Syrian Kurds refine oil for themselves for first time
DAMASCUS - Smoke rises as crude oil is heated in Rmeilan oil field of Syria's Hasakeh province, where the Kurds, having fought off jihadists, are extracting and refining oil for the first time.
Located in the middle of the desert in the northeastern province of the war-torn country, Rmeilan is Syria's largest oil field in terms of surface area.
"We heat the crude up to 125 degrees (Celsius, or 257 Fahrenheit) to produce gasoline, 150 degrees for kerosene and 350 degrees for fuel oil," said Kurdish technician Jakdar Ali.
The skinny worker, his clothes stained with grease and oil, is employed at one of the many makeshift refineries that local Kurdish authorities have set up to help meet energy needs in the region.
"It is the first time that the Kurds are extracting and refining oil in an autonomous manner" in Syria, following the example of fellow Kurds in neighbouring self-ruled northern Iraq, said Suleiman Khalaf, head of the Kurdish Energy Organisation -- the equivalent of a local oil minister.
In 2012, when government forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas in various parts of northern Syria, Kurdish forces filled the void and established autonomous local administrations.
In the process, they also took over Rmeilan, which includes the majority of the oil wells in Hasakeh, referred to by the Kurds as Jazire.
The remaining 10 percent of Hasakeh's wells are in the hands of the Islamic State jihadist group.
- 'We defended' wells -
Before the conflict, the oil from Rmeilan was transported to the country's two refineries in western Banias and central Homs regions.
But once the war started, "the pipelines going from the fields in Jazire to the refineries were sabotaged, forcing the closures of 1,300 wells in Rmeilan", Khalaf said.
Last summer, the local administration decided to take matters into its own hands, restarting extraction at 150 wells and creating around 20 makeshift refineries.
The Kurdish operation in Rmeilan now produces around 15,000 barrels of oil a day, more than the barely 10,000 bpd that Syria's government generates.
It is less than a tenth of the 165,000 that Rmeilan was producing before the war, but it is enough to meet the needs of areas in Hasakeh under Kurdish control.
Khalaf said the Kurds had earned the right to produce oil from the field after defending it against IS attacks more than a year ago.
"We defended these installations and these wells with hundreds of martyrs," he said, watching a handful of workers on the field.
The restarted oil flow has been a major boon after years of hardship in the area.
"The winter of 2013 was so severe that many families began cutting down trees and burning their furniture to heat themselves," said Hassan, a government employee at Rmeilan.
"We couldn't stand by with our arms crossed."
"People even began drilling by themselves near the wells to extract oil, and heated it to get oil products they could sell," said Saleh, a taxi driver in Qamishli, a Kurdish-majority city in Hasakeh province.
- Government support -
Khalaf said the Syrian government had helped get Rmeilan's wells back online by providing raw materials such as oil for turbines and spare parts.
Damascus also continues to pay the salaries of the handful of former government employees who have gone back to work in Rmeilan.
The gasoline produced at the site is bad quality, but it sells for much less than that produced by the government in the few oil wells it still controls.
The gasoline distributed by the state costs 400 Syrian pounds ($1.3) a litre, compared to around 150 for the local product.
The conflict has devastated Syria's oil industry, which was producing 380,000 barrels per day before the conflict.
Now, much of Syria's oil is produced in areas outside of government control -- like in the most productive oil fields in the eastern Deir Ezzor province held by IS.
Alongside the wells that stretch into the distance at Rmeilan, workers check safety valves, with some covering their faces to protect themselves from the heat generated by the machinery.
Trucks arrive to fill their containers with the refined product and deliver it to local gas stations.
Khalaf said he would be willing to coordinate with the regime on oil production, as long as the Kurds continue to benefit financially from the work at Rmeilan.
"If the route to the refineries in Homs and Banias reopens, we'll start pumping through it again immediately," he said.
"But on condition that the Kurdish region gets a fair part of the oil revenue."