RMEILAN, Syria (AP) — Driving along the roads of northeastern Syria, one would imagine there is a massive economic boom in the war-ravaged area.
Convoys of oil trucks, as many as 50 trucks in each, line the highways. They haul oil extracted from fields held by the U.S-backed Kurds, transporting it across the territory they control since driving out the Islamic State group.
But the oil industry is in shambles. After seven years of war, infrastructure is broken down and antiquated, there is no investment in the fields and the fight over control of oil resources is far from over.
Along the roads, old-style pumpjacks bob up and down on wells. Miles away on the landscape, dark pillars of smoke rise from primitive, ramshackle refineries that look like giant piles of scrap metal. At one, workers covered in sludge operated burners to separate oil components. Large puddles of leaked crude dot the area.
The workers are locals, many of them farmers who can no longer earn a living from their fields. Kurdish authorities sell crude to private refiners, who then sell fuel and diesel back to them.
For maintenance, workers use spare parts that often date back to the 1960s, piled up in nearby warehouses. No new exploration is possible, so old wells are drying up, they say.
The Kurdish self-rule administration seized control of these oil fields in northeastern Hassakeh province after the government pulled out of most of the Kurdish-majority regions in 2012 to fight rebels elsewhere.
Abdul-Karim Malak, the Kurdish oil minister, said oil and gas are the self-rule administration’s main revenue source, though he wouldn’t divulge figures.
The Syrian government has vowed to eventually retake all the oil fields, but for the time being there is a quiet arrangement between it and the Kurds. Damascus buys much of the surplus oil that the Kurdish-run areas don’t use. Also, many employees of the government oil company have returned to work, still receiving their salaries from Damascus.
But the two sides have been in fierce competition further down the Euphrates River in eastern Syria. Over the past months, the Kurds and government forces raced to capture IS territory, both aiming for the country’s biggest oil fields, in Deir el-Zour province.
The Kurds got there first, seizing the fields from IS. But they haven’t been able to operate them, because they are still battling IS remnants and have come under attack from government forces just across the Euphrates.
The Kurds eventually may try to keep oil fields or use them as a bargaining chip in negotiations. In the meantime, they are exploiting them as best they can.
Malak pointed to the lack of investment. Without modern refineries, “we are polluting the air here, we are polluting the environment,” he said. “But we are forced to do this.” If developed, he said, oil fields they control can produce more than half of Syria’s needs.
He said discussions with the Americans about future investment are ongoing, adding, “Our contracts will go to those who support us politically.”