Turkey works with Syrian regime to oppose US company oil deal in Syria

However, reports indicate that the “deal” which was reported in some media may not even be finalized or as certain as it is depicted.

AMERICAN SOLDIERS stand near military trucks at al-Omar oil field in Deir Al Zor, Syria, on March 23.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
AMERICAN SOLDIERS stand near military trucks at al-Omar oil field in Deir Al Zor, Syria, on March 23.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkey and the Syrian regime condemned reports of a deal by an American oil company linked to oil fields in eastern Syria. The Syrian regime claimed the deal was stealing Syrian oil. At the same time, Turkey, which illegally occupies part of northern Syria and whose Syrian rebel allies have been accused of ethnically cleansing minorities from Afrin, slammed the deal as well. Ankara claimed the US was ignoring “international law” and that the US position would never be accepted or legitimized. Turkey is increasingly an ally of Iran and Russia on issues pertaining to Syria and opposes the US in Syria, even though America and Turkey are both members of NATO.
However, reports also indicate that the “deal” – which was reported in some media – may not even be finalized or as certain as it is depicted. This may be due to confidentiality agreements or not wanting to cause controversy, or because the deal is not completed. More questions than answers now surround what is happening with oil in eastern Syria.
Turkey and the Syrian regime joining together to condemn the deal appear to cast a shadow over what might come next. According to reports at Al-Monitor, the US might provide modular refineries to the autonomous administration in eastern Syria. The region is run by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and their civilian arm, which is a multi-layered bureaucracy. The US had initially said it would leave eastern Syria in December 2018.
President Donald Trump moved American troops away from the Turkish border in October 2019 after Turkey threatened to attack areas where the US was supporting anti-ISIS operations by the SDF. Turkey then invaded and Russia and the Syrian regime sent troops, carving up areas that had previously been peaceful and under American influence. This was one of the first clear signs that Ankara prefers Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime over US forces in Syria. Turkey also bought the S-400 air defense system from Russia, has harassed US servicemen in Turkey and jailed a Turkish worker at the US Embassy.
WHILE TURKEY and Damascus are outraged at the deal that Delta Crescent Energy reportedly signed, there are also questions about the deal itself. Politico notes that the firm is a little-known company, incorporated in February 2019. “It has been in talks with the Kurds for more than a year but only received a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control for the work in April,” the report notes.
“The arrangement is to refine and use some of the oil locally but also export some through northern Iraq and Turkey.” Clearly the last part of that sentence “and Turkey” would be problematic given Ankara’s opposition. Iraq’s position is also not clear.
In the past, Syrian oil has been smuggled to the Syrian regime and also smuggled out by ISIS when the jihadist group controlled parts of eastern Syria. Smuggling to Turkey allegedly also took place in the past. However, the oil fields – which can produce hundreds of thousands of barrels a day – are estimated to be producing only around 10% of that, with smuggling accounting for thousands of barrels moving illicitly to areas such as Damascus.
It’s not clear if the oil deal will be able to boost capacity or cause a year to be spent updating infrastructure. It’s not even clear how, during COVID-19 and amid ISIS threats and border closures, the company intends to do the work.
What is actually taking place is more murky than reports indicate. While the announcement of the deal actually appears to have been mistakenly leaked by US Senator Lindsey Graham – and with some support from the State Department’s Mike Pompeo and even the White House – it’s unclear if the deal is ready for prime time coverage. It is known that US CENTCOM head Gen. Frank McKenzie met with SDF leader Gen. Mazloum Abdi in July.
US State Department officials around William Roebuck, part of the US-Syria team, have also been trying to get Kurdish groups to reconcile in eastern Syria in recent months. That means bringing the PYD and YPG elements together with the ENKS and other Kurdish groups. Basically it means they in turn will speak with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which have influence over constituent Kurdish groups in eastern Syria.
WHAT DOES all this have to do with oil? Oil doesn’t move across the border into northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region with discussions that involve the KDP. And the US has long sought to wean the civilian leadership linked to the SDF from its direct links to the PKK. Turkey has vowed to destroy the PKK, launching an operation in July deep into northern Iraq. The US also put a bounty on the heads of the PKK in 2018.
The US goal regarding the oil is three-fold. First, CENTCOM and State Department officials, who want the US to succeed in eastern Syria, want to be in line with Trump’s goal of securing the oil: That is the Trump plan. So to justify the US presence, Washington must be seen to be defending those interests.
Second, the US officials who are dealing with Iran want sanctions to bite on Damascus. That means giving the SDF a way to move oil that isn’t through the Syrian capital. The US withdrawal in October 2019 forced the SDF to work more closely with Damascus. An oil deal can show that the US is serious and is now in Syria to defend the deal, not defend “blood-stained sand,” or “sand and blood and death” as Trump calls it.
Third, better oil sales can help the SDF fund detention facilities for ISIS – and the US wants it to continue holding ISIS prisoners.
A MAJOR problem with the apparent deal is that, according to a report by The National Interest on Monday, many companies from the US and Russia have wanted to do a deal for oil and so far, “none of them signed any contract with the administration.” The reality, according to this and other articles, makes it look like the company has a license but that not all the players in eastern Syria have accepted a deal. Does this contradict another official from the Syrian Democratic Council who said, in a report at Al-Monitor, that an agreement had been made? Maybe not.
Oil deals are complex. Eastern Syria is complex. US sanctions are complex. When you add together three layers of complexity and the geopolitical controversy that results from any suggestion that the US is involved in oil in eastern Syria, clearly it is not in the local interest to bring themselves into disrepute by being portrayed as selling out to US oil interests.
On the other hand, agreements may be done and licenses granted, with some aspects of the reported deal being either accurate or yet in play. It may also be unclear who is actually the correct point of contact for determining issues of oil in eastern Syria. Between comments from the SDF, SDC and others in the autonomous administration, lack of clarity exists. That opaque quality has served these overlapping groups in the past. It may serve now to tamp down opposition from Russia, the Syrian regime and Turkey, all of which could seek to undermine or sabotage potential oil operations.
Russian forces regularly run into friction with US patrols in eastern Syria. In February 2018, Russian contractors even tried to attack oil fields near Deir Ezzor that were run by the SDF. Turkey’s Syrian rebel allies often cut water to half a million people near Hasakah.
It’s hard to export oil under normal circumstances from poor, isolated and war-torn eastern Syria. Lack of water and several major countries all trying to undermine each other makes it even harder.