Will Northeastern Syria Become A Flashpoint Between Turkey and the United States?

Will Northeastern Syria Become A Flashpoint Between Turkey and the United States?

Last November, the United States saw a rather dramatic presidential election that put a lot at stake and in many ways was supposed to determine the direction of Washington’s foreign policy.

The new administration under Joe Biden’s leadership has repeatedly signaled its intention to introduce a number of adjustments to the current situation in the Middle East, recast the shape of relations with regional powers such as Iran and Turkey, and reinvigorate cooperation with the Kurdish-dominated Autonomous Administration of the North and East Syria (AANES), the main U.S. ally in Syria.

Needless to say, the White House’s ambitious endeavors did not receive a universal welcome in the region. The main obstacle is the Turkish authorities who, unlike Washington, show zero desire for changes in their policy towards the Syrian Kurds. The AANES military wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), incorporates the Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG), an entity that Ankara considers to be affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist organization in Turkey. In this regard, the rising power of the SDF, albeit under the American protectorate, runs counter to the interests of Turkey and poses a serious threat to its national security as routinely stated by Turkish officials.

Ankara’s controversial foreign policy has recently secured it fame of as aggressor state in the MENA region. As a result, Turkey now has rather strained relations with both European and Middle Eastern states. In turn, purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems has caused a rift between the Turkish leadership and American authorities. Moreover, a number of U.S. congressmen expressed concern over Turkey’s aggression in northern Syria and called on Joe Biden to put pressure on the Turkish officials. This sentiment was shared by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken who said that Turkey “is not acting like an ally” and called purchase of the Russian-made anti-aircraft missile systems “unacceptable.”

In a stark contrast to this generally negative attitude, a recent statement by the U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price looked somewhat surprising. During a briefing Price called Turkey an important NATO partner, and stressed that the two states share common interests, including the matters related to the settlement of the Syrian conflict. He also added that all present disagreements with Ankara should be resolved within the framework of political dialogue.

Perhaps seeing a narrow window of opportunity, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin urged President Biden to cease support for the AANES and the Kurdish armed units, while Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar confirmed Turkey’s readiness to continue its “counter-terrorist” operations in northern Syria.

A revealing trend in the coverage of the Syrian file in the Turkish media has linked the rise in activities of the Kurdish units with Joe Biden’s coming to power. The state-run Daily Sabah newspaper that is tasked with projecting Turkey’s agenda in the West has openly accused the Kurds of abusing Washington’s protection in order to strengthen their positions.

To add fuel to the fire, the areas of northern Syria controlled by the Turkey-affiliated factions of the Syrian opposition are witnessing an increase in terror attacks that are generally blamed on Kurdish sleeper cells. In the latest example, a series of explosions hit the cities of Azaz, Afrin, and Al-Bab, resulting in the death of over 20 civilians. After the incident the U.S. State Department issued an unprecedented statement stressing that “those responsible for perpetrating the violence should be brought to justice,” which was a chilling surprise for the Kurds.

With this in mind, the question is: does Recep Erdogan, despite his aggressive rhetoric against the Kurds, actually have the audacity to confront and potentially spoil relations with an obviously stronger NATO ally who supports the SDF and trusts them to protect oil fields in eastern Syria? A web of diplomatic challenges is closing in on the Turkish leader, pushing him into making a choice between territorial claims and the fight against the Kurdish administration on Turkey’s border on the one hand, and maintaining relations with the key ally on the other.

It is worth noting that prior to entering the Oval Office Joe Biden was extremely critical regarding Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria and called it a “betrayal” of the U.S. regional ally, the SDF. If Biden sticks to this firm stance on the Kurds, Turkey is unlikely to get any concessions from Washington.

It is difficult to speak with certainty about the outcome of the escalating confrontation between the U.S. and Turkey. However, by pursuing such a belligerent policy in Syria and seeking to eliminate the “threat” from the SDF/YPG/PKK, Turkey risks becoming not only a regional aggressor, but also a rogue state. The months—or perhaps even days—to come will show whether Erdogan is able to restrain his political ambitions in the interests of maintaining a strategically important partnership with the United States, or Turkey will follow the path of a “final solution” of the Kurdish question, ignoring all international laws and its allies.

Ahmad Al Khaled is a Syrian freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post and Global Security Review.

Syrian Oil Smuggling Ring Unites Turkey, Syrian Kurds, Barzani Family

Syrian Oil Smuggling Ring Unites Turkey, Syrian Kurds, Barzani Family

A reluctant decline of violence on the fronts of the Syrian conflict over the past few years brought a flickering hope for an improvement of the overall situation in the country battered by the almost decade-long conflict. This positive impulse, however, failed to meet the expectations: both the government and opposition areas continue to suffer from a severe economic crisis. The northeastern provinces run by the Syrian Kurds were also affected by the collapse of the economy. Despite the control over most of the country’s oil fields the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) experiences difficulties in exporting the fuel it produces. Although the trade with the Syrian government and the opposition provided some income, it proved to be unstable and not so lucrative as selling the oil abroad. In pursuit of profit, the Syrian Kurds have found an improbable partner in their archenemy—Turkey—while the Iraqi Kurdistan’s Barzani family provided mediation between the two sides.

Improbable Alliance

Sources with knowledge of the smuggling operation claim that the leadership of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Turkish intelligence managed to reach an agreement on exporting the Syrian oil to Turkey via the Kurdistan Region. The deal conveniently had no impact on Ankara’s stance on the SDF: Turkish politicians including president Recep Erdogan routinely label the SDF fighters as “terrorists” in the media and threaten to “destroy all terror groups” near its borders. It would seem that the SDF found enough flexibility to take a pragmatic approach that was reciprocated by the Turkish authorities wary of domestic economic struggles.

On the contrary, Barzani’s involvement in the deal is not unexpected in the least. During almost two decades in power the influential family has systematically strengthened commercial ties (largely based on the oil trade) between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey, a source of perpetual annoyance for the Iraqi government who seeks to claim a share of the profits.

All of former president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Massoud Barzani, his son and current KRG prime minister Masrour Barzani, as well as Massoud’s nephew Nechirvan Barzani, who serves as the President of the Kurdistan Region, have been accused of involvement in shady fuel export operations before. Besides using the oil profits for acquisition of lavish real estate in the United States in Europe the Barzanis were also allegedly tasked with transporting the Syrian oil for an American Delta Crescent company who struck a deal with the SDF this August.

It appears that the agreement between Turkey, the SDF and the Barzani family runs parallel to the deal between the SDF and Delta Crescent. It is not clear whether the Americans were notified of the already existing export scheme by their Kurdish allies.

To cut a long story short, the sides managed to find an equilibrium that allowed the common interests to prevail, and the Syrian oil started to bring profit to all the parties involved.

Oil Journey

The complex route that takes the Syrian oil to Turkey begins at the oil fields located between Rmailan and Tel-Adas in Hasaka province where the crude oil is produced and loaded into tank trucks that deliver it to the Taramish refinery. After that the oil is smuggled into Iraq via two main routes.

The first route runs along dry riverbeds before reaching the Semalka border crossing in northeastern Hasaka, while the second involves tank trucks with Iraqi number plates that travel to Al-Walid border crossing and then to Duhok and Erbil provinces in Iraq. The trucks used for the smuggling are operated by Naji company based in Duhok city. From Iraq, the oil is exported to Turkey by a firm named Aslan Oglu, a transport company that works in Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Around 200 trucks, or 6,000 tons of oil, reach their destination daily.

Moreover, a third route has been put into action this October after an additional agreement between the SDF and the Turkish intelligence. The route connects Tel-Adas with the border city Qamishli and allows smuggling up to 9,000 tons of oil a day.

The smuggling of the Syrian oil benefits all of the participants. The Syrian Kurds have secured a stable export market and the Barzanis have prevented the appearance of a potential competitor by mediating between the SDF and Turkey, who received cheap oil. The only one losing seems to be Syria itself: while its natural resources are smuggled out of the country and the profit ends up in the pockets of the smugglers, the economic recovery and postwar reconstruction remain impossible.

Ahmad Al Khaled is a Syrian freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post and Global Security Review.

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