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By Gary Busch, London*

The roots of the Syrian Civil War start with conflicts over who controls Syria’s energy supplies. The war continues, especially in the Kurdish areas of the north, in a fight over water which has been growing desperately scarcer for everybody – Syrians, Kurds, Turks, Iraqis.

Achieving a final conclusion to the war will depend on those fighting it to negotiate  arrangements for the distribution of Syrian energy supplies, onshore and offshore, and ensuring adequate supplies of water in a continuously dehydrating climate. Until now, taking oil and water by force has been much the preferred option.

Syria has had many problems in its history, as well as opportunities,which have come from its location as a territory with a long coastline and access, in and out,  to the Mediterranean Sea – the ancient Greeks and Romans inward, the Arabs — Iraq, Iran and Jordan – outward through Syria.

Syria became important a century ago for the delivery of crude oil from the rich Kurdish fields in Iraq when the international oil companies decided to create pipelines to the sea through Syria. This use of the country by the international energy companies was directed by foreign states and their armies. For centuries Syria was controlled by the Ottoman Turks and, after the First World War, it was given to France to manage under the League of Nations Mandate over Syria, Lebanon and Alexandretta. Syria only got its independence after the Second World War, but, in reality, it continued to be dominated by external forces.

The Mosul pipeline with port terminals at Haifa and Tripoli, 1935-48;  source: https://www.wondersofworldengineering.com/

These forces built the Mosul-Haifa pipeline. That was a crude oil pipeline running from the oil fields in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, through Jordan to Haifa, then under the British Mandate of Palestine. The pipeline was created by the British who ran the Iraqi oil industry at that time. For  a time it was considered an engineering marvel in the world; it was operational from 1935 to 1948;  its length was about 942 kilometres (585 miles).  For the crude to be pumped through the full length of the line took about ten days. The oil arriving in Haifa was distilled in the Haifa refineries, stored in tanks, and then loaded in tankers for shipment to Europe. This oil provided most of the fuel needs of the British and American forces during the Second World War; accordingly, it was a key strategic target for the Axis forces.

The pipeline was also the target of waves of protest from the Palestinian Arabs; especially during the Arab Uprising of 1936-1940 led by Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam,   and later by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The Palestinians were fighting against the British and the French colonial regimes in their Mandates for Palestine, Lebanon and Syria,  as well as against the Jewish settlers allowed into Palestine by the British under the terms of the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. Al-Qassam was captured and executed by the British; the Grand Mufti allied himself with the Axis forces during the Second World War,  and spent part of the war in Germany. Their alliance with Berlin was an effort by the Germans and the Vichy French to cut off oil supplies to the Allies during the war. Arab irregulars regularly attacked the Mosul-Haifa pipeline; they were supported by a team of Abwehr specialists who advised the Grand Mufti on sabotaging the oil stream during the war.

These attacks on the pipeline made it clear to the Anglo-American oil industry that it would be difficult to protect the Mosul-Haifa pipeline in the face of an armed Arab uprising, not to mention the waves of strikes and go-slows of the organised Arab workers in their territories. In Syria there was a general strike from 20 January to 6 March 1936 which paralysed the French administration over the territory. This built on the strikes already started by the organised workers of Iraq. The British and the French were able to control the Arab Uprising during the world war when they had large numbers of troops in the region. But after the war they realised they were less capable of policing the pipeline, so they began to consider the construction of an alternative; this was the Tapline from Saudi Arabia through Syria.

After the unsuccessful Arab-Israeli War in 1948, Syria maintained a weak parliamentary regime; its political leadership was animated by Arab nationalism and frustrated by the signing of the peace treaty with the victorious Jewish state. The West was worried about the rise of nationalist hostility in the region; there was fear of the rebuilding of a Soviet-supported Arab bloc with the purpose of removing the multinational oil company concessions in general, Saudi Arabia’s oil export capacity in particular. The CIA and the US Embassy in Damascus actively promoted a coup d’état by the Syrian Army’s Chief of Staff, Husni al-Zaim (right).

In April 1949 al-Zaim seized power and jailed many of his opponents. Al-Zaim was in favour of a secular state. He also signed a number of long-term deals with the multinational oil companies to participate in the creation of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline which the previous government of Syria had refused to sign; this was the Tapline. Its construction, designed and managed by the US engineering company Bechtel, had begun while the British Mandate of Palestine was still operating in 1947. Originally the Tapline was intended to terminate in Haifa which was then in British Palestine, but because of the establishment of the state of Israel, an alternative route through Syria (Golan Heights) and Lebanon was selected; the pipeline was planned to reach the coast at an export terminal in Sidon, Lebanon.  

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

The Syrian government initially opposed this plan, as did Syria’s opposition groups. The Al-Zaim coup put a stop to them, and Tapline was built. It lasted longer than al-Zaim, who was topped by another military putsch in less than five months, then shot.  

On 7 April 1947, Michel Aflaq, Salah al-Din al-Bitar and followers of Zaki al-Arsuzi founded the Syrian branch of the original Ba’ath Party (1947-1966) before it changed its allegiance to the Syrian-dominated Ba’ath movement (1966-present); that came after the 1966 split within the original Ba’ath Party between Iraq and Syria. Before then, in March 1963, the Syrian Ba’ath had taken power from the military. That coup started Hafez al-Assad in power in Damascus. 

The Arabic word ba’ath means “resurrection” or “renaissance.” The party had its origins in the desire of Syrian secular nationalists to break with their feudal past and to create a new form of secular government for Arab countries.  In Syria, Assad originally led the party which was dominated by the Alawi (about 12 per cent of the Syrian nation) and supported by the network of Alawi in the army and the national intelligence establishment. Both Assad (and Saddam Hussein in Iraq) insisted that their branch of the party should be dominant in running the international Ba’ath movement. The two men could not agree on who was in charge, and became bitter rivals. The Iraqi Ba’athists were almost exclusively Sunni while Syrian Ba’athists were primarily Alawi.

The Assad clan which runs Syria today is Alawi; they are a minority group within the Syrian state. They are followers of an Ismaili belief system which incorporates aspects of both Shi’a and Sunni Islam and some Christian beliefs; Alawis celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Epiphany. In fact, the Alevi  (a Turkish variant) maintain that they are not Muslims as all.

The majority Sunni communities agreed and viewed the Alawi as largely a cultural group rather than a heterodox Muslim sect. The Sunni ordered them to build mosques, but no one worshipped there so they were abandoned. Because many of the tenets of the faith are secret, Alawis have refused to discuss their faith with outsiders. Only an elect few learn the religion after a lengthy process of initiation; youths are initiated into the secrets of the faith in stages. Their prayer book, the source of religious instruction, is the Kitab al Majmu, believed to be derived from Ismaili writings. The Alawis, of whom there were about 1,350,000 in Syria and Lebanon, constitute Syria’s largest religious minority. They are often called by other names as well – they have been called Nusayris, Nusairis, Namiriya or Ansariyya. They live chiefly along the coast in Al Ladhiqiyah Province, where they form over 60 percent of the rural population.

For several centuries, the Syrian Alawis enjoyed autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, but, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Ottomans imposed direct rule. Regarding the Alawis as infidels, the Ottomans regularly persecuted them and imposed heavy taxation.  During the French Mandate, the Alawis briefly gained territorial autonomy, but direct rule was re-imposed in 1936. For centuries, the Alawis constituted Syria’s most repressed and exploited minority. Most were indentured servants and tenant farmers or sharecroppers working for Sunni landowners. Because of their outcast status, many government jobs were off-limits to them and they never prospered in business. They were able to mobilise themselves out of their rural setting by joining the Army. They rose in the ranks and were the key elements in the Syrian Ba’ath Party.

The Syrian Alawi, after their takeover of the Syrian state in 1963, gradually banned all other political parties except the Ba’ath. Assad had the others dissolved; their leaders were either driven out of the country, imprisoned, or assassinated.  The only newspapers allowed in circulation were official Ba’ath ones.

The Assad family: Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s President until 2000, and his wife Anisa (foreground) with his children (left to right) Maher, Bashar (President since 2000), Bassel, Majd and Bushra.

One of the fundamental forces in Syrian political life, and the key to understanding the kaleidoscope of its alliances and conflicts, is the division of Syrian territory into competing clans and tribes combined with regional identities. The tribal and clan relationships have not sustained stable or fixed alliances: theirs are shifting loyalties as economic interests wax and wane, and kin and outsiders seek dominance. These conflicts allow non-tribal entities, including wishful foreigners,  to attempt alliances with and among the tribes and clans.

Between 60 and 70 per cent of the Syrian population belongs to a clan or tribe. One result of the catastrophic transformation of Syria since the start of its current civil war has been the reduction of the control of the tribes and clans by their traditional chiefs. These changes have induced the tribes to ally themselves in the war, changeably and unpredictably,  with the Syrian Government, or with the Syrian rebels – the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) and ISIS (Daesh).  

As the contemporary conflict in Syria spread, the different tribes became identified with one or more of the civil war combatants. “Upper Mesopotamia (northeastern Syria) contains a significant tribal presence. The largest tribe in the area is Jubur, followed by Tayy, Bakara, Anazzah, Shammar and others. Since the beginning of the revolution, these tribes have been divided between regime loyalists and opponents, including the self-administration declared by the Kurds. The most prominent Arab tribes in the area that joined the Kurds are the al-Sanadid Forces, led by a sheikh of the Shammar tribe.” 

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Source: https://www.reddit.com/

It has been different among the tribes of southern Syria where “all of the attempts to build another similar force have failed (with the exception of the ongoing Army of Free Tribes’ initiative) backed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan; this is active in the area of Lajat, where the tribal identity is still preserved to a large extent, by contrast with neighbouring Hauran and the Golan. Indeed, clan and tribal identity in these areas has all but faded away, even though the main centre of the al-Naim tribe, one of the largest Syrian tribes, is located in the south.” 

In the western Syrian desert, the dominant tribes are Mawali and Hadidiyin, in addition to the Bani Khalid and al-Sakhana clans; their leaderships have been split in their loyalties since 2011. As Upper Mesopotamia changed hands between the Assad government, the opposition and ISIS forces, the clan members in the territory,  which the combatants controlled,  traded their loyalties to the combatants in order to maintain peace and economic returns during the occupation. Loyalties repeatedly changed from one side to the other side; sometimes provoking strife within the clans.

Examples of the frequent changes in loyalty have been common.  In the area of the Euphrates (‘Deir Ez-Zor, Raqqa and the south-eastern Aleppo countryside), where the well-known tribes are Akidat, Qays and Bakara, and the most important clans are Dulaim, Shaitat, Albu Saraya, Albu Chabur, al-Boleel, al-Namis, al-Butush and al-Asasna, many of the tribesmen initially rose up against the regime in Damascus, but they were divided internally. Most of the younger members of clans in the Euphrates region were against the regime, except in the province of Raqqa.  Yet, as expected, most clan elders in the area sided with the regime reflecting the privileges that they had previously received. 

Until the fall of Raqqa and the defeat of ISIS, there was grudging support of ISIS by the local tribes. However, as the Kurdish forces,the YPG (People’s Protection Units), began to succeed and expand their control of northeast Syria, the tribes and clans followed, participating with the Kurds to form the Syrian Democratic Federation. On 17 March 2016 the Kurds announced the formation of a new Federation of Northern Syria to take in the Kurdish-majority areas of Jazeera, Kobane and Afrin – collectively known as Rojava — plus Arab towns then under Kurdish control.  The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the largest Kurdish party in Syria, said at the time the federation should not be seen as an autonomous Kurdistan region, but rather a blueprint for a future decentralised and democratic country, where everyone would be represented in government. 

Salih Muslim Mohammed, the co-leader of the PYD, the largest Kurdish party in Syria, said: “There is no autonomous Kurdish region, so there is no question of recognising it or not. It is part of a democratic Syria, and it might expand all over Syria. We want to decentralise Syria, in which everyone has their rights.” That same day, two hundred members, delegates and party members including Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Christians from the Kurdish areas of Syria and Syrian towns including Manbij, Aleppo, and al-Shahbaa elected a council of 31 members for the Democratic Federal System for Rojava and Northern Syria.

Most importantly, the successes of the SDF forces (supported by US military advisors) and NATO aircraft in driving out the last vestiges of ISIS occupation,  left the oil-rich centre of ‘Deir Ez-Zor in the hands of the SDF and their tribal supporters; that presented an opportunity for clans of other ethnicities and religions, such as Turkmen, Alawite, Druze and Christian clans, to participate more fully in local politics. The Kurds participated through their PYD and, initially the Turkmen received support from Turkey which called together the  General Conference of the Supreme Council of Syrian Tribes and Clans in Istanbul on 10–12 December 2017. This was  followed by two conferences of the representatives of internal opposition clans in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib a few days later. The effort was Ankara’s idea for conserving Turkish influence in the region and for supporting  local tribes in their efforts to maintain control of the oil industry, and deny it to Damascus. Unfortunately for the Turks, the subsequent military successes of the SDF forces have left the Turks largely out of the equation and diluted the ties between the Syrian tribes and the Al Nusra Front in the oil-rich region. The efforts by the Turks to threaten to upset the prevailing balance of forces in Eastern Syria has caused a major rift with the Syrian tribes; especially when the Turkish command used tribal fighters in their efforts. Fighters from the Mawali tribe and the Heeb clan, the backbone of the clan forces fighting in that area, were forced to confront other fighters  opposed to the Turks, , including those belonging to the same tribe or clan.

The shifting kaleidoscope of loyalties and collaboration of the Syrian tribes with the several political and military factions in the nation is not a sign of bad faith or untrustworthiness by the Arab tribesmen. The Bedouin are important because they control or dominate access to their region. They are mainly small farmers or nomads. They produce very little in the way of commercial activity or commodities for sale. They are rentiers of their areas and trade access to their lands, and occasionally fighting men,   with outsiders in exchange for energy, water and cash. Traditionally,  they have acted as transmission belts for smugglers of salt, gold, slaves and weapons through their territories or for energy companies paying concession fees to extract oil and gas on their lands. In return, the tribesmen have sought energy supplies (mainly electricity), water for their crops to survive, and cash for their purchases of needed goods.

They are compelled to make such arrangements with the forces who use their lands in order to preserve the economic bargain. The tribe and clan must deal with whoever uses their territory by superior force.  This is not ideological; it is a commercial transaction in which the tribes trade their only assets, their turf and fighting men, in exchange for their economic needs. Getting the various tribes to agree on a common political principle in the abstract is a difficult task;  for how long this takes, and for how little the process can be mastered by outsiders, including Turks,  read T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, published in 1922. The tribes are loyal to whoever ‘rents’ their territory from them. When these ‘renters’ change or are replaced,  the tribes drive a bargain with the new ‘renters’. That is why the actions of the tribes in Syria is an important part of the analysis of the balance of forces in the present stage of the war.

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Source: https://oilprice.com

Syria’s oil reserves are small by Arab standards, but the oil and gas sector is a crucial contributor to Syria’s government revenue and foreign exchange earnings. In 2010, the sector contributed about 35 percent of export earnings and 20 percent of government revenue. Proven oil reserves were estimated at 2.5 billion barrels in 2013, located mostly in the east and northeast. Crude oil production peaked at 610,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 1995 and has since been on the decline, falling to around 380,000 bpd just prior to the start of the civil war.  Natural gas reserves are estimated at 241 billion cubic meters, located primarily in central Syria.

In early 2011, there were about two dozen international companies operating in Syria. There were state-owned and private companies; the Chinese, Indian, and Russian companies were particularly active, along with some minor European oil companies. The major interest in Syria’s energy industry was in exploration of its offshore acreage in the Mediterranean which abuts the rich Israeli gas fields like Leviathan and Tamar. These finds have  indicated there might well be commercially viable, subsea gas fields in the exclusive economic zones of Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus.

Source: https://nealrauhauser.wordpress.com/ For more on the Turkish attempt to take control of the offshore Cyprus gas fields, read this

Beyond the land-based infrastructure of producing oilwells, pipelines, refineries, and port terminals, the international energy companies believe that Syria may have large reserves of gas in the Mediterranean. The contending sides in the civil war think so, too. At the moment, no one knows exactly how important these fields might be for Lebanon or Syria as the civil war is preventing access to their exploration and exploitation.

Syria’s oil sector has been in a state of disarray since 2011. Production and exports of crude oil have fallen to nearly zero, and the country is facing supply shortages of refined products. The Oil & Gas Journal estimated Syria’s proved reserves of oil at 2.5 billion barrels as of January 1, 2015. Most of Syria’s crude oil is heavy (low gravity) and sour (high sulphur content), which requires a specific configuration of refineries to process; this puts Syrian crude at the lower end of the oil price range. However, the impact of this lack of supply is magnified by the effects of the sanctions placed on Syrian oil by the US and the European Union.

The sanctions campaign applied to Syria is one of the most comprehensive ever attempted. From the start, the sanctions have been strengthened several times. These include trade restrictions, travel bans and asset freezes on designated Syrian officials, as well as a ban on Syrian investment by US individuals, companies, or banks.

Syria needs oil. Domestic production this year reached 24,000 barrels a day — only around 20 to 25 percent of the total need — down from 350,000 barrels a day before the war. Government officials say they need $2.7 billion worth of subsidized fuel every year. Iran, which has offered vital military support to Assad, has been the main provider of oil. But Tehran is feeling the heat of US  sanctions itself. The credit line Iran extended to Damascus since 2013 to supply oil has run dry and oil shipments were substantially reduced by late 2018. This followed US Treasury sanctions imposed last November on a logistic network that spanned Syria, Iran and Russia and was responsible for shipping oil to the Syrian government. This sanctions plan was tested, and failed, in the August 2019 case of the Grace-1 tanker detained, then released by the British at Gibraltar.

There is a major battle going on for control of the Syrian oil and gas industry among the US, the Russians, the Iranians and the Turks. The US operates through the Kurdish forces of the SDF in the region which control the oil fields in the northeast of the country. This is the key region which contains 95 percent of all Syrian oil and gas potential — including al-Omar, the country’s largest oil field. Prior to the war, these resources produced some 387,000 barrels of oil per day and 7.8 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually. However, and more significantly, nearly all the existing Syrian oil reserves – estimated at around 2.5 billion barrels – are located in the area currently occupied by the Kurds and the SDF. In addition to Syria’s largest oil field, they also control the Conoco gas plant, the country’s largest. That plant, which can produce nearly 50 million cubic feet of gas per day, was originally built by US oil and gas giant ConocoPhillips; it  operated the plant until 2005, after which Bush-era sanctions made it difficult to operate in Syria. Other foreign oil companies, like Shell, also left Syria as a result of the sanctions. The SDF and the Kurds have an advantage. Not only are they selling oil to Assad, they are able to take the Syrian oil through to Iraqi Kurdistan where it can be refined and sent out through the Ceyhan pipeline across Turkey to world markets without sanctions

In late January 2019 the Russians signed an agreement with Assad and the Syrian Government to take over Syrian oil and gas. This deal provides Russia with exclusive rights to produce oil and gas in Syria. Beyond that, the agreement provides for a Russian role in the rehabilitation of damaged rigs and infrastructure, energy advisory support, and training a new generation of Syrian oil technicians. This is likely to be an expensive task— the IMF put the estimate of costs  at $27 billion in 2015 but the current estimates range between $35 billion and $40 billion. This figure includes the entire infrastructure of rigs, pipelines, pumping stations, etc. to be repaired and put back into operation. While the Russians have access to the gas fields near Palmyra, their access to the Northeastern oil fields is blocked by the SDF

Another impediment to Russia’s takeover of Syrian oil and gas supplies is finding a Russian company which is not itself under sanctions to market the products. The US and European sanctions have restrained the free movement and growth of the oil sector so Russia is more likely to concentrate on the gas sector. Most of Syria’s gas is used for domestic energy consumption,  burned for electrical power. That is a stable domestic market for the gas and, if the potential gas boom offshore is ever allowed to come to fruition, the Russians are already holding the possibility of a return on investment by gas exports through new pipelines.

The Iranians also have a great deal at stake in Syria and Syrian energy. Until October 2018 the Iranians have been supplying oil to Syria in tankers. At that point the Iranians, watchful of their dwindling resources due to sanctions re-imposed on the country by the US, have run short of available funds to keep up with their expanding military presence inside Syria. The Revolutionary Guard has thousands of soldiers in Syria supporting Assad; their presence inside Syria has kept open a secure landline to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, also supported by Iran. Since the reduction of Iranian tanker movements to Syria there has been a growing shortage of petroleum products in Syria.  Residents of the Syrian capital have been forced to once again use horse-led carriages to get around as a severe fuel crisis has taken hold in the government-held  areas of the country. The Assad response to the crisis has been to ration gasoline. Private cars are allowed 20 litres every five days while taxis can receive 20 litres every 48 hours. 

Tehran has had to issue credit for fuel supplies to Damascus. Syria consumes around 100,000 barrels of oil a day, but only produces around a quarter or this, according to the government, forcing Damascus to import around 2 to 3 million barrels from Iran. This credit line for oil supplies started in October 2013 with Damascus racking up $3 billion in debt so far. On February 25, 2019, President Assad visited Tehran, where he met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. There they agreed that Iran and Syria would join in a number of commercial deals for which Iran would provide financing.  As part of this restatement of their co-operation,  the Syrians have focussed on Latakia — the Alawi heartland — for a number of military and electrical power projects. Most importantly, the Syrians have turned over the running of the port of Latakia to the Iranians; a crucial step in Iran’s strategy to operate  a permanent route to the Lebanon as well as Syria. Iran has also undertaken to address Syria’s ongoing fuel shortage by sending future shipments of heating fuel, cooking fuel, and gasoline to the Iranian-leased section of Latakia, once it is fully operational. 

This leasing of Latakia to the Iranians was reportedly a challenge to the Russians at their naval base at Tartus and air base at Hmeimim. Having the Iranian presence so close might well obstruct Russian surveillance and intelligence gathering and jeopardize Russian air-defences, aircraft, and the lives of military personnel from the frequent drone and stand-off missile  attacks on Iranian troop and cargo movements by Israel. In recent months,  the Israelis have been attacking Iranian installations within Syria, especially when the Iranians ship missiles and other equipment to Syria and onwards to Hezbollah. It is an open secret that the Russians, who operate several sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-missile defence systems in Syria, turn them off before the Israelis strike Iranian targets in Syria.

Russia has  made a parallel offer to Syria. It has been agreed with the Syrians that a Russian firm would take over Syria’s largest port of Tartus for 49 years and invest $500 million in expanding it. The deal for management, expansion and operation of Tartus is reportedly with Russian company Stroytransgaz. For the time being, the port of Tartus is too small and shallow to accept the larger vessels used in international commerce,. When the port is expanded and upgraded, it can also add access to the Russian naval fleet in the eastern Mediterranean, allowing more vessel deployments and for longer periods than has been possible until now. Unspoken but understood in the agreement is the Russian desire to position its companies to exploit such opportunities off Tartus as may be developed for offshore gas.

The third major player in the search for Syrian oil and gas is Turkey. Turkey has a long and notorious history of intervention inside Syria in pursuit of Syrian oil. The fundamental problem for assessing the Turkish role in the region is the long and well-documented record of corruption by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In December 2015 the Russian Foreign Ministry publicly accused Erdogan and his sons of stealing Syrian oil which they trucked back to Turkey for sale. They produced extensive photographic evidence for the claim. The evidence was added to by the Defence Ministry.  The Erdogan family’s oil smuggling schemes have involved direct collaboration with ISIS. 

As ISIS was reduced, Erdogan has continued directing his energies to obtain oil and gas supplies from Syria and elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Theoretically, Turkey is in a strong strategic position vis-à-vis energy markets and suppliers thanks to the ongoing TurkStream project with Russia, the Transanatolian Pipeline Project (TANAP) with Azerbaijan, and the East Anatolia gas-transmission line with Iraq. Having been thwarted by the exposure of the oil theft from Syria, Turkey has had to rely on Russia for its oil and gas supplies. Erdogan’s vision of becoming the oil and gas hub for Europe is not proceeding well.

Although the share of imported gas originating from Russia has decreased continuously over recent years, it is still more than 50 percent. Moreover, with around 17 percent, the second-largest share of Turkey’s gas mix has been imported from Iran over the last years. Turkey succeeded in being granted an exemption from the United States’ Iran sanctions, but President Donald Trump has  announced these waivers have been withdrawn.

Turkey has maintained its hostility to the Kurds and has invaded Afrin and threatens to attack the SDF in Syria in an effort to block Rojava (a united Kurdish state) on its borders; as well as trying to drive the Kurdish forces from ‘Deir Ez-Zor and other oil and gas -producing regions of Northern Syria. Turkey, which initially financed the Turkomen minority participation in the creation of the SDF,  has now sent money, arms and supplies to the Arabian tribes in the SDF areas around the oil installations to foment a rebellion against the Kurds within the SDF. In addition to their military efforts the Turks have maintained their support for the Al-Nusra front (Jabhat al-Nusra) an erstwhile al-Qaeda affiliate, and several other groups opposed to Assad as well as the Kurds.

The Turks have supported several Arab tribes in the region. Sheikh al-Bashir, leader of the Baggara tribe in Syria’s eastern ‘Deir ez-Zor governorate and a former member of the Syrian parliament, has organized several armed groups which  have actively sought to attack Kurds in and around the ethnically mixed city of Ras al- ‘Ayn in the north-eastern area of al-Hasakah governorate,  along the Turkish border. Pro-government Baggara fighters, without links to Sheikh al-Bashir, have also participated in attacks on the Kurdish PYD.  The participation of Baggara tribal fighters in attacks against Kurds demonstrates the continuingly fragile state of Kurdish and Arab tribal relations in ethnically mixed regions such as Aleppo and al-Jazirah.

Many of the tribes lost control of the oilwells in their region to Daesh and to Al-Nusra. These oil assets are now in the hands of the PYD Kurds and other local tribesmen; Assad wants them back, too.  With the Kurdish loss of the oil facilities around Kirkuk by the Iraqi reaction to the Kurdish Referendum, the loss of the ‘Deir ez-Zor facilities – if the fresh Turkish operation succeeds — would have a major impact on Kurdish economic plans. Recently, the Arab residents of eastern Syria have complained that the YPG-led SDF administration seems to favour the Kurdish majority areas of northern Syria and has neglected Arab areas, where living conditions are poor and many towns remain without electricity. Not only have the Kurds been taking the oil to Iraqi Kurdistan, they have been shipping increased volumes of the oil and gas to the Assad Government in Damascus to make up for the drop-off in supplies from the sanctioned Iran. The Turks are promoting the line that the Kurds are taking all the money and not sharing properly with the tribesmen.

The announced Trump policy of withdrawing US forces from Syria has added to the aggravation. The local tribes put their faith in the YPG leadership in forming the SDF because the Kurds brought the US with them into the bargain. As it became clear the US was withdrawing its overt support for the Kurds and the YPG, the standing and power of the Arabs was reduced in the SDF coalition, so the tribes have begun looking elsewhere to see who would take their place; preferably someone who would pay them more than the Kurds. Turkey has exacerbated this development.

Another problem for the Syrians to reassert their sovereignty on land and in their exclusive economic zone at sea is the US recognition of Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, captured from Syria after the war of 1967. The Golan is the site of Syria’s second biggest, and until now,  unexploited gas field.


Map source: https://water.fanack.com/ The Euphrates River basin provides almost half of Syria’s available water; the photograph shows the Euphrates as it enters Syria from Turkey. The Khabour River basin is the largest of the tributaries feeding the Euphrates, as well as the Tigris River running into Iraq; in Syria, the Khabour basin accounts for 12 percent of the water supply. The Orontes River basin provides about 13 percent, while rainfall in the Coastal basin provides 23 percent.  

With estimates of rebuilding war-ravaged Syrian territory at around $180 billion, the ability of the country to pay for such a refurbishment is an obvious and crucial issue. Syria has not been a rich state and it has been vulnerable to two major non-political challenges over the years which it found difficult to address: oil and water. The oil and gas problems have been well understood, but the water problem is just as pressing, less well appreciated at the moment, and also more complicated.

There is a severe crisis of adequate supplies of fresh water in the region and Turkey’s geographical position containing the source of both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers gives it a great advantage in the competition for water. The twin rivers rise in the high mountains of north-eastern Anatolia and flow through Turkey, Syria and Iraq before eventually merging to form the Shatt al-‘Arab, which empties into the Persian Gulf. Turkey is the upstream country and has not traditionally enjoyed warm relations with the Arab countries downstream. Crucially, Turkey controls the water supply of the Euphrates and Tigris River basins.

In the 1960s, Turkey, Syria and Iraq negotiated a new phase of their relationship over water, as a result of Turkey’s decision to construct the Keban Dam on the Euphrates. After prolonged negotiations, Turkey guaranteed that it would maintain a discharge rate of 350 million cubic metres per second immediately downstream from the dam, provided the natural flow of the river was adequate to supply this discharge. This was communicated to Syria and Iraq the same year. Moreover, during this meeting Turkey proposed the establishment of a Joint Technical Committee (JTC), which would inspect each river to determine its average yearly discharge.

In 1965, the three nations met to exchange technical data on the Haditha (Iraq), Tabqa (Syria) and Keban (Turkey) dams being built on the Euphrates. There were procedural agreements over the next few years but there was no overall agreement on the ownership and use of the water. In 1987 the Turks and the Syrians agreed to an interim protocol on the waters of the Euphrates as Turkey was filling its Ataturk Dam as part of what is known as the Southeastern Anatolia Project (in Turkish,  GAP).  

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Since 1975, Turkey’s extensive dam and hydropower construction has reportedly reduced water flows into Iraq and Syria by approximately 80 per cent and 40 per cent,  respectively. Approximately 90 per cent of the water flow in the Euphrates and 50 per cent in the Tigris originate in Turkey. This has left Syria and Iraq vulnerable. The Turks only use about 35 percent of the water flow; this is largely because it manages the flow through the GAP system of dams. This commenced in the 1970s and now encompasses 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric power plants and several irrigation networks. GAP remains the second biggest integrated water development project in the world, covering approximately 10 percent of Turkey’s population and an equivalent surface area.

Nonetheless, there is and remains a critical shortage of water in the region. It was the continuing crisis over water which provided the backdrop to the Syrian Civil War. The drought during 2005 caused 75 percent of Syria’s farms to fail and 85 percent of livestock to die between 2006 and 2011, according to the United Nations. By 2011, drought-related crop failure in Syria had pushed up to 1.5 million impoverished farmers to abandon their land; the displaced farmers, or their children,  became a wellspring of recruits for the Free Syrian Army and for such groups as the ISIS  (Daesh) and al Qaeda. The drought, and the lack of the Damascus government’s remediation, were a central motivating factor in the anti-government rebellion. Moreover, a 2011 study shows the correlation between lack of water and political opposition — the rebel strongholds of Aleppo, ‘Deir Ez-Zor, and Raqqa were among the areas hardest hit by crop failure.

War has improved nothing for these tribesmen. There is still a massive deficit of water in the region, and accelerating climate change is making it worse. The Turkish “red line” strategy to prevent Kurdish forces in Northern Syria from controlling both sides of the Euphrates stems from longstanding Turkish fears of losing control of the water supplies of the Euphrates into central and southern Syria.

The important dimension of this struggle for water is that, while Turkey controls the water supply of the Tigris and Euphrates, the rivers rise and flow through the part of Turkey which is the homeland of the Kurds.  As the struggle between Erdogan and the Kurds continues there is little real ability of the Turks inside Turkey to prevent actions by the Kurds in their own mountains from diminishing further the flows of water which will have a devastating effect on the downstream nations.

[*] Gary Busch is currently based in London where he is a political intelligence consultant. He  has been a professor and department head at the University of Hawaii and thereafter a visiting professor at several universities. He was the head of research in international affairs for a major US trade union and Assistant General Secretary of an international union federation. His articles have appeared in the Economist Intelligence Unit, Wall Street Journal, WPROST, Pravda and several other news journals. He is the editor and publisher of the web-based news journal of international relations www.ocnus.net .  A longer version of this article was first published on May 16, 2019, here


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