Battle for Oil Intensifies Between Syrian Kurds, Jihadists

Clashes have broken out in northern Syria over the control of oil fields between Kurdish forces aligned with the PYD and jihadist militants from Jabhat al-Nusra.

al-monitor Kurdish fighters from the Popular Protection Units (YPG) pose for a picture in Aleppo's Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood, June 7, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman.

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syrian opposition, syrian, salafist, oil, jihadists, clans, autonomy

Jul 30, 2013

The battle for Syrian oil has already begun, independently from Syria’s other noisy front lines. Indications of its beginning had multiplied when the Kurds announced their intention to establish a transitional administration that would control — once its foundations were set — the major oil fields of Rmeilan and Suwaidiyah in northeastern Syria.

The failure of successive attacks by jihadists from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against Ras al-Ain — and their inability to break through the impregnable Kurdish defenses — signaled the beginning of the battle for control over the economic nerve of the war effort. This battle would determine the fortunes and futures of two separate entities fighting over this single piece of land. There is a transitional Kurdish administration likely to become autonomous, pitted against an Islamic emirate, in the name of which fight a multitude of forces comprised of al-Qaeda-inspired factions who profess their allegiance to its leader Ayman al-Zawahri, as well as a hodgepodge of highly polarized Arab and Kurdish clansmen and Syrian National Coalition partners.

For the past three days, the oil fields of Rmeilan have been the scene of fierce tank and artillery battles. Officials from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) have stated that a force of 500 predominantly Jabhat al-Nusra militants had tried, in vain, to smash through the defensive lines organized by Kurdish Popular Protection Units around the main production facility at Rmeilan.

The Syrian army has also entered the fray by conducting aerial raids targeting Jabhat al-Nusra columns headed toward the production plant. This was not the first time that the Syrian air force intervened in the battles raging between the Kurdish Popular Protection Units and Jabhat al-Nusra. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had previously stated that Syrian fighter jets had bombed on July 29 positions belonging to the ISIS in Tel Abyad, which had been the target of sporadic shelling by Kurdish artillery in the area.

Furthermore, forces composed of Arab Shummar clans, fighting under the name of the Jazeera Free Brigades, are also participating in the military operations taking place in the triangle formed by the other important oil fields of Suwaidiyah, Rmeilan and the Tel Koujar-Rabihah crossing, adjacent to the Iraqi border.

The area surrounding these fields is located close to the border with Iraq, southeast of the city of Qamishli. Taking part in the battles are also groups from Ahrar al-Sham, Ahrar Ghoweiran, the Free Syrians Brigades and the Umma brigade.

Kurdish officials accuse Arab clans in the area of fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, following revelations that 11 members of these clans were killed in the clashes that took place the day before last, and were buried in villages of Hassakeh province.

The region’s Arab clans avoid openly bearing arms, to prevent similar mobilization on the part of Kurdish clans. Some of these clans — living on the front lines around the oil fields — have been forced to flee toward major cities such as Qamishli. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist factions commenced the battle for control of Syria’s northern oilfields in Rmeilan and Suwaidiyah. This came following the Kurdish takeover of these fields early in April.

After a short period of productivity, when the regime and the Kurds entered into an agreement to safeguard the facilities and guarantee the flow of oil toward Tartus, jihadist factions sabotaged the pipelines that passed through their areas of control. Furthermore, the European Union granted the Syrian opposition, two months ago, the right to market oil extracted from the Rmeilan and Deir el-Zour fields on the international market, although it never actually had control over these fields.

In addition, the clans of Oqeidat and Bou Hassan, along with Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic Emirate factions on the ground, seized the region’s remaining oil fields in Ward and Tym, which were sabotaged, plundered and looted, nine of them having been set on fire.

Tel Abyad, which jihadist forces are desperately defending against attacks by Kurdish Popular Protection Units, is the last avenue through which they can export Syrian oil plundered from the fields in Deir el-Zour, through Raqqa and toward Turkish markets and the tanker truck convoys gathered on the border crossing. The advance European marketing decision gives impetus to the war waged by jihadist factions for control of the Rmeilan and Suwaidiyah fields, each of which produces approximately 130,000 barrels per day.

Moreover, a few months ago, the Europeans failed to convince the Kurds to put the still operational Rmeilan fields under the control of the National Coalition. A prominent Kurdish official told As-Safir at the time that the British diplomat in charge of the Syrian portfolio had officially informed him during a meeting in Paris, that the PYD must surrender oil installations to the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition, in order to help the interim government fund its operations. This, however, was without any forethought into the needs of the region’s inhabitants, as well as the need to continue pumping the oil required to run power plants.

The Kurdish official continued to state that he informed the Europeans that the PYD had decided to defend the oil fields to the last man, and prevent their falling into the hands of other factions, except when future political negotiations would determine the division of oil revenues between the Kurdish north and Damascus in the center of the country. 

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