The decline in violence on the frontlines of the Syrian conflict in recent years has raised hopes for an improvement in the overall situation in the country affected by a decade of conflict. However, this positive momentum has not lived up to expectations: both the government and the opposition areas continue to suffer from a serious economic crisis. The north-eastern provinces administered by the Syrian Kurds have also been affected by the economic collapse. Although the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria (AANES) controls most of the country's oilfields, it has difficulty exporting the fuel it produces. Trade with the Syrian government and opposition provides income, but it has proven unstable and less lucrative than oil sales abroad. In their search for profits, the Syrian Kurds found an unlikely partner in their arch-enemy Turkey, while the Barzani family from Iraqi Kurdistan mediated between both sides.
Sources that know about the smuggling operation claim that the leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Turkish intelligence services have reached an agreement on the export of Syrian oil to Turkey through the Iraqi Kurdistan region. The agreement has not had any impact on Ankara's position towards the Turkish Defence Forces: Turkish politicians, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, regularly refer to the fighters of the Turkish Defence Forces as "terrorists" in the media and threaten to "destroy all terrorist groups" near their borders. It seems that the SDF has found enough flexibility to adopt a pragmatic approach that has been shared by the Turkish authorities who are concerned about the national economic crisis.
On the contrary, the participation of the Barzani family in the agreement is not unexpected. During almost two decades in power, the influential family has systematically strengthened the trade links (based largely on the oil trade) between the Kurdistan region and Turkey, which is a constant concern for the Iraqi government, which tries to claim a share of the profits.
The former president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (GRC) Massoud Barzani, his son and current prime minister of the GRC, Masrour Barzani, as well as Massoud's nephew, Massoud Nechirvan Barzani, who is the president of the Kurdistan Region, have been accused before of taking part in shady fuel export operations. Besides using the profits of oil to acquire sumptuous properties in the USA and Europe, the Barzanis were also allegedly responsible for the transport of Syrian oil for the US company Delta Crescent, which reached an agreement with the FDS in August.
The agreement between Turkey, the FDS and the Barzani family seems to be parallel to the agreement between the FDS and Delta Crescent. It is not clear if the Americans have been informed about the export mechanisms already applied by their Kurdish allies.
In short, the parties managed to find a balance that allowed common interests to prevail, and Syrian oil began to bring benefits to all the parties involved.
The journey of oil
The complex road that takes Syrian oil to Turkey begins in the oil fields between the cities of Rmaylan and Tel-Adas in Hasaka province, where the crude oil is produced and loaded onto tankers that take it to the Taramish refinery. After that, the oil is smuggled into Iraq through two main routes.
The first route runs through dry riverbeds before reaching the Semalka border crossing in northeast Hasaka, while the second uses tankers with Iraqi registration numbers that head for the Al-Walid border crossing and then on to Iraq's Duhok and Erbil provinces. The trucks are operated by the Naji company based in the city of Duhok. From Iraq, the oil is exported to Turkey by Aslan Oglu, a transport company working in Syria, Iraq and Turkey. About 200 trucks, or 6000 tons of oil, reach their destination every day.
Moreover, a third route was established in October after a complementary agreement between the FDS and the Turkish intelligence. The route links Tel-Adas with the border town of Qamichli and allows for the smuggling of up to 9,000 tons of oil per day.
The smuggling of Syrian oil benefits all participants. The Syrian Kurds have acquired a stable export market and the Barzani have prevented the appearance of a possible competitor by acting as an intermediary between the FDS and Turkey, which received cheap oil. The only loser is Syria itself: As long as its natural resources have been smuggled out of the country and the profits go into the pockets of the traffickers, the economic recovery and postwar reconstruction will remain impossible.
Ahmad al-Khaled is a freelance journalist who focuses on the involvement of foreign actors in the conflict in Syria and its regional and global consequences.