Syria’s oilfields create surreal battle lines amid chaos and tribal loyalties

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes: A northern wind had been blowing since early morning, lifting a veil of dust that had blocked the sun and turned the sky the colour of ash. Abu Zayed was sitting on the porch of his unfinished concrete home, watching the storm build. He loved sandstorms. They reminded him of Dubai, where he had lived before the war. He admired the people there for turning a desert into a paradise. They had vision, he told his followers.

Six months ago, he left the Gulf emirate to join the Syrian revolution, attending opposition conferences in Istanbul and Cairo, jostling for position on behalf of his father, the leading sheikh of a powerful tribe in eastern Syria.

But Abu Zayed soon became disgusted with the bickering among the rebel leadership. “There is an opposition council in every hotel lobby in Istanbul,” he said. “You can’t distinguish them from the regime.”

Instead, like other disaffected tribal leaders, Abu Zayed returned home to his ancestral land and put his energy into building up his clan, taking control of his energy-rich ancestral lands.

Most of the oil and gas fields in eastern Syria lie idle or pump meagre quantities that are refined using primitive techniques to generate a pittance, but Abu Zayed’s land has a huge gas plant. It stands less than a mile from his home.

His father had chosen him out his 40 brothers to look after the plant because he was seen as a man of vision. The war had given him a chance to realise his dream: to build an oil-fuelled emirate.

The hard edges of Syria’s frontlines – dogmatic, revolutionary, Islamist or pure murderously sectarian – almost melt away outside the oilfields. New lines emerge pitting tribesmen against battalions, Islamists against everyone else, and creating sometimes surreal lines of engagement, where rebels help maintain government oil supplies in return for their villages being spared from bombardment and being allowed to siphon oil for themselves.

“There is chaos now,” Abu Zayed said. “The Free Syrian Army is chasing loot, and they don’t care about civilians. The military councils are stealing the aid and then selling it. There are dozens of battalions here, we don’t even know who is manning a checkpoint at the end of the street. Some people are saying the days of Bashar [al-Assad] were better, that the opposition has betrayed the people.

“But we can organise this situation,” he said. “Look at this gas plant, it’s under our control. Things are organised here and we can do the same for other oil and gas fields.

“Most of the people who control the oilfields around here are making about 5m Syrian pounds [£32,000] a day. They exploit a field for a few weeks, but because of the chaos, another powerful cousin or battalion soon arrives to fight for it and take control of it.

“I tell these people to lease me the field for S£10m a month. I collect all the fields under my control, bring in companies to exploit them properly and organise truck convoys to sell the gas to Turkey. Then we’ll buy Patriot [missile] batteries and drones to protect the fields against the regime.”

His ambition did not stop there. “Once you have economic power you can convene a council for the tribes here inside the country, and organise all the military units in one military council,” he said.

Using the old definition of tribal land from the French colonial era, before the Syrian republic and its socialist laws that smashed feudal property, each tribe is now claiming ownership of the fields that lie in its wajeh (tribal territory). As the Syrian regime has crumbled, society in the desert east has fallen back on the tribes. “Even [al-Qaida affiliate] Jabhat al-Nusra can’t do anything against us,” said Abu Zayed. “They try to get fields but they can’t. Not Nusra, not even the Americans could take these fields from us with all the weapons we have now.” [Continue reading…]

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