Profiteering and dirty deals prolong conflict in Syria

Fighters migrate from one faction to another in search of highest salaries

A rebel fighter on the  the frontline against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Aleppo. Photograph: Hosam Katan/Reuters

A rebel fighter on the the frontline against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Aleppo. Photograph: Hosam Katan/Reuters

 

The Syrian conflict is being driven and prolonged by a war economy, by profiteering and dirty deals between militias. “Moderate” rebels openly form battlefield alliances with Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra fighters and divide up captured territory and the spoils of war.

Pro-government national guardsmen are said to have covertly sold a souq in Damascus to insurgents. Criminal gangs routinely sell kidnap victims to insurgents who secure prime prices, particularly for westerners, from IS and the Jabhat. Soldiers sell bullets to insurgents and both sides extract money at checkpoints.

In separate conversations with The Irish Times, three sources described the current state of affairs in Syria. These sources are a former senior Syrian official, an oil expert who has written extensively on the region and a civil society activist who is well connected with the Syrian local scene as well as exiled opposition figures.

The Syrian civil conflict began within days of the March 2011 popular demonstrations demanding governmental reform and greater freedom. Lebanese arms dealers, acting on commissions from exiled Syrian businessmen, used traditional smuggling routes to ship old weapons to Syrian gang leaders who promptly proclaimed themselves revolutionaries and recruited uneducated, unemployed youths to fight the regime.

Armed factions multiplied until there were, by some estimates, 2,000 of them. Fighters migrated from faction to faction, in search of the best arms and highest salaries eventually provided by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates and their wealthy citizens. Weapons merchants, faction leaders and donors developed economic interests which have sustained the conflict.

Non-IS and Jabhat factions hope to benefit if the US-led coalition succeeds in driving IS fighters from their headquarters in Raqqa, the only provincial capital in insurgent hands, and the eastern province of Deir al-Zor on the border of Iraq. These factions would not only then be freed of IS assaults but also could inherit IS economic assets.

Profit and loss considerations have also determined policy on the government side, which recruited civilians for the “Shabiha”, a force originally raised as bodyguards by wealthy businessmen, and the National Guard to bolster the overstretched armed forces. After insurgents seized control of Syrian oilfields in Deir al-Zor, the government bought oil from them and it also purchases crude from IS.

Depleting coffers

“No one is asking how much oil is being pumped from the fields, how much is being refined, and the prices received. The big question is who provided the mobile units”, which did not appear in Syria until recently, he says. The main Syrian refinery is at Homs. He dismisses the idea that oil sales provide a major portion of IS’s income.

The civil society activist says production comes from 14-15 wells using mechanical extraction because the engineers and technicians who used to operate the installations have fled. Each well is producing 400- 500 barrels a day, about 10 per cent of Syria’s production before the war. IS “controls the entire process” of production, transport and sales, he says.

Diesel fetches $80-$90 (€63-€70) in Turkey but IS has to pay Deir al-Zor tribesmen, who used to handle the oil business, as well as smugglers and Turkish black-marketeers who take big cuts. Consequently, IS may earn about $25 a barrel. If overall production is about 20,000 barrels a day, the revenue would be half a million dollars a day.

Expenditures

Qatar

IS expenditures are high. In Iraq it is paying local warriors $200 a month and foreign fighters between $600-$1,000, depending on their experience. IS also pays for four hours of electricity a day for local communities it rules and provides water at a cost of $150 million a month. He says IS receives arms valued at $100 million a month. “No one knows from where. IS milks them all,” the activist states.

The former official says there are “marginal returns on the war, we have to see how much the peace will cost” in terms of collateral damage to the countries of the region, which he claims the US sees “only as territory” to control or lose. He argues that the “White House and State Department want to perpetuate the civil war and are not prepared to talk seriously with the Russians about bringing it to an end. Syria has become a victim of the new Cold War” between the US and Russia.

Allied to Russia

Central Intelligence Agency

Once imposed, peace could have other costs. Archaeologists, architects and concerned citizens in Syria fear their cultural heritage will be lost to reconstruction by international donors and contractors with little respect for Syria’s ancient, Islamic and French colonial heritage.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.