The EU’s pointless oil gesture

On April 22, the European Union lifted its embargo on Syria’s oil exports to enable the purchase of crude oil from the opposition. The diplomatic move also permitted the sale of oil equipment to the opposition and allow the investment in oil fields located in rebel-held areas.

Sanctions imposed by the EU in September 2011 banned the purchase of all crude oil produced in Syria as well as its transport and the insurance of the tankers that transported it. While other Western countries have imposed their own set of sanctions, the EU’s has a more significant impact. Prior to the uprising, the bloc purchased more than 90 percent of all exported Syrian crude.

The rationale behind the decision to partially lift the sanctions appears to be that it will give more financial clout to the opposition, enabling it to finance the purchase of weapons and to spend and invest in the areas under its control.

However, the actual impact on the ground is less clear. Indeed, while most oil fields are now out of the direct control of the central authorities in Damascus, the groups that actually control them are varied and have sometimes competing agendas.

Syria’s oil fields are spread in two broad areas: the first around the city of Deir ez-Zor, in the east, which produced around 100,000 barrels of per day (bpd) prior to the uprising; and the second in the province of Hassakeh, in the north and north-east, which produced some 250,000 bpd.

The former is under the control of disparate groups of fighters, including local tribesmen or fighters affiliated to radical Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. The continued fighting in the region and the fighters’ lack of experience in the oil industry has reportedly led to the eruption of many well fires. In early April, the minister of oil announced that three wells with a cumulative daily output of more than 2,000 barrels of oil had burned. The cumulative loss from all the well fires is estimated by the ministry at the equivalent of around 750,000 barrels of crude. At current global prices, this is some $75 million.

Apparently, the government continues to control some smaller fields and manages to procure additional amounts through purchase agreements it has entered into with some of the groups that control the other fields — unconfirmed reports include even Jabhat al-Nusra among these groups.

Meanwhile, many locals are using their control of oil wells to generate new sources of income and wealth, leading many of them to abandon the fight against the regime.

The fields located further to the north, around the city of Hassakeh, are to some extent under the control of the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (DUP). The DUP is the best armed Kurdish party and has remained at an equal distance from both the regime and the opposition. Kurdish rebels are relatively well organized and disciplined, and the fields are located in a region that has avoided much of the chaos witnessed near Deir ez-Zor.

The situation of the Suwaydiyah field, the largest Syrian oil field, which is located around Qamishli, is not clear but even if it were technically still under the control of the government, in practice the whole surrounding area is held by the Kurds.

Here, too, the Syrian government continues apparently to access some of the oil produced, either thanks to its relatively good ties with the DUP or because it also purchases oil from the groups in charge in the region.

This picture of the current state of Syria’s oil sector is further complicated by the disrupted distribution networks across the country. Not only are the fields under the control of groups that fall outside the scope of the political wing of the opposition; even if the opposition managed to put some order in its ranks and ensure that all oil produced in rebel-held areas fell under its control, it would still have the task of managing the logistics behind the transport and export of the crude.

The partial lifting of the embargo will do no harm to the opposition. But given current facts of the ground, it will struggle to make any significant impact.

Note: This article appeared first in the May 2013 edition of Executive Magazine

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