 2016. After that, companies from the network who enjoy well-established ties with Turkey resell the oil to their Turkish counteragents via a chain of shell companies created to disguise the origin of the exported fuel. The sources added that the export of the Syrian oil to Turkey was enabled by a personal agreement between the SDF commander Mazloum Abdi and the Barzani family.
The Turkish authorities are likely aware of the oil smuggling ring and prefer to keep it concealed from the public, as the SDF is officially labelled a terrorist organisation by Ankara due to its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The rationale for these blatant double standards is evidently rooted in the substantial profit Turkey gains from the illicit, hence tax-free, trade.
The mere thought of co-operation between the SDF and Turkey would have seemed impossible after the large-scale use of Turkish military and proxies against the Kurdish units that resulted in massive casualties and migration of the population of Northern Syria and provoked an asymmetric response from the Kurds, including attacks on Turkish outposts and vehicles. However, the practical considerations prevailed among the Autonomous Administration, in yet another proof that everything has a price.
*Ahmad Salah is a freelance Syrian journalist focused on the Middle East and especially the Levant.