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Ryan Opsal

Ryan Opsal

Dr. Ryan Opsal is currently an Adjunct Professor in International Relations at Florida International University, where he teaches on issues ranging from security to political…

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Why Is The U.S. Reluctant To Bomb ISIS Oil Fields?

Why Is The U.S. Reluctant To Bomb ISIS Oil Fields?

There has been some revealing new information coming out recently regarding the strategy against ISIS. One aspect many find troubling is the apparent failure of U.S. and coalition forces to sufficiently target and destroy oil infrastructure located in ISIS territory, which accounts for a significant portion of the terror group’s annual income. The argument goes, if we want to impact their operations, we should target their primary sources of income, and choke off their operational funds. So, why does ISIS oil infrastructure still stand? Is this the result of an intelligence failure? Negligence? Or, is there a more purposeful reason?

Using data from the Department of Defense, we can see the targeting of oil infrastructure has indeed been a relatively low priority. Buildings and military positions receive the bulk of coalition attention, and only 260 oil-related targets have been destroyed since operations began, out of 16,075 targets damaged or destroyed. And, we now know just how many of these oil-related targets remain. So, what reason could coalition forces have for holding off?

We now know with a high degree of certainty that ISIS receives the majority of its oil income selling unrefined crude, at the pump. There was some idea this was the case, but now it is more certain. This means the ISIS oil trade goes as far as pumping oil from the ground, and then selling it to a long line of waiting tanker trucks that are typically not affiliated with the group. And, while ISIS used to run some marginal refining operations, that appears to no longer be the case. Additionally, we now know the organization’s largest market is not from exports, but through sales to its local, monopolized market in northern Syria. The fact that most of the income is local, and not from exports is even more fascinating when you learn that not only does this oil find its way to local civilians that need fuel for power generation, but that much of the fuel finds its way to Assad’s government forces and the various rebel groups that are arrayed against ISIS itself. Related: ISIS, Turkey And Oil – The Bigger Picture: Interview With Pelicourt

We also now have a better understanding of the extent of ISIS’ diverse revenue stream outside of oil. For instance, last year, in the midst of the chaos in northern Iraq, the terror group turned to robbery, and stole well over $500 million from Iraqi banks. They also onerously tax the locals that are unfortunate enough to live under their rule. And, most surprising are the large revenues garnered from farming on very fertile Syrian and Iraqi land. These sources are far more important than the oft-reported revenues from hostage taking and the selling of sex slaves. This tells us oil is important, but not a silver bullet to disrupt operations.

So, a possible reason for not decisively interrupting oil operations could include preservation of infrastructure for rebuilding after the conflict. This certainly has precedent, since coalition forces have tried this in Iraq and Afghanistan most recently, and territorial shifts occur rapidly in this current conflict. Consider this a lesson learned from Kuwait in 1991.

Another possibility is the US does not want to cause any environmental damage in the surrounding region, having learned another hard lesson from the First Gulf War. This is possible, but highly unlikely. In the face of open war and killing enemies, it is extremely difficult to imagine any government placing environmental concerns over decisive strikes against an enemy. This approach does not have precedent. Related: Saudis Prepared To Listen At OPEC Meeting

Another scenario, which may be the be most plausible, is a play for local fighters to turn on ISIS, prevent further humanitarian issues in the region, and to maintain supplies to rebel groups fighting both ISIS and Assad. A loss of fuel in this region would be extremely detrimental to the local population, which relies overwhelmingly on generators for power, fueled by ISIS oil. The same goes for all the groups fighting ISIS – they all receive fuel from their enemies’ oil pumps. Without fuel, this could hamper the war effort on the ground, and even draw the local population into further compliance with ISIS. Since oil provides the lifeline for many civilians under ISIS rule, this must be taken into account for any long-term strategy in the region.

Some might mock the fact that the U.S. Air Force, before a recent strike, dropped pamphlets on the oil transport vehicles giving the occupants 45 minutes to vacate their tankers before air attacks would commence. This is simply a recognition of how crucial a local population is to combatting insurgencies and terrorist groups. We know the tanker drivers are most likely not affiliated with ISIS in any way, and might even despise the terror organization. They might even be retrieving fuel to be delivered to the very forces that are fighting against ISIS.

It’s incredibly important to keep in mind the limits of military power when waging counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations, a fact not lost on top military officials in Washington. Our understanding as to how to effectively combat terror groups has grown immensely in recent years, and key aspects of this are to allow for the creation of divisions in the territory and the terror organization itself and to ultimately draw in the local population to your side. The former involves containing the group and allowing those divisions to bubble to the surface over time. Related: Undeterred By Global Glut, U.S. Pushes Ahead On LNG Exports

This is a key point by terrorism expert Daniel Byman, where he makes the case for “containment” and “de-legitimation” in a scholarly work from 2007. In a sense, this was U.S. counterterrorism strategy globally before 2001. The other component is key, and was effectively used in Iraq in 2006-2007, when the Sunni Awakening went into effect after local tribal groups cut deals with U.S. forces, and turned on al Qaeda. This was a vital juncture in the campaign in Iraq ushering in relative calm in a turbulent part of the world.

It’s important to note that the available information provides a conflicting picture and we can’t be entirely clear on motives at this point. However, the evidence does plausibly point toward forcing realignment of local tribal groups against ISIS, and the maintenance of crucial supplies to resistance groups throughout the region, both corroborated with past actions by U.S. and coalition forces, and counterterrorism strategy. It also remains to be seen if the United States is forced to abandon this strategy given recent attacks and Russian involvement in the region. It may now simply be untenable, for any reason, to forgo attacks on oil infrastructure in the region.


By Ryan Opsal for Oilprice.com

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  • Ross on December 03 2015 said:
    Then if we are to stop ISIS in Syria, offer the Syrians free weapons and a boat load of cash. And an offer to rebuild their country after its all over. What better incentive could there be to motivate them.
  • Brent Jatko on December 03 2015 said:
    I don't know why not. Maybe the debacle in Iraq has made us wary of civilian reactions to being bombed.

    I do think that warning the tanker drivers was a good idea. Maybe they'll stay away next time?
  • Vugg on December 03 2015 said:
    Problem is, what group of Syrians do you give it to? Hard to tell which ones are the "good Syrians".
  • Richard on December 03 2015 said:
    @Ross, because the West also wants Assad removed from power - they want the best of both worlds! - and they won't get it. It'll be another monumental disaster. The West didn't rebuild Iraq after destroying it - instead, Bush imposed economic policies to benefit U.S. corporations, including trying to sell off every state asset and every state firm, which was actually illegal under international law. And the IMF, controlled by the U.S., refused to write off the debt that the West had lent to a tyrant - instead, used it to push through unpopular economic policies to benefit - you guessed it! - U.S. & Western corporations. So, don't expect them to rebuild Syria or do anything sensible, because that's NOT their objective. It'll just be another bloody mess, and, afterwards, we'll get the usual nonsense about how "mistakes" were made and that the military doesn't do body counts.
  • Ian on December 03 2015 said:
    I've asked on several forums just how many of those 39 or 40 tankers just off the coast at Galveston are laden with Syrian or Iraqi oil. Who could blame the multinational corporations for taking advantage of the situation to fence for ISIS? Money is money, after all, and the Central Bankers have already paid for the countries that NATO has destabilized.
  • Leonard Mintz on December 05 2015 said:

    In the news recently has been the information that President Obama has declined to bomb the Iraqi and Syrian oil feeds financing ISIS (over $1,000,000 a day) because of his concerns about possible environmental damage from thousands of additional tons of soot and CO2 in the atmosphere. The same thought process has been applied to the rejection of planned bombing raids on the many trucks taking that ISIS oil to market. We all remember the clouds of black smoke that were generated when Saddam Hussein set fire to the Kuwaiti oil fields at the end of the First Gulf War.
    Now, I know that there must be some serious and real geniuses at the Pentagon, the CIA, and the White House and, who am I but a concerned American citizen, But, seriously, has any of them considered the possibility of bombing those oil trucks on their way back to pick up more ISIS oil? A that point, they would be empty! The only addition to the atmosphere, to “global warming”, if there really is any, would be from the oil remaining in their fuel tanks and the materials that make up the truck. Even though ISIS could buy more trucks, they all have to come in from other countries (they don’t manufacture trucks in Iraq, Syria, Turkey. Iran, or anywhere else in the Mideast.) We could take out the new ones before they ever pick up a single load of ISIS oil.
    Is anyone in Washington thinking?
  • Alfred on December 06 2015 said:
    The USA and its allies - Turkey, NATO and Israel - created and continue to sustain ISIS. The USAF was clearly under strict orders not to disrupt the fuel traffic. Ordegan and his family are major beneficiaries of this illegal trade and around 75% of Israel's oil is sourced from Turkey - a non-oil producing country.

    Just follow what Putin has to say and you will learn the truth. Some investigative journalists wrote about this trade in 2012. It is no secret - except to readers of the MSM.
  • Greg on December 08 2015 said:
    It's the same problem since Vietnam to many rules can't fight a war with your hands tied behind your back. That's why Russia is making fast progress get the job done then sort things out and fix the damage. Remember today's moderate insurgents today are going to be tomorrow's jihadists and it starts all over again . There has really never been any real peace in that region for century's what makes any government in the world think it's going to fix it! Let's just get the job done stop Iss no rules !
  • stu on December 08 2015 said:
    Among the largest beneficiaries of ISIS oil is Turkey. Very cheap oil being run by truck convoys and pipelines for resale. We wouldn't won't to piss of our "allies".
    I also think there is large monetary support to ISIS from the Saudis and the Emerites. Why else would these terrorist groups NOT have attacked any of these big oil producers other than being well paid not to?
  • Robert Rosati on December 08 2015 said:
    The article (blog) is very flabbergasting. It basically said NOTHING. The issue is, why the Russians show 1000s of fuel trucks and we are running out of "bombs"????
    This is a war. During WWII the "Allied" destroyed Dresden (over 100,000) just to prove the power of air superiority.We dropped 2 atomic bombs on Japan (over 200,000 dead) and now a bunch of ragtag beduins is terrorize the World. Do me a favor, Mr. Opsal, rewrite your article and ask the famous $64,000, why the oil facilities are still standing after 1 1/2 year of continues bombardment!
    Have a glass of XO cognac!

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