23 October 2020 01:51 PM

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AHMED AL-KHALED | 24 SEPTEMBER, 2020

Did Syrian Kurds Miscalculate by Striking an Oil Deal with the US?

A risky step


For the Kurdish-dominated autonomous administration of northeastern Syria the momentary benefit from the agreement signed with an American oil firm could come at the cost of complete failure in the long run.

Early August the controversial agreement signed by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Delta Crescent Energy, an oil company affiliated with the US administration, created a huge public backlash, with some countries and regional governments quick to condemn the deal whose details had been kept strictly secret for a year.

But recent reports dispel any doubt why the US administration actually needs this deal. Several sources familiar with the content of the contract confirmed that the key objective is to deny Damascus access to oil fields, and to cut it off completely from any revenue from energy production in the region.

The motivation of the Kurdish authorities remains unclear. If the Americans are pursuing a strategy of political and economic deterrence against Damascus in an attempt to oust longtime leader Bashar al-Assad, the Kurdish manoeuvre looks like mere playing along with the United States, rather than a thoughtful decision.

Al-Monitor analysts suggest that the Kurds have in mind a set of ambitious and interlinking goals, the main of which is to acquire autonomous status.

That is why Kurdish leaders decided to cement a US military presence in northeastern Syria and provide US big business with a green light. They believe that diversifying relations with the United States, the world’s superpower, and cementing deeper cooperation with Washington, will eventually lead to international recognition of the Kurdish administration.

In this sense the approach of the Syrian Kurds is similar to that of their Iraqi brethren, who were able to strengthen their economic independence and political autonomy from Baghdad after fixing things with Turkey, granting it a considerable portion of contracts in the oil-fuelled construction underway in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Syrian Kurds are unlikely however to be able to repeat this scenario. If the SDF leadership headed by Mazlum Abdi hoped that it could implement this project with US help under the current circumstances, it miscalculated and underestimated the potential challenges.

First, the SDF’s position is much more shaky and vulnerable than the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite their defiance of official authorities in Baghdad, it was enough for them to make a deal with Turkey to gain access to the oil markets on the southern Mediterranean coast and ensure their autonomy from the Iraqi authorities.

The Syrian Kurds must be willing to face heavy negotiations at the least, with a large number of regional and international players, or even an open confrontation with the unfriendly northern neighbour.

Besides the Syrian government, which has already claimed the deal is stealing Syrian oil, normalising relations with Ankara remains the most problematic issue for the Kurdish administration.

Turkey officially considers the SDF a Syrian affiliate of the PKK “terrorist” organisation, and last year it conducted a largescale military operation (called Peace Spring) against them in northern Syria.

Kurdish unilateral actions that ignore the interests of Moscow’s main ally Damascus, and Turkish concerns, could completely destroy their dreams of autonomy. Damascus may limit itself to an appeal to international arbitration courts, which would more than likely declare the deal void, but Ankara could go further and resume fighting to prevent Kurdish forces from strengthening their positions along Turkey’s southern border.

In such a case it would be extremely risky for the Kurds to count on help from a diminished American presence wholly engaged at present in protecting the oil fields.

Practice has shown moreover that when the US faces the dilemma, of supporting the Kurds or saving relations with a partner state, it chooses the latter. In the past Washington opposed the referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017, and effectively authorised the Turkish military operation Peace Spring in 2019, which cost the Kurds many lives and a huge part of the territory.

If the Syrian Kurds distance themselves from the multilateral coordination, they will face dramatic consequences, up to international sanctions or military aggression. Worse still, the SDF risks exacerbating its relations with European states that have been long sympathetic to the Kurdish problem in Syria.

Ahmad al-Khaled is a freelance journalist with primary focus on the involvement of foreign actors in the Syrian conflict and its consequences on both regional and global levels

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