Syrians in government-controlled areas are going to the polls today. There are three presidential candidates: Bashar al-Assad and two stooges. Free and fair the election isn’t. But the fact that Assad is still in a position to hold an election is remarkable. Three years ago he was the West’s latest Arab pariah, subject to a barrage of international condemnation as his security forces slaughtered unarmed protesters. Two years ago he was rapidly losing territory and military personnel to an armed opposition that seemed unstoppable. Less than a year ago he came within a hair’s breadth of foreign intervention following a chemical attack in a Damascus suburb. And yet he is not only still standing, but apparently getting stronger.
One reason often given for Assad’s survival – by angry rebel commanders as well as foreign commentators – is that Nato hasn’t intervened in Syria because, unlike Libya, it doesn’t have huge oil reserves that the West is desperate to maintain access to.
This is only half true. It can’t compete with Libya, but Syria does have oil. It is poor quality and patchily spread, but it is still oil, and worth a lot of money to whoever controls it. Sources estimate that more than a million dollars’ worth is extracted every day from the rebel-controlled areas of Deir Ezzor province. The country’s refineries, however, are still held by the regime, so the oil is refined by the roadside by people with little experience and no proper equipment. It’s then sold on to traders in other rebel-held areas, who hawk it in jerry cans for around six times what it cost before the war. It clogs up car engines within months.
Foreign investors have never had access to Syria’s oil. Gaddafi welcomed in foreign companies during the brief period when he wasn’t an international pariah, but Assad made sure to keep Syria’s oil to himself. All revenues went straight to the government.
But that didn’t stop foreign firms from reaching in for a piece of the pie crust. In May 2013 I visited an oilfield in Raqqa Province two weeks after it had been captured by a rebel brigade called the Liwa al-Tawhid. The offices had been heavily shelled. Any rooms that weren’t completely burnt out had been ransacked. Folders full of paperwork were strewn across the floor. One stood out: it was white and expensive-looking, and its contents were written in both Arabic and English. It had been produced to accompany a team-building workshop delivered by an American consultancy firm.
Western consultants are unlikely to have any involvement in Syria’s oil industry today, because all the oilfields in the north-east have been seized by hardline Islamist factions. In Deir Ezzor, two al-Qaida inspired groups – Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – are fighting over the territory. In the oil-rich areas, in other words, rebels are fighting other rebels and opportunistic Islamists rather than directing their energies against Assad’s regime. Meanwhile, whoever controls the oil sells the bulk of it off to the highest bidder – and often, according to some rebel commanders and opposition activists, to the regime they are purportedly fighting against. So Assad still has access to Syria’s oil, and can sit and watch as his enemies slaughter each other.