ISIL is dismantling Syria’s economy, oilfield by oilfield

Around Palmyra in Syria, seized by ISIL on May 20, are not only the ancient treasures of a great trading city, but valuable natural resources. ISIL took the Arak and Al Hail gasfields to add to the oilfields they control in the east of the country. This marks another blow to the Assad regime and another step in Syria’s economic disintegration.

Al Hail and Arak, east of Palmyra, are important for supplying remaining regime-held parts of Syria around Homs and Damascus with gas for electricity generation. A pipeline also runs from the Arak field north-west to Aleppo, where the electricity supply has been wrecked by fighting, sabotage and overloads. Trees have been cut down for firewood during the cold winter, and residents die of electric shocks from jury-rigged cables.

Attempts by the US-led coalition to reduce ISIL’s financing by destroying makeshift oil refineries in eastern Syria may have had some success, but they worsened shortages of diesel and heating oil across the country.

Persistent fighting has centred on Al Shaer gasfield, west of Palmyra. ISIL first captured it in July last year and again in October, but were driven out both times by counter-attacks from Assad’s forces, with many killed on both sides. With the capture of Palmyra, the gasfield may again be ISIL’s next target. A number of other fields in this area, such as Al Mahr and Jihar, just north of the Homs-Palmyra road and gas pipeline, were taken and retaken in November. Pipelines to western Syria have frequently been blown up.

While the fields east of Palmyra yielded about 40 million cubic feet of gas per day, the ones to the west are much more important – they may be producing between 250 million and 300 million cubic feet per day, enough to generate 1,500 megawatts of power. Without gas, the power plants around Homs and Damascus will have to either shut down or run on expensive fuel oil – another financial burden on the Assad regime and its Iranian backers.

ISIL already controls the Tabqa, Baath and Tishreen dams on the Euphrates, with 1,535MW of capacity. This compares to Syria’s entire pre-war generating capacity of about 8,500MW, though of course demand has also fallen because of refugee flight and economic collapse.

Unless they cut a deal with the Assad regime in return for funds, the fields are useless to ISIL, which cannot sell the gas without the requisite infrastructure.

Such arrangements have apparently been reached for oil, gas and electricity supplies from other opposition-held areas – the British researcher David Butter suggested that Jabhat Al Nusra was selling gas last year to regime areas in central Syria.

Despite such shadowy deals, and some ingenious makeshift repairs, Syria’s energy infrastructure will continue to disintegrate from war damage, the severing of links and lack of maintenance. For now, the loss of the gasfields around Palmyra will be a further blow to a regime already reeling from a series of military defeats.

In oil- and gas-rich Iraq, with much less war damage, the electricity sector never properly recovered after 2003. Power shortages have been a crippling burden on economic recovery and quality of life, with some evidence that better electricity supplies may have reduced insurgent violence. The task in Syria will be much harder.

The country’s oil and gas resources are not large enough to have been a cause of war, but they do play a part in sustaining it. Syria’s geography also makes it a key thread in networks of oil, gas and electricity that could weave the Levant together. Rebuilding a possible post-war Syria, or even de facto autonomous and relatively peaceful areas within it, will require piecing together the torn energy tapestry.

Robin Mills is the head of consulting at Manaar Energy and the author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

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