Justin Vela

Bosporus Blog…Kurds & Arabs and Syria’s Oil…

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Weeks of fighting gave way earlier this month to the quiet of a ceasefire agreement signed by militants in Ras Al Ayn, a mixed town of Arabs, Kurds, and Christians in northern Syria.

Beginning in November, Arab rebels seeking to oust the regime of Bashar Al Assad fought Kurdish militants affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The Arab fighters accuse the PYD of collaborating with the regime. The fight was exacerbated by localized tensions between Kurds and Arabs, who have not always gotten along well in Syria’s northern, oil-rich Jazira region. I wrote about the ceasefire for The National.

There might be as much as 3.15 billion barrels of undiscovered oil reserves in northern Syria, along with 6.9 billion barrels of discovered reserves, according to an article in The National Interest. This is not the same kind of oil wealth that can be found in Northern Iraq, for example, but it is not insignificant.

One of the reasons the Arab dominated Syrian political opposition has refused to provide guarantees for a Kurdish autonomous region in post-Assad Syria is that the oil is located in areas Kurds aspire to govern. Self-rule remains a key demand of the Kurds. And because autonomy is refused by the mainstream political opposition, most Kurds have not joined its ranks, even if they do not support Assad.

The Arab opposition say they want to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity and are so far unwilling to budge on the issue of autonomy. For them, a Northern Iraq vs Baghdad scenario where there is disputed governance over an area and its resources is possibly one of the least desired outcomes of the conflict.

Thus, the battle in Ras Al Ayn is viewed largely through a prism of future Arab-Kurdish fighting in Syria. Syria analysts I interviewed last week said more fighting is likely inevitable. Long-standing tensions between Kurds and Arabs in Syria will likely worsen as the prospect of controlling oil wealth comes into play. The role Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq might play in the future is also something to watch.

Of course, the cost of this will be that the resumption of Syria’s oil production will be delayed. International companies coming to invest and explore for undiscovered oil once the Assad regime is overthrown remains a distant prospect. Syria appears headed for a future where sect-based regionalism stands in for a unified country.

Unless credible guarantees are given to the Kurds there is little reason to believe they will fall into step with the mainstream opposition.

And Arab anti-Assad rebels claim they will push further east, towards the oil fields, which are currently controlled largely by Kurdish forces after most regime forces pulled out of the North to defend Damascus and Aleppo.

This is likely to bring trouble soon. But for now Ras Al Ayn is quiet.

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Written by Justin Vela

February 26, 2013 at 5:57 pm

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