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.
Washington has proclaimed that it is depleting IS coffers by $2 million (€1.57 million) a day by targeting “oil refineries” and other oil installations in Deir el-Zor. However, the oil expert argues that the “refineries” the US is targeting are small, mobile units with an output of 10,000-20,000 barrels a day of low-grade diesel fuel.
“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.
He argues that IS earns much more – perhaps as much as $40 million a month – from looting archaeological treasures and selling them on the international art and antiquities black market. IS also earns large sums from extortion, robbing banks, ransoming kidnap victims, taxes on residents of areas it controls, and donations from
and Saudi Arabia and wealthy Kuwaitis, Emiratis, Saudis, and Qataris as well as charitable organisations raising money for IS in Arab countries and elsewhere.
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
“Fifty per cent of the rebels” are prepared to do a deal with president Bashar al-Assad”, a prospect the US rejects because he is seen as being allied to Russia as well as Iran, he suggests, adding, however, that the US
Central Intelligence Agency
wants to end the war and secure stability in the core countries of the eastern Arab world.
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.