Kurdish Unity? Syrian Regime Relying On Air Power. Islamists Control Syria’s Oil

Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading some news reports on the ongoing Syrian civil war and there are some very interesting things going on there. I mean “interesting” in the sense of the Chinese proverb. In short: the Kurds will not sit idly by while their region redefines itself around them and will be key players in future, Assad’s air power is about all he has left but may not be enough, and Islamist rebel groups now control all of Syria’s oil

Firstly, this:

The PYD and KNC are the Democratic Union Party and the Kurdish National Council respectively, the two main Syrian Kurdish parties which have often been at loggerheads and sometimes seemed to back differing sides in the Syrian war. The YPG are the People’s Defense Union, a group of self-protection militias which has been fighting Assad’s regime but also ensuring that no forces from the rebel Free Syrian Army enter its territory.

Such a unity coalition is going to worry Turkey more than a little bit. Istanbul accuses the PYD of ties to the Turkish Kurd PYK movement which it has fought for decades and says it  will not allow “terrorist” groups a foothold across the Syrian border. It is also going to worry Iraq, which has its own problems with Kurdish federalism (and seperatism) that have led to an armed stand-off which might spill over into open conflict very soon indeed. Any coalition of Syrian Kurds, who at 10% of the population are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, can be expected to not only echo Iraqi Kurdish feelings about self-government but to eventually join with them to form a de facto new Kurdish nation. More than both of those, though, it will seriously worry the two opposing sides in Syria. The Kurds will throw their loyalty to the one they see the most advantage in and although that looks like the rebels right now Assad could promise concessions or the Islamist element among the rebels, which already worries those Kurds thinking about post-Assad possibilities, could put a wrench in the works by some brutal stupidity on their part. The Kurdish coalition formed today will be a key element in the regional dynamic and shouldn’t be ignored.

Next we, have a report on how well the Syrian rebels have been doing in the last week or so in the Guardian, which points out that they’ve captured three key bases in just a few short days.

Each of the bases raided had been among the last regime strongholds in their respective parts of the country and had in effect become fortresses in hostile territory. Rebel fighters, using captured regime soldiers as labourers, were seen carrying away hundreds of crates of guns, medium-range weapons and ammunition.

All the while, the most formidable weapon in the regime armoury – air force jets – were present in the skies nearby. The regime’s jet fleet of Russian-made MiGs has remained a lethal threat since they were deployed in mid-summer shortly after opposition groups stormed both the capital, Damascus, and Aleppo.

…Syria’s air force is in effect levelling the battle field below, both with its bombs and its constant presence, which is taking a psychological toll on rebel groups that can do little to nullify it. Though in possession of a handful of looted anti-aircraft missiles as well as a small number smuggled from Turkey, fighter jets remain the most dominant weapon in the Syrian civil war.

Turkey this week said it would ask Nato to provide it with batteries of Patriot missiles to reinforce its restive southern border, where sporadic cross-border shelling has continued for much of the past three months.

Nato has said it will consider the request from one of its member states, in a move that has angered its cold war foe and staunch Syrian ally, Russia. The move is seen by rebels as an attempt to keep Syrian jets away from border areas.

Large chunks of Assad’s army are made up of Sunni conscripts who are not allowed to visit their families in case they defect. The army has major morale (and nowadays, supply) problems so while it is probably sufficient to keep Damascus and the Allawiite-majority areas for Assad indefinitely it won’t be enough to hold the whole country. Assad’s air force is the only truly effective arm of his forces right now but logistical shortages which will cause attrition and a possible de facto no-fly zone imposed by NATO Patriot missiles based along Turkey’s borders will soon change that. At that point, there will be a partition of Syria in all but name – only awaiting a final accession by all the interested parties to make it official.

That one of those interested parties claiming a chunk of partitioned Syria will be looking to set up an Islamist state was confirmed this week by reports that the rebel forces seizing one of those key bases, in  southeastern Deir al Zour province, was flying the black Islamist flag.

The battle for control of Deir al Zour is one of the least watched in Syria, with no foreign reporters visiting this oil-producing region in months. But the struggle here is an important one, with the rebels hoping to use their advance to cut off the government’s access to its oil fields.

…The flags that were hoisted by the rebels at the base were not the one used by rebels groups that have pledged allegiance to the secular Free Syrian Army. Rather it was a black flag flown in particular by Islamist groups that are heavily involved in the fight against the government in this province. One building at the captured base flew the flag of Jabhat al Nusra, a group of fighters that have called openly for the establishment of a Syrian state based on Islamic law and that some fear has ties to al Qaida.
This opens up a nasty dynamic for the future: the West, which backs the FSA, refuses to help these Islamist militias – but the Islamists are going to end up sitting on all of Syria’s oil wealth. Oil sales for 2010 were projected to generate $3.2 billion for the Syrian government and account for 25.1% of the state’s revenue, all of it coming from Deir al Zour and Hasaka province to its north.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

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  • I don’t think that I would quite go so far as to say that Islamists control all of Syria’s oil on the basis of this reporting. They’re talking about them occupying fields in Deir as-Zeir, but there’s a fair amount of stuff up in the far Northeast (and about three quarters of exported oil comes from up there apparently). My guess would be that the most important aspect of all of this is government loss of export revenue.

    There’s a good map of Syrian oil infrastructure here (though note that the transliterations used differ from what we in the non-USG world are used to): http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/syria.html. A good thumbnail of the oil situation can be found here: http://www.eia.gov/cabs/Syria/Full.html

    In interpreting the role of air power in all of this it’s important to understand that they do not appear to be particularly accomplished (or that well equipped) at tactical air support. Additionally, the reporting seems to be emphasizing the role of air power in hitting things like hospitals. If we accept it as a truism that western strategic bombing never achieves anything worthwhile in this domain, what leads us to the supposition that it will turn out any different for the Syrians, with a very much less capable set of assets (i.e., no PGMs, etc.)?

    • Good points both, JPD. I’ve seen reporting on Islamist rebel forces in the NE that suggests they’re just as strong there though – I’ll see if I can dig out the links again for you. On the second – spot on, no diasagreement.

  • More bonus reads:

    Turkey, Iraq exchange sharp rhetoric with Syria as backdrop

    Tayyip Recep Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said this week that recent clashes in the north of Iraq between Iraqi government forces and the Peshmerga, who report to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, “could be an oil feud as well as a sectarian conflict.”

    He was referring to oil deals between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has criticized as well as Maliki’s crackdown this past year on leaders of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority, who first sought refuge in Kurdistan and later in Turkey.

    “We always had concerns that, God forbid, this may turn into a sectarian clash. Now our fears are slowly becoming reality. This gives us cause to be concerned,” Erdogan said this week.

    …Among the factors leading to the rhetorical volleys are two sets of clashes in the past week. According to news reports, 12 Iraqi troops died Monday in clashes with the Peshmerga, Kurdistan’s self-defense force, near Tikrit. Maliki sent tanks and armored vehicles to the oil-rich Kirkuk region – which both Kurdistan and the central government claim – among other incidents.

    The other major clashes have occurred in Ras al Ayn, just inside the Syrian border with Turkey, where forces of the rebel Free Syrian Army have engaged a Kurdish force affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party for control of the border post. The Kurdish force, which Turkey, the United States and the European Union view as a terrorist organization, has been cooperating with the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad for some months.

    The connection with the Syria conflict is that President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government has sided with Turkey in opposing a takeover by Kurdish extremists of parts of northern Syria, whereas Maliki, presumably under Iranian pressure, has allowed Iranian aircraft to overfly Iraq with military equipment and support for Syria’s government.

    Now Barzani has informed Turkish leaders that he’s very worried that Maliki, a Shiite Muslim with ever-closer ties to Shiite Iran, intends to use brute force against Iraqi Kurdistan.

    In a showdown between Barzani and Maliki, Turkey almost certainly would back Barzani.

    Syria’s new opposition in race to convince skeptical Islamists

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