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Expert Views: After ISIS, Who Controls Syria’s Natural Resources?

Syria Deeply’s expert community weighed in on how the capture of resource-rich territory from ISIS in east Syria could affect competition to control the country’s gas and oil and how it could impact the parties fighting ISIS.

Written by Alessandria Masi, Hashem Osseiran, Kim Bode Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Syria’s Arak gas field, 20 miles (35km) northeast of the ancient city of Palmyra, in the central province of Homs, a few weeks after it was retaken by government forces from the so-called Islamic State. STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

At the height of its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, the so-called Islamic State was making millions of dollars every day from harvesting the output of seized oil and gas fields. But ISIS has now lost control of major resource-rich areas in Syria.

As part of our “Expert Views” series, Syria Deeply reached out to members of its expert community to understand how the recent capture of formerly ISIS-held territory could impact Syria’s oil and gas sector, and the various groups competing for control over this playing field.

David Butter, associate fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

To the west of the Euphrates, ISIS has lost control of natural gas fields and phosphate mines to the Syrian army and its Russian and Iranian allies; to the east of the river, an alliance of Kurdish forces and local groups fighting under the banner of the Deir Ezzor Military Council has seized a number of oil fields and a large associated gas-processing facility, known as the Conoco plant. For the Syrian government, the main benefit will be increased natural gas production, which will boost electricity supply and decrease the need to import fuel oil. There is also the prospect of reviving phosphate production and exports with Russian assistance.

The Kurds already controlled Syria’s largest oil fields in northeast Hassakeh. Now they control most of the Euphrates basin fields, previously operated by Shell and Total. The Hassakeh fields are likely to be handed eventually to the Syrian Petroleum Company in return for a revenue share with an autonomous or federal Kurdish-controlled entity. In Deir Ezzor, local groups will seek to maintain a stake in the operations of the Conoco plant and fields such as Omar, al-Ward, Jafra and Tanak.

ISIS damaged a number of gas facilities in Homs governorate, including the Jihar/Hayan processing plant and production facilities in the al-Shaer field. However, the Ebla processing plant and the infrastructure of the south and north middle area gas projects have continued to operate. Gas output has risen to about 13.5 million cubic meters/day, which is just over half pre-conflict levels, and is likely to reach 16 million cubic meters/day in early 2018.

U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have damaged oil infrastructure to the east of the Euphrates, but most of these fields were already in decline by 2011. ISIS does not appear to have sabotaged any of the facilities at the oil fields in this area. Total effective oil production capacity in Syria is probably no more than 100,000 barrels per day, compared with 390,000 barrels per day pre-conflict. Most of Syria’s petroleum needs are met by crude imports from Iran, processed at the Banias refinery, and imports of gasoil/diesel and fuel oil.

Jennifer Cafarella, senior intelligence planner, Institute for the Study of War

The competition over control of Syria’s oil and natural gas in ISIS-held areas is in large part a struggle for future leverage and influence. The Syrian regime, and its backers, want to secure as much of this key terrain and infrastructure as possible in order to accelerate the regime’s reconstitution. The Russians and Iranians likely seek economic benefit of their own. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) meanwhile have an interest in obtaining this terrain either for its own economic benefit or as bargaining power in future negotiations with the Syrian regime.

Lost in most of the discussion is the interest of the local communities newly freed from ISIS subjugation. Much of this population is anti-regime and unlikely to view the SDF favorably in the long term due to its domination by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Forces (YPG). They will likely make pragmatic deals with either power, just as they had to find ways to operate under ISIS control.

There is little hope for a true political resolution to their grievances, however. Areas liberated from ISIS are likely to remain fertile ground for jihadist recruitment. ISIS and al-Qaida both seek to resurge in eastern Syria, and could target oil and natural gas infrastructure in order to deny rehabilitation to the Syrian regime or to undermine the SDF’s ability to claim good governance. In either case, conditions are set for perpetual instability from which the Russians and Iranians alone may nonetheless profit.

Nicholas A. Heras, Middle East security fellow, Center for a New American Security

The war over the aftermath of the war in Syria will be waged to control natural resources such as electricity-producing dams, arable land and oil and gas fields. Whether Washington chooses to admit it or not, the U.S. now has direct influence over the vast majority of Syria’s most productive oil fields. The U.S.-backed SDF coalition has chewed up territory from the would-be caliphate, and, in so doing, has seized some of Syria’s signature energy fields such as the al-Omar and al-Tanak oil field and Conoco gas field in Deir Ezzor province. More than just any old spoils of war that the SDF has seized from the crumbling caliphate, these territorial gains are Syrian national treasures that when added up amount to brute geopolitical power for the U.S.

The fact of the matter is that if the dueling campaigns against ISIS in eastern Syria – one by Assad and his allies Russia and Iran and the second by the U.S.-led coalition and the SDF – were a game of Monopoly, the U.S. would have the more valuable real estate on the board. Whether he likes it or not, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has less say in the future economic success of Syria than U.S. president Donald Trump. This future will depend in large part on access to the country’s energy resources. Trump will ultimately need to decide what to do with all of the valuable real estate that the U.S. military and its local partners have won over three hard years of fighting. The success of the SDF on the ground – and in no small measure its control over most of the best oil and gas fields in Syria – has given Trump a considerable amount of power, should he choose to tap it, to shape the future of Syria.

The answers have been edited for length and clarity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

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