America’s military ally in Syria has become an important supplier of crude oil to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, showing the gaps in efforts by Washington to put economic pressure on a government it opposes.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, is delivering oil to Qatirji Group, a Syrian broker targeted by U.S. and European sanctions for supplying fuel to Mr. Assad’s government, said a person familiar with U.S. intelligence and a tanker-truck driver transporting the crude.
The oil comes from desert territory in eastern Syria under the control of the SDF, a group of militias working with U.S. troops still stationed in the country. The SDF, with American help, routed Islamic State and controls most of the country’s northeast. It has held most of the region’s oil and gas fields since late 2017.
Nearly every day, tanker trucks depart a 7,500-acre eastern oil hub with crude oil sold by the SDF to Qatirji for delivery to Syrian government refineries, the people familiar with the trade said.
When the same oil fields were under Islamic State control, Qatirji brokered oil sales by the extremists to the Assad regime.
Washington and its allies banned fuel sales to the Syrian government in 2011 in response to Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters. In September 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department accused Qatirji of facilitating fuel trade between the government and Islamic State, and imposed sanctions on Qatirji Co. and Mohammed Qatirji, who it identified as the head of the company.
Spokesmen for the SDF and the U.S. military declined to comment. The Treasury Department didn’t respond to requests for comment. Qatirji Group didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The sales by the SDF to Qatirji—from territory controlled with the aid of U.S. forces—represent a new challenge to U.S. efforts to starve the Syrian government of oil.
Russian and Iranian fuel exports to Syria have helped prop up Mr. Assad through the war, as the country’s oil production dropped from 353,000 barrels a day in 2011 to 25,000 barrels a day in 2018.
The SDF controls the bulk of that production, which now represents a vital part of the regime’s crude supply. Iran’s shipments to Syria averaged 20,000 barrels a day in the past three months, according to U.S. tracking website TankerTrackers.com. Russian deliveries, mostly refined products, have come under pressure from U.S. sanctions.
The sales by the Kurdish-led SDF illustrate the dilemma for Syria’s Kurds as the U.S. military begins executing a withdrawal that the Pentagon says will be completed by the end of April.
With a U.S. pullout, the Kurds will lose their biggest ally before being able to fully turn their territorial gains into economic and political power. The SDF controls oil fields, but Syrian refineries are in regime-controlled areas. That leaves Syria’s Kurds without a self-reliant fuel supply—and means they will likely have to cultivate ties with the Assad government when the U.S. leaves.
Administration officials see the SDF’s oil sales as a vital economic pillar for the region and worry that cutting them off would undermine the fragile economy, a former U.S. official said.
“There has been no long-term investment from the U.S. to help the Kurds,” said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria-focused research director at France’s University of Lyon II. In the absence of alternatives, “they have no choice but dealing with warlords like Mr. Qatirji,” he added.
Qatirji Co. has risen to prominence during the Syrian war, in part from the efforts of Hossam Qatirji, who is a brother of Mohammed and identified by the European Union as the company’s CEO.
Hossam Qatirji, 37 years old, brokered oil and wheat deals with Islamic State beginning in 2014 thanks to personal contacts in his hometown of Raqqa—then the extremist group’s de facto capital—according to Islamic State defectors and Syrian activists.
Two years later, he became a member of parliament for government-controlled Aleppo. Mr. Qatirji didn’t respond to a request for comment.
When the SDF took over Syrian oil fields, oil smugglers who worked for Islamic State switched allegiance and began working for the SDF, according to the tanker-truck driver and Syrian activists who said they wanted to see the oil revenue benefit the territory under SDF control.
The driver said he resumed the same route seven months ago for SDF-sold oil that he had under Islamic State. He said he trucks oil to an Assad regime refinery in Homs from the Al-Jafra field in the oil-rich region of Deir Ezzour in eastern Syria, under SDF control.
SDF fighters escort the oil trucks as they cross through their territory, the driver said, before they are delivered to Qatirji representatives in regime-held territory.
—Dion Nissenbaum in Washington contributed to this article.
Write to Benoit Faucon at email@example.com
Corrections & Amplifications
Iran’s oil shipments to Syria averaged 20,000 barrels a day in the past three months, according to TankerTrackers.com. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Iran’s shipments averaged 10,000 barrels a day during the period. (Feb. 8, 2019)