As the armed opposition to President Bashar Assad’s army disintegrates, its fragments are forming into volatile alliances concerned chiefly with foraging for sources of revenue. Rival militias are now caught up in a violent free-for-all for Syria’s most lucrative facilities, its oil fields.
Saturday, Nov. 23, Islamist rebels led by Al Qaeda-linked fighters seized control of the eastern Syria-al-Omar oil field. With most of the country’s accessible oil reserves in the hands of the Nusra Front and other Islamist militias, the loss of the Omar field could cut the regime off from access to its last domestic crude reserve.
However, the Syrian ruler is not unduly concerned by this loss for three reasons, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report:
1. His army is up to its ears in a major offensive to capture the Qalamoun mountain range northwest of Damascus. Success would sever the rebels’ last remaining supply route for fighters and arms from Lebanon, and reopen the Damascus highway to the coastal towns of Latakia, Tartus and the homelands of his Alawite kin.
At this tricky point in a crucial offensive, Assad has no head to worry about his oil reserves.
Militia splinters seize oil to replace lost donor funding
2. He is not short of fuel. Iran covers most of what he needs in the way of fuel and its by-products free of charge for sustaining his war effort. Smaller quantities are supplied by Russia, for which Moscow has not sent in a bill either, adding the sum to Russia’s overall investment in the Syrian war.
It is generally estimated that Moscow and Tehran between them advance Assad around half a billion dollars each month, shelling out about $6 billion a year to bolster his regime.
3. The fact that the remnants of the rebel militias – the Free Syrian Army is no longer a viable fighting force – are focusing on grabbing oil fields is good news in one sense for the Assad regime. It means that most of their sources of funding and munitions, which once flowed in from Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have dried up and they are desperate for alternative sources of sustenance. They are therefore fighting each other for control of the oil fields.
The splintered militias are coalescing around larger groups to create “families,” which organize in to hierarchal structures and share out funds. DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and military sources attribute this process to the announcement Friday, Nov. 22 of a merger among a number of Syrian Islamist rebel brigades into a single organization.
A rebel oil market springs up in northern central Syria
This merger was not formed as a military entity for the pursuit of war against Bashar Assad. This time, it was built as a business enterprise for profit and like its rivals is marking out territory.
The Aleppo-based Tawhid Brigade, for example, holds the al-Jabbul oil field east of Al Safira in the north. The Free Syrian Army’s warlord Saddam al-Nu'aimi controls the wells in Bukamal near the Iraqi border. And the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra controls the giant Shadadi field in Deir az-Zour over which it is fighting for control against Al Qaeda of Iraq and Sham.
An oil market has sprung up in northern central Syria, where sellers from Hassake and Deir az-Zour meet buyers from Aleppo and Idlib.
The small, low-tech refineries in the rebel-controlled areas use the most primitive and dangerous methods for turning crude into gasoline and other oil products. If they survive, they can look forward to a comfortable profit. While a barrel of oil is sold by rebels for prices up to $22, refiners earn a profit of 30 cents on every liter of gasoline they sell.
Road haulage and other associated contractors are doing a roaring trade from the hijacked rebel oil industry.