Oil assets licensed to international oil companies are believed to have been damaged in Turkey’s wave of air attacks against Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria, industry sources speaking not for attribution told Al-Monitor. The sources gave no further details and declined to identify the facilities that were reportedly affected.
Salih Muslim, the co-chair of the Democratic Unity Party, which is part of the governance structure in the Kurdish-controlled zone, confirmed that oil wells in Rmeilan near the Iraqi border where international oil companies operated prior to the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011 were struck in the Turkish attacks. But he was unable to confirm whether the actual blocks licensed to those companies were among those damaged.
Turkish airstrikes began on Nov. 20, hitting targets over a broad swath of territory, including civilian infrastructure.
Kongra Star, a women’s organization affiliated with the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria, as the governing entity calls itself, asserted in a report last week that “oil pumps, petrol stations, and oil processing sites were widely attacked by UAVs all across the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.” It listed 14 such facilities.
“Most oil pumps in the region had to go out of service as a result of the attacks. As a consequence, vehicles and bakeries among other key services are not going to be provided diesel for the time being,” the report noted.
Research carried out for Al-Monitor by Alexander McKeever, an open source investigator for Syrians for Truth and Justice, a non-profit documenting rights abuses in Syria, revealed that the majority of oil production sites targeted by Turkey are located in the northeastern most corner of Syria, in the Al-Qahtaniyah/Tirbespi and al-Malikiyah/Derik areas. The areas are included in Block 26, once operated by Gulfsands Petroleum, a London-based energy company. This was determined using data published by Kongra Star, in addition to publicly available information on Syrian oil production. Gulfsands did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment.
Syria’s Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources Bassam Tohme said Turkish airstrikes against the US-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units, the lead force in the SDF, had caused “great damage” to oil installations.
“The brutal Turkish aggression against northern Syria has caused great damage to the oil facilities,” Tohme said during an interview with Syrian state television. He noted that the bombing targeted a gas plant, leading to a halt in production.
The plant was processing 150 tons of natural gas for domestic use, and about one million cubic meters of gas for a power station that supplies the population of Hasakah province with electricity, Tohme said, adding that many wells were burned causing “significant environmental pollution” stemming from “tank explosions.” Turkey struck power plants and electricity grids as well.
“There’s been a chain reaction. The turbines at the electricity plants run on oil. With no oil they cannot function and without electricity the oil pumping gear cannot run either.”
Fabrice Balance is an associate professor at Lyon II in France and an expert on Syria. He told Al-Monitor, “It is perfectly logical that Ankara hit the oil facilities as oil is critical for the production of electricity using generators and for transport in northeast Syria.”
Foreign companies operating in Syria’s energy sector prior to the conflict included Royal Dutch Shell, France’s Total, China National Petroleum Corporation, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corp, Canada’s Suncor Energy, Britain’s Petrofac and Gulfsands Petroleum, along with Russian oil company Tatneft and engineering firm Stroytransgaz.
The Syrian government estimates that the country’s total oil output was 86,000 barrels per day in 2021. That is roughly a quarter of the 353,000 barrels per day produced in 2011, which accounted for roughly a quarter of the regime’s revenues.
Oil is the main source of income for the autonomous administration, which currently controls production under a thick veil of opacity. Gulfsands, which operated Block 26 in Rmeilan, has accused the Kurdish-led administration of “stealing” its oil. Much of the oil is sold at a heavy discount to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Western sanctions imposed on the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has meant that Western companies could not resume operations, even in Kurdish-governed northeast Syria, which is home to most of Syria’s oil and is notionally under US protection.
US deterrence appeared to be in tatters when a Turkish drone struck the perimeter of a joint US Kurdish base in Hasakah on Nov. 22 prompting the United States to evacuate all its civilian staff from northeast Syria. Mazlum Kobane, the commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces, said the Turkish attack was meant to test US resolve as it threatens to mount yet another ground invasion in northeast Syria in supposed retaliation for a bomb attack it blames on the Syrian Kurdish administration. Kobane told Al-Monitor in a recent interview that the alleged bomber was tied to the Islamic State.
Kobane has been on a PR blitz over the past week to lobby the US public against a Turkish invasion with appearances on PBS, Fox News and Zoom webinars with international journalists and think tanks.
Washington has used tougher language in recent days to warn Turkey of the possible consequences of a ground invasion, with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin airing “strong opposition” to his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar in a phone call on Wednesday. The change in tone came after Kobane announced that his forces had paused operations against IS.
The Syrian regime’s top allies Russia and Iran have also told Ankara to back off. But it remains unsettlingly unclear whether Ankara will heed those calls amid reports that it has issued orders to its Sunni rebel allies in Syria to brace for new conflict.
“I think Erdogan has gone too far to back off at this point,” Balanche contended. “The fact that nothing much is happening now [in the way of attacks] means that he is preparing the offensive. He wants something and is bent on getting it.”
By Amberin Zaman
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