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Editorial Last Updated: May 12, 2019 - 10:03:16 AM

Oil and Water – The Immiscible Solution To The War in Syria
By Dr Gary K. Busch, 9/5/19
May 11, 2019 - 2:25:01 PM

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The roots of the Syria Civil War can be traced to the conflicts over control of Syrian energy supplies. Achieving a final conclusion to that war will also depend heavily on concluding arrangements for the distribution of Syrian energy supplies, onshore and offshore. ensuring adequate supplies of water in a continuously dehydrating climate. Syria has had many problems in its history, as well as opportunities, most of which have come from its location as an Arab country with broad access to the Mediterranean Sea. Iraq, Iran and Jordan have access to the Mediterranean through Syria.

Syria became important for the delivery of crude oil from the rich Kurdish fields in Iraq when the oil companies decided to create pipelines to the sea through Syria. This use of Syria by the international energy companies was directed by foreign nations. 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, continued to be dominated by external forces.

The occupying forces built the Mosul-Haifa pipeline; the Mosul-Haifa (Mediterranean) Pipeline. This was a crude oil pipeline from the oil fields in Kirkuk, located 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 and was operational from 1935–1948. Its length was about 942 kilometres (585 mi).  It took about 10 days for crude oil to travel the full length of the line. The oil arriving in Haifa was distilled in the Haifa refineries, stored in tanks, and then put in tankers for shipment to Europe. It provided most of the fuel needs of the British and American forces during the Second World War and was a key target for the Axis forces.

However, the pipeline was beset by 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 the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The Palestinians fought against the British and the French colonial forces in their Mandate of Lebanon and Syria as well as the Jewish settlers who had been allowed into Palestine by the British under terms of the Balfour Declaration. Al-Qassam was captured and executed by the British and the Grand Mufti allied himself with the Axis forces during the Second World War. Their alliance with the Axis was an effort by the Nazis and the Vichy French to cut off oil supplies to the Allies during the war. The Arab irregulars consistently attacked the Mosul-Haifa pipeline and were later supported by a team of Abwehr specialists who advised the Grand Mufti about sabotaging the oil stream during the Second World War.

These attacks on the pipeline made it clear to the oil industry that it would be difficult to protect the Mosul-Haifa pipeline in the face of a sustained Arab uprising as well as enduring the waves of strikes and go-slows of the organised workers in their territories. In Syria there was a general strike from 20 January to 6 March 1936 which paralysed the French territory. This built on the strikes being conducted by the organised workers of Iraq, whose general strike in 1931 led to the creation of the independent Iraqi state under Nuri as-Said. The British and the French were able to control the Arab Uprising during the war when they had large numbers of troops in the region but realised that they were less capable of policing the pipeline after the war and so began the construction of the Tapeline from Saudi Arabia through Syria.

After the unsuccessful Arab-Israeli War in 1948 Syria maintained a fragile parliamentary democracy but its political leadership was fired with the fury of Arab nationalism and frustrated by the signing of the peace treaty with the victorious Israeli state. The West was worried about the rise of a sustained hostility to the West in the region after the war and feared the rebuilding of a Soviet-supported Arab bloc in the region which would threaten the multinational oil companies and Saudi Arabia’ export capacity. The CIA and the American Embassy in Damascus actively promoted a coup d’état by the Army’s Chief of Staff, Husni al-Zaim. He was assisted by two key allies, Adib al-Shishakli and Sami al-Hinnawi, both of whom would later become military leaders of the country.

In April 1949 Husni al-Zaim seized power and jailed many of his opponents. Al-Zaim was in favour of a secular state. He ordered the end of veiling of women and gave women the franchise. He forced businessmen to pay the taxes which they owed and, most importantly, he signed a number of long-term deals with the multinational oil companies to participate in the creation of the Trans-Arabian  Pipeline (‘Tapeline’) which the previous government of Syria had refused to sign. The construction of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline had begun while the British Mandate of Palestine was still operative in 1947. It was designed and managed by the American company Bechtel. Originally the Tapline was intended to terminate in Haifa which was then in the British Mandate of Palestine, but due to the establishment of the state of Israel, an alternative route through Syria (Golan Heights) and Lebanon was selected with an export terminal in Sidon.


The Syrian government initially opposed the plan, but after the Husni Al-Zaim coup it ratified the contracts for the Tapline construction and it was built

The Syrian Government

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) following the 1966 split within the original Ba'ath Party between Iraq and Syria. The Syrian Ba’ath has ruled Syria continuously since the 1963 Syrian coup d'état which brought the Ba'athists to power.

The rise of the B’ath Party in Iraq was paralleled by the growth of a secular Ba’ath Party in Syria. The Arabic word ba’ath means "resurrection" or "renaissance." The party had its origins in the desire of Syrian secular Arab nationalists to break with their feudal past and to create a new form of secular government for Arab countries.  The Ba’ath Party was officially founded in 1947 and sought to create a secular and socialist culture in Arab countries. The Ba’ath Party was able to establish itself in Syria in 1954. The Ba’ath Party established itself in Iraq in 1963.

In Syria, Hafez Assad originally led the party which was dominated by the Alawi (about 12% of the Syrian nation) and supported by the network of Alawi in the army and the national intelligence establishment. Both Assad and Hussein (in Iraq) insisted that their branch of the party was running the international Ba’ath movement. The two men could not agree on who was in charge,  and became bitter enemies.  The Iraqi Ba’athists were almost exclusively Sunni while Syrian Ba’athists were primarily Alawi.

The al-Assad clan which runs Syria is Alawi; a minority group within the Syrian state. They are followers of an Ismaili belief system that incorporates aspects of both Shi'a and Sunni Islam and some Christian beliefs; Alawis celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Epiphany. In fact the Turkish 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 consistently persecuted them and imposed heavy taxation on them. 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 Baathists, after their takeover of the Syrian state, soon gave up any notion of Arab socialism and became a corrupt police state. In 1982 Hafez Assad banned all other political parties except the Ba’ath. He had them ruthlessly dissolved; their leaders killed or subject to involuntary exile. The free press of Syria was outlawed. The only newspapers that were allowed into circulation were official Ba’ath papers.

The Syrian Tribes

One of the most fundamental forces in Syrian political life, and the key to understanding the kaleidoscope of political interactions and coalescences, derives from the fact that Syria is divided into competing clans and tribes combined with regional identities. These tribal and clan relationships are not stable or fixed alliances and there are shifting loyalties and social changes which often cause strife among tribes and clans as well as within tribes as kin and outsiders seek dominance. These conflicts allow non-tribal entities to agree alliances with and among 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 inception of its current Civil War has been the reduction of the control of the tribes and clans by their traditional chiefs. These changes have allowed the tribes to ally themselves with the Syrian Government, the Syrian rebels, the SDF and ISIS (‘Daesh’); often on a fluid basis

As the conflict in Syria spread different tribes became identified with one or more of these combatants. “Upper Mesopotamia (north-eastern 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.”[i]



This has been different among the tribes of the South 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, which is active in the area of Lajat, where the Bedouin identity is still preserved to a large extent, as opposed to 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.”[ii]

In the Syrian desert, the dominant tribes are Mawali and Hadidiyin, in addition to the Bani Khalid and al-Sakhana clans, whose leaderships have been split in their loyalty since 2011. As Upper Mesopotamia changed hands between the regime, the opposition and ISIS forces, the clan members in the territory the combatants controlled traded their loyalties to the combatants to maintain peace and tranquillity during the occupation. They displayed of loyalty to the side that controlled their land. Their loyalties repeatedly changed from one side to the other side; sometimes provoking strife within the clan.

Examples of the frequent changes in loyalty were common in the region. In the area of the Euphrates ('Deir Ez-Zor, Raqqa and the south-eastern Aleppo countryside), where the most famous 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 tribes rose up initially against the regime.

At the beginning of the revolution, most of the younger members of clans in the Euphrates region rose up against the regime, ”except for the province of Raqqa, where huge protests broke out in 'Deir Ez-Zor and the eastern Aleppo countryside, before many young men in the area joined the Free Syrian Army. Yet, as expected, most clan elders in the area sided with the regime due to the privileges that they had previously received from it. “[iii]


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, began to succeed and expand their control of Northeast Syria, the tribes and clans began to participate with the Kurds in forming the Syrian Democratic Federation. On 17 March 2016 the Kurds announced the formation of a new Federation of Northern Syria that would take in Kurdish-majority areas of Jazeera, Kobane and Afrin, knowns as Rojava, plus Arab towns currently under Kurdish control.  The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the largest Kurdish party in Syria, said the federation should not be seen as an autonomous Kurdistan region, but rather a blueprint for a future decentralised and democratic country, where everyone is represented in government.

Salih Muslim Mohammed, the co-leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the largest Kurdish party in Syria, said “There is no autonomous Kurdish region, so there is no question of recognising it or not," he said. “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. [iv]

Most importantly, the successes of the SDF forces (aligned with U.S military advisors) and NATO aircraft in driving out the last vestiges of ISIS occupied territory, left the oil-rich centre of 'Deir Ez-Zor in the hands of the SDF and their tribal supporters and presented an opportunity for clans of other ethnicities and religions, such as Kurdish, 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, followed by two conferences of the representatives of internal opposition clans in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib a few days later in an effort to conserve Turkish influence in the region and to support the local tribes in their efforts to maintain control of the oil industry. 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 the array of forces in Eastern Syria caused a major rift with the Syrian tribes; especially when they 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 opposition fighters, including those belonging to the same tribe or clan.

The constant 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 Bedouin. 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 act as transmission belts for smugglers of salt, gold, slaves and weapons through their territories or allow energy companies to extract oil and gas on their lands in relative safety. In return they get energy supplies (mainly electricity), water for their crops and survival, and cash for their purchases of needed goods.

They are driven to make arrangements with the forces who use their lands in order to continue the economic bargain. They can’t move the tribe or clan. They must deal with whoever uses their territory. It is not ideological; it is a commercial transaction in which the tribes trade their only asset, turf and fighting men, in exchange for their economic needs. Getting the various tribes to agree on some common political principle in the abstract is a difficult task (see Lawrence of Arabia). 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 considering the actions of the tribes in Syria is an important part of the analyses of the force arrays.

The Syrian Oil And Gas Sector

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% of export earnings and 20% 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 bpd in 1995 and has since been on the decline, falling to around 380,000 bpd prior to the conflict. 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 operating in Syria; the Chinese, Indian, and Russian companies were particularly active, along with some European minor oil companies. The major interest in Syria’s energy industry was in exploration of its offshore acreage which abuts the rich treasure of Israeli gas fields like Leviathan and Tamar. These finds indicated that there might well be subsea gas fields in both Lebanon and Syria.

Beyond these land-based infrastructures the international energy companies believe that Syria may have large reserves of gas in the broadening scope of Mediterranean oil and gas fields. 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 which places the oil 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 U.S. and the Europeans.

The sanctions campaign applied to Syria by OFAC, HM Treasury, the EU, the UN, and several other regulatory entities is one of the most comprehensive ever implemented. Sanctions were imposed in response to the Syrian government’s support of international terrorism and violations against democratic and human rights in the country. Since first being implemented, the sanctions have been strengthened several times due to escalating violence in the region. Currently imposed sanctions include trade restrictions, travel bans and asset freezes on certain Syrian officials, as well as a ban on Syrian investment by US persons.

Syria needs oil. Domestic production this year reached 24,000 barrels a day — only around 20-25 percent of total needs — 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 offered vital military support to Assad, was the main provider. But Tehran is feeling the heat as the U.S. squeezes sanctions on Iran get tighter. The credit line Iran extended to Damascus since 2013 to supply oil has run dry and its oil shipments stopped late 2018. This followed U.S. Treasury sanctions imposed in November on a network that spanned Syria, Iran and Russia and was responsible for shipping oil to the Syrian government. The Treasury also issued a global advisory warning of sanctions for illicit oil shipments, naming specific vessels and pressuring insurance companies. At least one tanker with Iranian oil headed to Syria remains docked outside the Suez Canal since December, according to TankerTrackers.com. [v]

The older Arab pipeline delivering Egyptian gas to Syria was closed in 2011 when Egypt ran out of gas and there was extensive sabotage of the line in Syria. A few years later the pipeline between Egypt and Israel was reopened but to deliver Israeli gas to Egypt.

The Battle for Syrian Oil and Gas

There is a major battle going on for control of the Syrian oil and gas industry among the U.S., the Russians, the Iranians and the Turks. The U.S. 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, 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. The plant, which can produce nearly 50 million cubic feet of gas per day, was originally built by U.S. oil and gas giant ConocoPhillips, which 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 to the world markets without sanctions.[vi]

In late January 2019 the Russians signed an agreement with Assad and the Syrian Government to take over Syrian oil and gas. Russia will have exclusive rights to produce oil and gas in Syria. The agreement goes significantly beyond that, stipulating the rehabilitation of damaged rigs and infrastructure, energy advisory support, and training a new generation of Syrian oil technicians. This likely to be a very expensive task— IMF put the estimate expenses at $27 billion in 2015 but the current estimate lies most likely between $35–40 billion. This includes the totality 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 its access to the North-eastern oil fields is blocked by the SDF control.[vii]

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 that sector so Russia is more likely to concentrate on the gas sector. Most of Syria’s gas is used by the domestic energy sector and is burned for electrical power. That is a stable domestic market for the gas and, if the implied gas boom offshore Syria ever is ever allowed to function, offers the Russians the possibility of a return on its investment by gas exports through the new pipelines being built in the region.


The Iranians 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 being re-imposed on the country by the U.S., have run out of available funds to keep up with their expanded military presence inside Syria. The Revolutionary Guard has thousands of soldiers in Syria supporting Assad and their presence inside Syria has kept open a secure landline to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon supported by Iran. Since the stoppage of Iranian tankers 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 regime-held areas of Syria. The regime’s 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.[viii] Things have become so desperate that the Syrian regime has been buying fuel from a company run by  Hayat Tahrir al-Sham rebel group, which controls opposition Idlib province.

Tehran has had to cut $200 million in credit for fuel supplies to Damascus. Syrian 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 25th, 2019, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s 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 credit. 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 on Iran’s aim to have a permanent route to the Lebanon and the sea to maintain its presence in Syria. Iran has also promised to address Syria’s ongoing fuel shortage by sending all future shipments of heating fuel, cooking fuel, and gasoline to the Iranian-leased section of Latakia, once it is fully operational.[ix]

This leasing of Latakia to the Iranians was seen as a challenge to the Russians at their naval base at Tartus and the air base at Hmeimim. Having the Iranian presence so close might well obstruct Russian surveillance and intelligence gathering, jam their radio-electronic technology, and jeopardize Russian air-defences, aircraft, and the lives of military personnel as the frequent drone attacks on Iranian troop and movements by Israel might attract further interest in the area. 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 a badly-kept 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 after communications with the Israeli ‘hotline’. The Israelis are pleased with this as are the Russians in that it is widely believed that the Israelis have developed effective counter-measures to the S-400 anti-aircraft system. A public demonstration of this would embarrass the Russian military and damp down foreign S-400 sales. Having an Iranian military control of Latakia port changes many of the strategic programs for the Russian military.

Russia was upset at this move with the Iranians by the Syrians and made an analogous offer to Syria. They 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. They agreed a deal for the management, expansion and operation of the port of Tartus with Russian company Stroytransgaz. Today, the port of Tartus is too small and shallow to accept the larger vessels used in international commerce, and, when it is improved and expanded, can also provide access to the Russian naval fleet assembling off the Syrian coast. Unspoken in the agreement was the Russian desire to  be in a position for its companies to take advantage of the opportunities off Tartus for a possible opening of Syrian offshore gas facilities.

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 charges of corruption by Erdogan. In December 2015 the Russian foreign ministry accused President Erdogan and his sons of ‘stealing’ Syrian oil which they trucked back to Turkey for sale. They produced extensive photographic evidence of this claim. Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov stated "According to available information, the highest level of the political leadership of the country, President Erdogan and his family, are involved in this criminal business. They have invaded the territory of another country and are brazenly plundering it."[x] They did so in direct collaboration with ISIS from whom they purchased the oil.

The Russian Defence also alleged that the same criminal networks which were smuggling oil into Turkey were also supplying weapons, equipment and training to Islamic State and other Islamist groups. Sergei Rudskoy, of the Russian General Staff, announced that “According to our reliable intelligence data, Turkey has been carrying out such operations for a long period and on a regular basis. And most importantly, it does not plan to stop them.”[xi] This expose of the Turkish role in supporting ISIS and Al Nusra was the origin of Erdogan’s break with his former partner, Gulen.

Erdogan was losing support in Turkey with all his foreign policy tergiversations and the recurrence of corruption charges over his family’s involvement in marketing Daesh oil was threatening in the national assembly. The main reason for the split between Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen was over the 2013 corruption charges against the AKP. The 2013 corruption scandal in Turkey refers to a criminal investigation that involved several key AKP members of the Turkish government. All of the 52 people detained on 17 December, 2013 were connected in various ways with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Prosecutors accused 14 people – including Suleyman Aslan, the director of state-owned Halkbank, Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, and several family members of cabinet ministers – of bribery, corruption, fraud, money laundering and gold smuggling. The Turks exported some US$13 billion of gold to Iran directly, or through the UAE between March 2012 and July 2013. In return, the Turks received Iranian natural gas and oil. The transaction was carried out through Turkish state-owned bank, Halkbank in January 2013 despite US sanctions against Iran. Numerous AKP officials were found guilty and the police confiscated some US$17.5 million as money used in bribery during the investigation.

This was not the end. A second round of corruption processes began again in December 2013.This time the perpetrators included Erdogan’s two sons – Bilak and Burak. They were linked to prominent Al-Qaida Saudis (Sheikh Yasser Al Qadi and Osama Khotoub). Erdogan retaliated by firing Chief Prosecutor Muammer Akkas. The next day, when a leak of the name of those charged of corruption reached the newspapers, Erdogan fired 350 police officers, including the chiefs of the units dealing with financial crimes, smuggling and organised crime. Gulen said that his party, Hizmet, could not tolerate such a policy and he had a falling out with Erdogan. This led to him fleeing the country and for Erdogan’s obsession with Gulen as an arch villain. These corruption scandals are why Erdogan has dismissed and detained the many judges and lawyers after the recent coup attempt.

In January 2015 secret official documents about the searching of three trucks belonging to Turkey's national intelligence service Mille Istihbarat Teskilati (MIT) were leaked online to the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, once again corroborating suspicions that Ankara has not been playing a clean game in Syria. According to the authenticated documents, the trucks were found to be transporting missiles, mortars and anti-aircraft ammunition. The Gendarmerie General Command, which authored the reports, alleged, "The trucks were carrying weapons and supplies to the al-Qaeda terror organization.” But Turkish readers could not see the documents in the news bulletins and newspapers that shared them, because the government immediately obtained a court injunction banning all reporting about the affair. The editor and the publisher were jailed for treason. There have been many additional reports of MIT officers acting as paymasters of both ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front in Syria and many more Turkish journalists put in jail.

Since then, and after the trial and imprisonment of thousands of Turkish military  officers, journalists, trades unionists and politicians in the aborted coup, Erdogan has directed his energies to he obtaining of 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 Turkey’s oil theft in 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 Trump has just announced that 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-Zoor 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 through MIT 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 Salafist forces opposed to Assad as well as opposed to the Kurds.

The Turks have also 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 that 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 governance, along the Turkish border. Pro-government Baggara fighters, without links to Sheikh al-Bashir, have also participated in attacks against 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 oil wells in their region to Daesh and to Al-Nusra. These oil facilities are now in the hands of the PYD Kurds and the local tribesmen., as well as Assad want them back. Turkey is supporting both in the efforts around ‘Deir ez-Zor. 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 would have a major impact on Kurdish economic plans. Recently, the Arab residents of eastern Syria have complained that the YPG-led SDF administrations 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 supplied from the sanctioned Iran. The Turks are pushing the line that the Kurds are taking all the money and not sharing properly with the tribes.

The announced Trump policy of speedily withdrawing U.S. 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 U.S. might with them into the bargain. As it became clear that the U.S. was withdrawing its overt support for the Kurds and the YPG, their stature was reduced in the SDF coalition and the tribes began looking elsewhere to see who would take their place; preferably someone who would pay them more than the Kurds. Turkey has exacerbated this development, but, at the moment, is increasingly reliant on Russia for additional supplies.

Turkey has also been attempting to muscle-in on the massive gas discoveries off of Cyprus; especially in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus which Turkey, alone, recognises as a separate state. It has been unsuccessful in its claims despite its frequent statements and petty harassments of the drillers.  In December 2011 Noble announced a successful deep water gas find offshore Cyprus in a field estimated to hold at least 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This made Cyprus, overnight, a potential major player in the gas to Europe business. Cyprus and Israel agreed to co-operate on building a pipeline from Israel’s offshore facilities to Cyprus and continuing to Europe through joining up with the new offshore Greek gas fields.

Gas Discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean

The main beneficiary so far of the gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean has been Israel. Some Israeli gas was provided by the Yam Tethys – the Mari B and Noa - natural gas reservoirs discovered in 1999 and 2000 by a partnership of the U.S.-based Noble Energy and the Israeli Delek Energy. These reservoirs marked the start of a new era.. Mari-B and Noa established the Israeli offshore holdings in the oil & gas game for the very first time, and introduced natural gas to the Israeli market. Yam Tethys has been supplying natural gas to the Israeli market since 2004. The major clients of Yam Tethys include the IEC (Israeli Electric Corporation); ICL (Israel Chemicals, Ltd.) and the sole Israeli Independent Power Producer.

Then, in 2009, the U.S.-based Noble Energy discovered the Tamar field in the Levantine Basin some 50 miles west of Israel’s port of Haifa with an estimated 8.3 tcf (trillion cubic feet) of highest quality natural gas. Tamar was the world’s largest gas discovery in 2009. At the time, the Yam Tehys gas reserves were estimated at only 1.5 tcf. Moreover, estimates were that Yam Tethys, which supplied about 70 per cent of the country’s natural gas, would be depleted within three years.


With Tamar, prospects began to look considerably better. Then, just a year after Tamar, the same consortium led by Noble Energy struck the largest gas find in its decades-long history at Leviathan in the same Levantine geological basin. Present estimates are that the Leviathan field holds at least 17 tcf of gas. Israel went from a gas famine to feast in a matter of months. There were also large discoveries of oil in the same basin. The USGS, (US Geological Survey), stated that undiscovered oil and gas resources of the Levant Basin Province amount to 1.68 billion barrels of oil, and 122 tcf of gas.

There have been claims by both Lebanon and Syria that their maritime zones include part of the Tamar and Leviathan fields but they are in no position to enforce their claims. Although Lebanon believes it has a claim to the Leviathan field, Lebanon and Israel are technically at war and do not recognise either land or sea borders. Israel has declared its maritime boundaries with Lebanon.

Based on its boundaries on land, Israel established a maritime zone that veers well to the north, an area that encompasses all the known major gas fields. Lebanon has responded by submitting to the UN the coordinates of what it says are its maritime boundaries and has also lodged a formal protest with the world body against Israel which is being studied by the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, and other UN bodies. However, Israel, like the USA, has never ratified the 1982 UN Convention on Law of the Sea dividing world subsea mineral rights. The Israeli gas wells at Leviathan are clearly within undisputed Israeli territory as Lebanon affirms, but Lebanon believes the field extends over into their subsea waters as well. The Lebanese Hezbollah claims that the Tamar gas field, which has just begun gas deliveries, belongs to Lebanon. Syria was too busy to advance its claims at the time but, in late 2018 Oil and Mineral Resources Minister Ali Ghanem said contracts for five offshore blocks had been signed with “friendly countries”. He also said Syria has an estimated 1,250 billion cubic metres of offshore gas reserves. The report did not say when or how the Syrian government had appraised the reserves.[xii]

As Israel’s gas reserves are expanding it is beginning to introduce new technologies to its operation. The Greek energy company, Energean, will produce gas by 2020 from the Karish and Tanin fields using the FPSO method. The Greek energy company will produce gas by 2020 from the Karish and Tanin fields using the FPSO method. Egypt, as well, has expanded its offshore gas industry.


The irony of the delay and unlikelihood of Syria’s claim to its offshore gas is that the U.S. has just recognised the legal claim of Israel to the Golan Heights, taken from Syria after their last war. The Golan is the site of Syria’s second biggest, and until now, unexploited, gas field.

The Water Crisis

With estimates of rebuilding the ravaged wasteland of Syria at around US$180 billion the ability of Syria to pay for such a refurbishment is a crucial issue. Syria was never a rich state and was 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 more complicated.

There is a severe crisis of adequate supplies of fresh water in the region and Turkey’s geographical position as 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 Gulf. Turkey is the upstream country and has not traditionally enjoyed warm relations with the Arab countries downstream. Crucially, controls the water supply of the Euphrates-Tigris River Basin.

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 to maintain a discharge of 350 m3/s immediately downstream from the dam, provided that 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 again to exchange technical data on the Haditha (Iraq), Tabqa (Syria) and Keban (Turkey) dams being built on the Euphrates. There were several small 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 made an interim protocol on the waters of the Euphrates as Turkey was filling its Ataturk dam.

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% of the water flow and this is largely because it manages the flow through an elaborate system of dams. The pièce de résistance of the program of dam-building in Turkey was the gigantic Southern Anatolian Project (known by its Turkish acronym, GAP), which commenced in the 1970s and 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. It was the continuing crisis over water which provided the backdrop to the Syrian Crisis.  By 2011, drought-related crop failure in Syria had pushed up to 1.5 million displaced farmers to abandon their land; the displaced became a wellspring of recruits for the Free Syrian Army and for such groups as the Islamic State (Daesh) and al Qaeda. Drought, and the lack of governmental remediation was a central motivating factor in the anti-government rebellion in Syria. Moreover, a 2011 study shows that the rebel strongholds of Aleppo, ‘Deir Ez-Azor, and Raqqa were among the areas hardest hit by crop failure. Drought changed the economic, social, and political landscape of Syria and was a prime motivator for the disillusion of the Arab tribes with the Syrian Government which was not living up to its bargain to supply them with water and energy.

There is still a massive deficit of water in the region as climate change accelerates. The Turkish “red line” of prohibiting the Kurdish troops in Northern Syria controlling both sides of the Euphrates was generated by Turkish fears of giving the Kurds 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.


The problems facing Syria over asserting full control over the whole of Syria are enormous, prompting a response which might allow for the partition of the country. To a large extent this doesn’t depend on the Syrians alone; the Russians, Iranians, Turks, Kurds and the U.S. will all have a say. At the heart of that decision will be the question of security and the end of terrorism and the more fundamental problems of oil and water. As long as the U.S. presses its demands on Iran and interdicts its exports the concurrent pressures on Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas will not be resolved. The dispatch of two US Navy carrier groups to the Eastern Med will make it much more expensive for the Russians to compete for influence in the region as it doesn’t have the comparable equipment. The key factor  will be Turkey. The Turkish military have been beheaded and jailed by Erdogan but the recent elections in Turkey may be an indication that the political tide there may be changing and the failure of Erdogan to deliver a stable economy may seal his fate. He has little room in which to manoeuvre and there is a rising interest in changing the restrictions of the Treaty of Montreux which give Turkey control of naval access to the Black Sea. Turkey’s place in NATO looks weak and fragile as Erdogan insists on buying Russian military radar for use in a co-ordinated NATO belt of security in the region.

Nothing seems likely to change much in the region but the financial pressures and sanctions on Russia, Iran and Syria will continue to constrain the willingness to expand the search by Lebanon and Syria for offshore gas. The Israelis have used their new supplies of energy to construct elaborate systems of desalinisation, thus removing the water question from their equation. The gift of Golan gas and oil to Israel is a blow to Syria and a boon to Israel. As the old Arab proverb indicates, it is time to stop destroying Syria and get on with fixing it. إصلاح الموجود خير من انتظار المفقود (“It’s better to fix what you have than wait to get what you don’t have.”) It will be a long time coming.


[i] Akil Hussein, "Division Defines Syria’s Tribes and Clans", Chatham House, January 2018

[ii] ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Wladimir van Wilgenburg, 'This is a new Syria, not a new Kurdistan', Middle East Eye, 20/3/16

[v] Associated Press, "Syrian Oil Crisis Pushes Assad to Choose Between Russia and Iran " 5/5/19

Source:Ocnus.net 2019

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