Analysis - Economic Trends

Post War Conflicts

How will Syrian Parties Manage Resources?
Wednesday، September 27، 2017
Post War Conflicts

As ISIS is retreating rapidly in Syria, the conflict among the main three parties on the economic resources, after the collapse of the group, intensifies. The three parties are: the Assad regime backed by Russia and Iran and Hezbollah, the Kurdish forces backed by the US and some Arab factions, and the Syrian opposition, especially those affiliated with Turkey. The latter is the least fortunate in this battle due to the absence of military support and a strategic vision, compared to the other parties. In addition, the Turkish military and political role in Syria has been restricted by Russia and the US.  

Dividing ISIS’ Legacy 

Controlling economic resources is one of the prominent patterns associated with civil wars. For example, in a book titled “The Political Economy of Armed Conflict”, several researchers suggest that key players in the civil wars can finance themselves shortly after the outbreak of war.

Self-financing influences the course of war, the strength of parties, and their political future. Resource control enables each party to continue fighting, reduce dependence on external support, and thus enjoy greater independence and ability to cope with political pressure from supporting parties. It further spurs the traditional influential and emerging economic strata, and political parties associated with them, to scramble to control the resources that provide the opportunity to invest and reap the fruits in the future. This is evident in the Syrian crisis, where each party stampedes to control the economic resources-rich areas, while the country suffers severe fragmentation and multiple political-military subjugation.

Although the Assad regime maintains the country intact within its borders, it has become difficult to return to central state’s monopoly over the use of force and geographical control of Syria.

The Assad regime seeks to restore resources to pre-civil war era. Oil production has slowed down as a large number of oil wells went out of control. Besides, even those which are still under its control or has been restored have suffered massive destruction. For example, crude oil production fell in the government-held areas in 2014 to 9 thousand barrels per day, compared to 386 thousand barrels per day in 2010. It is worthy to note that Syrian production of phosphate prior to the war was about 3.5 million tons annually, natural gas was about 21 million cubic meters per day, and the agricultural production was accounted for about 21.7 percent of the GDP, according to the Joint Arab Economic Report issued by the Arab Monetary Fund in 2010.

The Syrian opposition is severely fragmented, which threatens its ability to maintain its control over the areas it holds in the future, while Syrian Democratic Forces enjoy central leadership and strategic vision. However, each party has massive support from external parties, encouraging them to compete to seize the legacy of ISIS. As Syria moves towards decentralized system, each party endeavours to control the most vital areas that have been taken over by ISIS, to strengthen its capabilities and increase its economic resources.

Syrian Oil Map

According to the American War Studies Institute reports, ISIS managed to control nearly 50 percent of Syria until early 2016, particularly areas rich in economic resources, such as oil, gas and fertile farmland in the north, east and central parts of the country.  

On the other hand, the Kurds took control over areas in the Northwest with a small part of the north-east, and the Assad regime seized the east, the coast and a section of the south and center. This may help explain the size of potential economic gains from the war against ISIS, which has been generously supported from regional and international powers. 

Russian military intervention September 2015 provided strategic support for the Assad regime and its affiliated militias, assisting them to retrieve large areas from the opposition, and reach ceasefire agreements in several regions, culminating in establishing de-escalation zones. Fighting eased between the opposition and the Assad regime, enabling the latter to move military forces from some fronts and mobilize them in the areas of confrontations with ISIS. In addition, the international coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces stepped up their efforts in the fight to eradicate ISIS. Thus, all parties entered in a race for control over ISIS-held areas.

In February 2016, the Syrian Democratic Forces captured al-Shadadi, Jabisah and al-Hawl areas in Hasakah province, controlling oil wells there. Previously, they had managed to control al-Ramelan field in northeast Syria and al-Ramelan refinery, as well as 25 gas wells in Swadiah fields near al-Ramelan field.

Assad regime forces regained control of the city of Palmyra in eastern city of Homs, capturing Hayyan and Jihar oil and gas fields, northwest of Palmyra. Liberating large areas in the countryside of Homs from the grip of ISIS allowed the Assad regime to seize its control over Shaer field. During 2017, the regime regained al-Hail and Jazl oil fields in eastern countryside of Homs.

Once the Syrian Democratic Forces declared the launch offensive to retake Raqqa, the stronghold of ISIS, in early June, the regime forces stepped up military advance in that area, capturing -in the same month- al-Thawra oil field south Raqqa and regained control of the pumping station on a road connecting Raqqa with Silmya and Athrya towns in Hama province. Al-Thawra field is only 14 km far from al-Tabqa military airport, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which shows the scale of competition over resources.

In mid-July 2017, the regime forces continued to advance in the countryside of Raqqa, in a race against the Syrian Democratic Forces, which were busy restoring the city, to seize control of al-Dil'eh oil field in southwestern Raqqa. This coincided with its control over Zamla village, Zamla pumping station, Zamla gas field, and al-Fahd oil field. 

Currently, the warring parties fight over Damascus and its countryside, the oil-rich areas. In September 9, 2017, the Syrian regime declared its control over al-Tayem oil field in Sukhna- Deir al-Zor axis. In parallel, Syrian Democratic Forces announced the launch of their military operation to retake Deir al-Zor from ISIS, and declared their control over key oil fields on both sides of the Euphrates River: al-Omar, al-Tanak, al-Ward, al-Jafra, Conoco gas plant, and al-Kharata oil field.

Conflicts over Scarce Resources

Some analysts question the importance of these economic resources and their possibility of becoming a major catalyst for conflict due to their scarcity. Oil and agricultural production dropped significantly in the past decade, prior to the civil war. If oil production decline was due to the civil war, the agricultural production deteriorated in the midst of regime-led economic transformation over the past decade too, including the state’s withdrawal from supporting the agricultural sector, as well as poor management of water resources, which led to a slump in agricultural production and migration of large numbers of farmers to the cities.

In addition, the oil infrastructure suffered massive destruction, especially after the intensive US air strikes. To resume normal production capacity, infrastructures need to be restored within a politically stable environment. 

To conclude, regaining control of those resources may not lead to a qualitative leap in the capabilities of each party. They will not help in reconstruction, economic development, poverty reduction, and unemployment except at very limited levels. Nonetheless, such control remains crucial based on the view that the conflict between these parties would extend into the future, even if the war ended and a new decentralized state was established.

Keywords: oilISISSyriaSyrian Democratic Forces