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Oil sales fuel rebel groups in eastern Syria

February 5, 2014

In 2011, Syria’s oil fields, mostly concentrated in the eastern provinces of Deir e-Zor, a-Raqqa and al-Hasakeh, produced between 330,000 and 400,000 barrels of oil a day, providing the Syrian government with up to a quarter of its annual revenue.

Today, after nearly three years of violent conflict and a year after the Syrian government withdrew most of its forces from eastern Syria, the country’s oil fields produce around 80,000 barrels a day. Most are run by extremist Islamist rebel groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat a-Nusra, or Kurdish groups like the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

Control of the fields has become a valuable, and contested, resource for the groups, who fund themselves by reselling oil in local markets, across the porous Iraqi and Turkish borders or to the Syrian government.

When heavy intra-Islamist rebel fighting exploded in northern Syrian in early January, ISIS consolidated dominance over a-Raqqa province, including its lucrative oil fields and a segment of Syria’s largest oil pipeline, which flows through northeastern al-Hasakeh to the Syrian government’s refinery in Homs.

Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali spoke with Tha’er al-Ahmad, a petroleum engineering student in a-Raqqa, about the health damages that crudely extracted oil has had on eastern Syria's population and how rebel groups are using oil to fuel their military efforts.

1-202546A man extracts oil from a rebel-controlled field in a-Raqqa province. Photo courtesy of Aksalsir.

Q: Who controls the oil fields in Syria?

Mostly armed groups that usually claim that they are Free Syrian Army-affiliated or belong to tribes. Many of the wells are controlled by Islamic battalions, like Jabhat a-Nusra or Ahrar a-Sham. The regime controls some oil wells in Homs province, but this area is neglected as the major oil wells are in eastern Syria and the regime has no presence there.

Q: Does ISIS control wells? Where do they sell oil?

Yes, they are controlling a few wells and sometimes smuggle oil to Iraq. They sell the rest on the local markets, for when power blacks out, oil is essential to run generators. They are smuggling oil to an ISIS branch in Iraq - about 20% of the Syrian oil is being smuggled to Iraq.

Q: What are the repercussions of the stealing and smuggling of oil, as you're seeing it?

It has an impact on the health of those living near these wells, because the ground becomes contaminated. And some people are using oil smuggling to enrich themselves, which harms the revolution because they are only serving their now personal agendas.

Q: Are oil wells being mismanaged?

Wells are mismanaged in outer Deir e-Zor, outer Hasakeh and outer a-Raqqa. The oil extraction there causes diseases like cancer and harms the agriculture. It also harms the animals, for instance many sheep's wool is black now. One of the LCCs (pro-opposition Local Coordination Committee, which exist in many towns to document events and spread news about the civil war) did an awareness campaign to reduce the harm caused by oil extraction, which succeeded on a local level and prevented some cities from extracting oil.

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