Could a Syrian Kurdistan work?

Assessing the economic and political potential of an autonomous Kurdish region

Things are changing in northeastern Syria’s Kurdish-majority Hassake province.

Gradually, the swoops and curves of Arabic script on storefronts and street signs are being replaced with the Latin characters that Syria’s Kurds write their own language in — an act that was illegal just a few months ago. So too are the soldiers of the Damascus regime being replaced with Kurdish militiamen and the reins of governance taken up by the local groups.

See also: The Kurdish Triangle

State power has deteriorated in Syrian Kurdish areas as the country’s civil war drags on and the government of President Bashar al-Assad struggles to limit the gains of the rebel Free Syrian Army in major population centers. And over the summer, Kurdish groups seized the opportunity.

Syria’s Kurds make up a little less than 10 percent of the country’s population of 20 million and after decades of neglect and subjugation under the ruling Ba’ath Party, Kurdish groups are now organizing for self-governance and hoping, in the end, for autonomy in one form or another.

The Hassake province is home to a significant amount of oil — oil that could perhaps fund self-sufficiency if Syria’s Kurds came in control of it. But, in a costly civil war, the Kurds are not the only ones with their eyes on Hassake’s subterranean wealth. The presence of oil threatens to eventually bring a war that the Kurds have mostly tried to ignore to their doorstep, a possibility heightened by an already tense relationship between Kurds and Arabs in the country. For the Kurds and their aspirations for autonomy, the stakes are high.

The coming battle for the black gold

While Syria may not be one of the world’s major oil producers, oil revenues have been a major source of income for the Syrian government. Before the uprising began in March 2011, the Syrian government was pulling in nearly $4 billion in oil revenues every year, representing about 30 percent of the regime’s total export receipts.

In 2010, Syria’s production levels were at 385,000 barrels per day, according to a report published this year by British Petroleum. Nearly all of the country’s exported oil went to the European Union.

Syria’s major oil fields are clustered in the eastern Deir Ezzor province near the Iraqi border and in the northeastern Hassake province, with an estimated 70 percent in the latter. While production levels in Hassake and Deir Ezzor are similar, experts believe that the northeast is slightly more productive and that the fields there are more attractive as the reserves are far from being tapped.

“The oil located in the Hassake region is not good quality oil, but these fields are the only fields which have seen an increase in their output in the last few years and most of Syria’s remaining oil reserves are in this region,” said Jihad Yazigi, the editor of The Syria Report, a publication that analyzes the country’s economy.

Getting exact figures on capacity during a civil war is understandably difficult. In Hassake’s main oil town, Rmeilan, a production manager from the government’s state oil company, the Syrian Petroleum Company, said that before the war the nearby fields were producing 166,000 barrels per day (bpd). As of September, due to the civil war and international sanctions on Syrian oil, only 80,000 bpd were being produced, he said, on condition of anonymity to protect his safety. It is estimated that the area has enough oil to maintain pre-war production levels for at least two decades.

The Hassake region is not exclusively Kurdish. While it is difficult to be certain as the Syrian government does not include Kurdish as an ethnic group in national surveys, they are estimated to make up more than 60 percent of the region's population. And while much of Hassake is in the hands of Kurdish groups, the main oilfields remain controlled by the government’s forces.

But sanctions have mostly halted Syria’s export of oil and forced foreign companies such as Total, Gulfsands and Royal Dutch Shell to halt their activities in the country. With oil revenues low and the government locked in an increasingly bloody civil war, there is a possibility that the regime could lose its ability to control the country’s oil.

“Syria’s oil business is in shambles,” said Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and a Syria expert, adding that the government has lost the ability to plan its oil output strategically. “The Syrian government is not in long-term planning mode, it is planning day by day,” he said. “It is really directing its attention to the big population centers and denying the opposition a stable safe haven within Syria.”

For Syria’s Kurds, grabbing the oil fields in the northeast could be a golden ticket, allowing them to bankroll autonomy in one form or another. “If you manage to produce and sell 50,000 barrels per day, you can sustain the life of one to two million people quite easily,” Yazigi said.

Robin Mills, head of consulting at Dubai’s Manaar Energy, said that at current market prices, Hassake’s oilfields have the potential to generate up to 150,000 barrels per day, potentially worth over $15 million at current prices. “It’s not Kuwait, but it’s an important part of the economy,” he said.

Many Kurds feel that the Syrian government squandered oil revenues and did not use them to benefit the country as a whole – and particularly the northeast. “We want to share the oil wealth for all the Syrian people, not just the center in Damascus,” said Mohammed Amin, the head of a local Kurdish self-governing office in Girkilige, the town next to Rmeilan.

Yet while Kurdish groups might want to take control of the oil, they would likely face obstacles. “I think that the central government — and any future central government — will be willing to send tanks to take control of this region,” said Yazigi.

There is also a fear among the Kurds — and likely the regime — that the Free Syrian Army could make a move on Hassake’s oilfields. While the rebels were initially hesitant to disrupt the country’s oil infrastructure — presumably as many of the oil products they use are still being produced and processed by the central government — this may have changed as earlier this month a unit of Free Syrian Army fighters captured al-Ward oilfield in the Deir Ezzor province after a brief siege.

If the regime did lose control of the oilfields in Hassake, the problem for the victors would then become how to sell the oil. Syria has oil refineries near the frontline city of Homs and in Tartus that are connected to fields in Hassake and Deir Ezzor by a pipeline, but at the moment this is not an option for either the Free Syrian Army or Kurdish groups. Instead, unrefined crude oil would likely have to be exported via truck to either Turkey or Iraq at a cut rate, a process that could have its own diplomatic complications and obstacles.

It remains to be seen how the situation around Syria’s oilfields will play out, but the potential petrodollars to be made are attractive – and perhaps necessary – for all sides in this conflict to rebuild when the shooting stops.


Already autonomous?

“I think they have autonomy already, we don’t have to talk about it in the future tense: They’ve taken it, the state has collapsed, they’re running their own affairs pretty much,” said Landis. “Obviously, a lot depends on how long this state of affairs drags on — the longer it drags on, the better it is for Kurds.”

Yazigi has a more pessimistic view. “I think there is a desire from the Kurds to be more autonomous, but I think it’s going to be very difficult for them to have extended rights that go beyond speaking their language and teaching it,” he said.

The Arabization backlash

In 1962, a census conducted by the Syrian government resulted in 120,000 Syrian Kurds – mostly from the northeastern Hassake province – being stripped of their citizenship. Despite deep roots in Syria for many decades, these people were painted as immigrants from Turkey and treated as foreigners. As such, they were unable to own land, secure passports to leave the country and were barred from a number of professions. Over the years, the number of stateless Kurds – who became known as the maktoumeen or “unregistered” – multiplied.

Saadoun Omar, 20, is one of them. “It was a very bad situation because after you graduated from university you couldn’t find a job, own a car or buy a house,” he said.  “I was in prison before.”

These days, Omar, dressed in a pink t-shirt with a checkered keffiyeh tossed around his neck, carries a battered Kalashnikov assault rifle captured from the regime and guards a Kurdish militia checkpoint in the northeastern town of Derek.

In a futile attempt to placate disgruntled citizens last year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unveiled a new constitution that recognized ethnic and linguistic communities. Most stateless Kurds were finally given citizenship.

Omar received his new identification card in July 2011, but it did not appease him.  For him the words “Syrian Arab Republic” – the official name of the country – on the card asserted that the Kurds were still not recognized. “I’m not Arab, I’m Kurdish, I want to delete this word from my ID card,” he said.

At present, it does not look likely that whoever comes out on top will be sympathetic to giving the Kurds more autonomy.

“The Arab opposition has been willing to make noises about greater autonomy but it doesn’t want to commit itself anything like recognizing national rights for Kurds,” said Landis.

Next door in Iraq, the experience of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) serves as an example of the possibility of autonomy within an Arab-majority country, but also as a cautionary tale. Despite three decades of de facto autonomy, strong international backing and an economy flush with oil revenues, the KRG is caught up in endless and occasionally hostile spats with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad. Lately, disagreements have primarily been over how to share oil revenues and the role of the Kurdish Peshmerga military force.

In July, the Peshmerga and Iraqi army nearly came to blows when Baghdad deployed troops in Kurdish land along the Syrian border. If Syria’s Kurds were able to cut a post-war deal, similar problems could be expected.

Given the relative independence and wealth of the KRG, a good relationship with the semi-autonomous entity could be instrumental for autonomy and self-sufficiency for Syria’s Kurds. But, under the influence of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, Syria’s most dominant Kurdish groups do not exactly see eye-to-eye with the KRG – which has maintained a good relationship with Turkey (the target of the PKK’s attacks). The Iraqi central government in Baghdad – which recently began exerting more influence on the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan, shutting down the crossings on many occasions – could also play the role of a spoiler preventing Kurdish relations improving.

In Syria itself, there is already a high degree of hostility between the Kurds and other actors in the civil war.

Since they gained dominance and control in many of Syria’s Kurdish areas, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — the most powerful Syrian Kurdish political party that is affiliated with the PKK in Turkey — has been wary of the Free Syrian Army’s intentions and vowed to prevent the rebels from entering Kurdish areas. 

On October 25, Free Syrian Army members moved into Aleppo’s Kurdish-majority Ashrafieh neighborhood as part of a push they made ahead of the United Nations-backed Eid ceasefire attempt. The move prompted clashes with Kurdish militias and eventually tit-for-tat kidnappings. In early November, the Free Syrian Army kidnapped a female Kurdish militia leader, exacerbating the situation. Currently, despite attempts at a ceasefire, clashes between the Free Syrian Army and Kurdish militias continue sporadically.

According to Landis, the gist of the message that the Free Syrian Army is sending the Kurds by entering their areas and engaging in battles is that “you don’t get to become Switzerland and be neutral; there is no Switzerland in Syria and if you side with the government we’re going to make you feel the pain.” Detractors of the PYD have accused the group of being aligned with the Assad regime, though the organization denies this and says it is against the government.

Militarily, with only several thousand fighters, the PYD’s forces are outnumbered and see hostile threats on all fronts. Still, they are readying their militias for possible confrontations to protect what they have gained.

“We are organizing ourselves, our people, to be ready for everything, for every possible situation by this regime or a future regime,” said Saleh Mohammed, the leader of the PYD.  “Even if there is any invasion by Turkey, we are ready for it."