ISIS operates as both a company and a government that’s spun totally out of control. The group is selling oil to Assad and U.S. allies — allies who are also arming them. But how did this happen? How did ISIS become the world’s wealthiest, most sophisticated terrorist group?
WASHINGTON — The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has created an empire that stretches hundreds of miles through the countries of its namesake. It has accumulated riches that enable it to fund a war, govern a population of around 8 million people, and operate massive amounts of infrastructure in the areas it has conquered.
During a talk in October at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, David Cohen, the undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the U.S. Treasury Department, said that ISIS “has amassed wealth at an unprecedented pace and its revenue sources have a different composition from those of many other terrorist organizations.”
So how did ISIS become the most sophisticated terrorist group in the world? And why is it so rich?
The genesis, part I: America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq
In this Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2004 file photo, a man suspected of involvement in attacks on coalition forces is questioned in the living room of his home during a raid by the 82nd Airborne Division near Fallujah, Iraq. In 2014, the city’s fall to al-Qaida-linked forces has touched a nerve for the service members who fought and bled there. Photo: Julie Jacobson/AP
In 2003, the United States, as part of an effort to transform the politics of the Middle East region, invaded and occupied Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The move was tragic, both for people in the region and in the U.S. It resulted in the violent deaths of almost 150,000 Iraqis and over 4,000 U.S. troops, along with other coalition members.
It also created the conditions for al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) to become active. (Ironically, then-President George W. Bush had forged a connection between Saddam and al-Qaida as a pretext to gain American support for the invasion.)
AQI later renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). “The origins of ISIS,” said Phyllis Bennis, “are in fighting against the [American] occupation.”
“It was one of a number of Sunni organizations that was fighting against the occupation. There was no question about it. That’s what it was,” Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based think tank, told MintPress News.
She explained that one of the biggest windfalls for militant organizations which resisted the occupation was that the Americans forcibly removed, disbanded, and destroyed the Baathist regime, civil service and military. She said that they were “Baathist, no doubt. But they were also secular.”
The U.S. inadvertently set Iraq up for division by destroying the secular government and instituting in its place a sectarian-based political system with new political parties based on the population and correlating numbers of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, Bennis said.
This political system, which is tearing the country apart and has led to the rise of Sunni extremist militias, is the system the U.S. created, she continued.
ISIS was able to emerge so powerfully and quickly, Bennis said, because they had the support of three important constituencies in the country: First, the Sunni generals — who had been stripped of their jobs and were sent home by the U.S. military with no means to care for their families — were angry and did not appreciate the increasingly sectarian nature of the new Iraqi government. Indeed, it has been reported that ISIS is run by a council of former Iraqi generals from Saddam’s Baath party. The second group of willing ISIS recruits were Sunni tribal leaders, who were also angry about the sectarian government in Baghdad. Finally, there was the ordinary Sunni population, who were upset by the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad’s neighborhoods, arrests and neglect of key services like electricity.
People try to extinguish flames at a gas station after clashes between Iraqi army soldiers and Sunni gunmen in Fallujah, 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013. (AP Photo)
Speaking to MintPress, Nafeez Ahmed, author of “A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It,” said that to truly understand how ISIS was formed and remains sustained, it’s important to reflect upon the West’s past in the Middle East and around the globe.
“I think it’s important to contextualize everything that’s been going on in the region recently with Syria and Iraq in relation to the post-Cold War period in which the U.S. and Britain have continued to flirt with Islamist groups linked to al-Qaida,” Ahmed said.
He was referring to the West’s historical role of fomenting Islamist terrorist groups to pursue its own ends worldwide — and particularly in Iraq. His ideas are outlined in an essay he wrote for Medium in September that was immediately reproduced in other online publications, including this one, titled “How the west created the Islamic State.”
In his essay, Ahmed untangles what seems to be an odious web of relationships stretching back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He argues that the current state of disorder in the Middle East is a direct consequence of neoconservative aspirations to “dominate regional oil resources, defend an expansionist Israel, and in pursuit of these, re-draw the map of the Middle East.”
Ahmed’s essay illustrates how neoconservatives all the way back in 2002 were advocating for a strategy in the Middle East that would bolster Israel’s power by first removing Saddam Hussein. This strategy became known as the Perle-RAND strategy, named for then-Chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board Richard Perle and RAND Corp, as a late analyst of the firm, Laurent Muraweic, had introduced it. After removing Saddam, the Perle-RAND strategy draws heavy inspiration from a 1996 Israeli policy document created by the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, an Israeli think tank.
According to the Israeli policy paper, with Saddam out of the picture, Israel would ally with Turkey and Jordan to “roll back” Syria. Jordan would then solve Lebanon’s Shiite problem by “weaning” the country away from Syria and Iran to be more dependent on Jordan, thus weakening those two countries.
Further, Ahmed explained that Iraq would be divided into three separate states, which would include a Sunni Arab state joined with Jordan and ruled by King Abdullah II of Jordan; a Kurdish state in the north and northwest; and a “Shia Region in southwestern Iraq, including Basra, would make up the third state, or more likely it would be joined with Kuwait.”
In his essay, he contends that the “expansion of the ‘Islamic State’ has provided a pretext for the fundamental contours of this scenario to unfold, with the US and British looking to re-establish a long-term military presence in Iraq in the name of the ‘defense of a young new state.’”
Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat, who defected in 2013, expressed contention with this point of view while speaking to MintPress, saying, “Absolutely, I don’t agree with this theory.”
Barabandi argued that if the Obama administration had wanted to stay in the region, it would not have withdrawn its forces from Iraq. He added that one of Obama’s main objectives coming into office in 2008 was to withdraw forces from Iraq. For Obama, he said, “the United States economy is number one. They don’t need to play all these games.”
Bennis agreed, describing Obama as a “reluctant warrior” in the current conflagration in Iraq.
She ceded, however, that this does not change much on the ground. Despite language coming from the administration that this is solely the fight of Iraq and Syria, she said, “The U.S. has emerged once again as the dominant force.”
“There’s a building sense of ‘We’re back in the war!”’ she said.
While Ahmed’s thesis that the West created ISIS comes off as conspiratorial, it is actually more of a warning about neoconservative forces within the U.S. government that had control in the past and could take over in another election cycle.
Moreover, Ahmed’s essay highlights some important facts about the role of the U.S. in aiding extremist groups in the region. He references an article written by the late Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad in 2005 about the U.S. sending weapons to Sunni militant groups in Iraq to push back against the Shiite constituency in the south, which was beginning to rally around the idea of instituting Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists), or clerical rule, in the country.
Ahmed explains in his essay that the U.S. began to arm and fund Sunni groups in Iraq during “the awakening” to fight against increasingly dominant Shiite militias, which wreaked havoc upon the Sunni population. The effects of sectarianism in the country, especially among government policies, persist today and are thought to be among the major reasons Sunnis are joining ISIS.
However, “the awakening” movement, combined with psychological operations by American troops to reinforce and encourage extremist Salafi ideology associated with al-Qaida, along with the brutality of some American operations in Iraq, like what happened in Fallujah in 2004, created an environment conducive to the creation of a group like ISIS, Ahmed wrote.
Speaking to MintPress, Ahmed said that there is no way to prove “decisively that what’s happening now in the Middle East is all part of some grand scheme to manipulate the region and do everything that the neocons wanted.”
“That’s not clear,” he said.
Yet he added that his theory is something people around the world should take note of and consider when thinking about what’s going on in the Middle East. Funding, arming, and encouraging al-Qaida-linked extremist ideologies was a deliberate U.S. strategy in the region at one point, he asserted.
Meanwhile, his notion that Iraq and Syria are being cut up to facilitate Western imperialist ambitions is being entertained by mainstream media and key strategists on the region.
The genesis, part II: Syria’s civil war
Free Syrian Army fighters take their positions, close to a military base, near Azaz, Syria, Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. Photo: Manu Brabo/AP
The Syrian civil war had claimed the lives of 191,000 people as of August, while more recent reports put the number close to 220,000. An estimated 7.6 million people have been internally displaced and over 3 million have fled the country as refugees. It is a tragedy of such remarkable proportions that the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is calling it “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.”
The war officially started in March 2011, after the military and police in the city of Dara’a, Syria, ransacked homes in search of a group of about 20 teenagers and arrested them. A growing protest movement emerged, calling for greater political and social freedom.
While the majority of the protests were genuine, the government and its supporters insisted that from an early stage protests were not as peaceful as they looked, according to Patrick Cockburn, author of “The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.”
Writing for Counterpunch in March, Cockburn asserted, “All revolutions have notoriously devoured their earliest and most humane advocates, but few have done so with the speed and ferocity of Syria’s.”
Evidence of the potential use of arms in the early days of the revolution was reported by Reuters, which quoted from a story from SANA, Syria’s official news agency, four days before the official start of the revolution, dated March 11, 2011. SANA reported that security forces in the country had “seized a large shipment of weapons and explosives and night-vision goggles … in a truck coming from Iraq.” The equipment was reportedly going to be used for “actions that affect Syria’s internal security and spread unrest and chaos,” reported SANA.
Evidence of a radicalized and armed opposition movement in the early months of the uprising came on May 15, 2011, when Ali Hashem, a reporter who was working with Al-Jazeera at the time, saw “men crossing the river from North Lebanon to Syria, precisely in the area called Wadi Khaled in Lebanon.”
“This might be the first documented incident that recorded armed militiamen in Syria,” said Hashem, who is now the chief correspondent for Al Mayadeen TV, a pan-Arabist station based in Lebanon, to MintPress News.
Hashem said that he saw “10s” of fighters at the time armed with unsophisticated weaponry, such as “Kalashnikovs [assault rifles], RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], and some grenades.”
Hashem emphasized that at the same time he witnessed these events, peaceful demonstrations were happening in several places throughout the country.
In response to these protests, Syrian President Bashar Assad offered cosmetic reforms in an attempt to avert “a full-blown revolt,” Rania Abouzeid wrote for Politico in June. The new laws lifted the state of emergency and pardoned certain political prisoners at the end of May 2011.
Yet rather than being a genuine expression of goodwill toward the thousands of people who were beginning to show up in streets throughout the country, the seemingly liberal decrees were a form of doublespeak for what was to come next.
“The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades,” The National quoted a former security official from Assad’s government as saying.
The regime’s aim was to create insecurity and radicalize the opposition movement to force the West to make a decision between Assad and religious extremists either on par with or worse than al-Qaida, explained the former official from Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate, whose name was not used to protect his identity.
It was a coordinated affair. From the beginning of the unrest in Syria, Assad claimed that his government was facing a foe of extreme religious bent. Yet this was a foe of Assad’s own creation, according to Barabandi, the former Syrian diplomat.
“When the revolution transitioned from peaceful to Islamist it was Sednaya,” Barabandi told MintPress, referencing a political prison close to Damascus where political prisoners belonging to various groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are held. In 2011, he explained, the regime began to release prisoners — especially ones with a politically extreme and violent understanding of Islam — to radicalize the revolution and create a scenario in which the West would have to choose between Assad or an al-Qaida-style group.
“That was the turning point,” said Barabandi. Before that, the people in the streets were talking about dignity, peace and democracy, he explained, noting: “Nobody was talking about Islam or about Islamists.”
In the meantime, pro-democracy protestors were being locked up. Assad “was sure to imprison diverse, non-violent, and pro-reform activists by the thousands, many of whom are still in government prisons,” Barabandi wrote for the Atlantic Council in July. He continued:
“These efforts, coupled with relentless barrel bombing, torture, and chemical weapons campaigns, were designed to silence, kill, or displace civilians so that the influence of extremists would fill their absence.”
Several reports support Barabandi’s assessment. “Most of the important people in these extremist groups were in Saidnaya [Sednaya] prison … There were many of them and the regime let them go very deliberately,” The National quotes the former Syrian intelligence officer as saying.
Abouzeid, an independent journalist, who has been covering the region for 15 years, documented that people like Abu Othman, an Islamic scholar for Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), were in Sednaya and released under amnesty in 2011. So was Othman’s boss, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, who now runs Jabhat al-Nusra since it split with ISIS. Abouzeid wrote: “The Islamists were sure that the Assad regime had offered the amnesty knowing full well that they would take up arms against it.”
Other prisoners that streamed out of Sednaya prison and then moved on to become prominent members of extremist al-Qaida-linked groups include “Zahran Aloush, commander of the Jaish Al Islam; Abdul Rahman Suweis of the Liwa al Haq; Hassan Aboud of Ahrar Al Sham; and Ahmad Aisa Al Sheikh, commander of Suqour Al Sham.”
Regarding Sednaya, Hashem told MintPress, “This is another conspiracy theory. [But] there are several things that can confirm it because someone like Zahran Alloush, who’s the military chief of the Islamic Front, was released from the jail in the first months of the revolution.”
“Many people were released,” he continued. “Some people even give numbers in the thousands. Maybe this is one of the reasons we are living through this civil war right now.”
As further evidence of Assad’s complicity in the creation of these groups, Abouzeid wrote:
“ISIL was headquartered in Raqqa’s elegant, multi-arched governorate headquarters, hoisting a massive black flag in the square in front of the building. Yet the structure was not targeted in the regime’s frequent airstrikes on the city, prompting the Syrian opposition’s political leaders to claim that ISIL was a creation of the regime, or was colluding with it. There was little direct evidence to suggest either, but one thing was certain: ISIL was playing straight into the Assad narrative… that the regime’s opponents were extremist Islamists hell-bent on imposing brutal and draconian sectarian rule.”
A tweet by The New York Times Beirut Bureau Chief Anne Barnard seems to corroborate Abouzeid’s claim that the regime avoids intense confrontation with ISIS. On June 12, Barnard tweeted, “a [Syrian] govt adviser told me fighting ISIS not priority for govt bc ISIS= useful in tarring all insurgents & framing choice as Asssd/ISIS.”
A former Jordanian military officer corroborated the notion that the rise of extremist Islamist groups was facilitated by the Assad regime. Maj. Gen. Fayez Dwairi told The National that many “of the people who established Jabhat Al Nusra were captured by the regime in 2008 and were in prison. When the revolution started they were released on the advice of Syrian intelligence officers, who told Assad ‘they will do a good job for us. There are many disadvantages to letting them out, but there are more advantages because we will convince the world that we are facing Islamic terrorism.’”
It is important to note that many of the Baathist fighters in Iraq initially became radicalized and joined extremist organizations such as AQI and ISIS while they were being held in American prisons in Iraq. In fact, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, spent five years in Camp Bucca, a U.S. military detention facility near Umm Qasr, Iraq. The difference between these two scenarios seems to be one of intention. There aren’t any former U.S. army or intelligence officers stepping forward and saying that the U.S. purposely released Baghdadi and other prisoners to facilitate a civil war.
Also, if it is true that Assad has manipulated Sunni extremists to protect his regime, it wouldn’t be the first time. A February 2010 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus describes how the Syrian president sent a group of Islamists from Sednaya prison to Iraq after 2003 to fight the Americans along with the insurgency.
That cable, titled “When Chickens Come Home to Roost: Syria’s Proxy War in Iraq at Heart of 2008-09 Seidnaya [Sednaya] Prison Riots,” describes how a Syrian human rights activist recorded interviews with an inmate from Sednaya, a prison guard and three military personnel. She recounts how the government “offered Seidnaya [Sednaya] inmates the opportunity to receive military training in Syria and then travel to Iraq and fight coalition forces.”
Upon their return, some of the inmates “remained at large (but in contact with the regime),” others went to Lebanon, and the rest were arrested again – these were the Islamists. They felt “cheated,” the cable says. This led to riots at the prison in the summer of 2008 in which 50 to 60 inmates were killed. The prisoners, who were trained fighters, were able to commandeer control of one part of the prison before giving up. During that period, which lasted for about 3 months, they traded hostages for food.
These are the same people who are now fighting with ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.
Money from the Gulf
Zahra Aladhab, 9, of Falls Church, Va., holds up a protest sign along with dozens of other protests who gathered outside the White House in Washington, Saturday, June 21, 2014, protesting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, also known as ISIS. Phot: Susan Walsh/AP
While Assad was busy in Syria conjuring up a storm of Islamic militants to protect his regime, major donors from Gulf states were gathering at homes in Kuwait to shore up cash to empower those fighters.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Kuwait has been a “hub” for organizing and financing groups that support Syria’s rebel movement, according to Elizabeth Dickinson, a Gulf-based journalist. In a December 2013 report for the Brookings Institution, Dickinson charts how Gulf donors helped found armed rebel groups, influenced their ideologies, and ultimately led to their disunity. This report, “Playing with Fire: Why Private Gulf Financing for Syria’s Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home,” is one of the most detailed analyses of funding for rebel groups in Syria and Iraq to date.
Kuwait was flush with cash prior to the revolutionary flair that raced across many states in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, Dickinson explains in her report. It was a center for charities and non-governmental organizations doing work on behalf of governments, special interests and religious groups. A substantial amount of the money was given for humanitarian aid to Syria. “In addition to more than $300 million in government grants, Kuwait’s independent charities raised $183 million for humanitarian aid work for Syria at the last UN donor conference,” according to her report.
However, the country has taken on a more nefarious approach to fundraising since 2011, and it is responsible for a lot of the cash remittances and money that support rebel groups in Syria. Activity was centered here for two reasons: loose financial regulations and Kuwait’s large Syrian expat community concerned about their family members in Syria following the start of the uprising.
When the situation in Syria worsened, those Syrian expats began to approach big Kuwaiti donors and charities, according to Dickinson. Some of those donors included the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS) and the Sheikh Fahad al-Ahmed Charity.
“There was an implicit desire from [RIHS]… They wanted to shorten [the Syrian revolution] by creating defender groups. They wanted to do more than just to feed them; they needed armed groups to guard from the regime,” Dickinson wrote in her report, quoting witnesses to early meetings.
Representatives from different rebel brigades would attend public gatherings at homes in Kuwait to explain why they needed support. At the beginning, in 2011, these fighters would receive as much as $70,000 per month — and that was considered meager, compared to the $283,000 they received each month from RIHS.
Jihadi fundraisers and campaign posters to support fighters in Syria were also arranged. Politicians, clerics and others attended the fundraisers. In the summer of 2013, one fundraiser promised “to prepare 12,000 jihadists for the sake of Allah.” Posters claimed that donations of approximately $2,500 “would prepare one fighter for battle,” according to information quoted by Dickinson.
However, criticism by Syrians ensued. Material support for jihadi groups in Syria “leads to fragmentation of the lines of the opposition. Jihadis, by controlling large amounts of money, are able to attract fighters to leave the FSA, or even to fight against it,” according to an investigation by Zoltan Pall for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, published in May.
Dickinson’s report supports this, but notes that there is another problem that leads to fragmentation of the opposition: the donors themselves. The main donors are of a Salafi mindset and attempt to mould the groups to their worldview. In turn, rebel groups adopt their ideology to secure funding, and even broadcast how in touch they are with their particular donor’s worldviews. There was never an international consensus on what to do about the situation in Syria, so the problem of fragmentation, which led to the strengthening of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, grew even worse, she explains.
“The whole world is grappling in Syria at the expense of the Syrian people, and it is
impossible for the army to unite when every brigade follows whoever is financing it,” Dickinson quoted Jamaan Herbash, a former member of Kuwait’s parliament, as saying in an interview with her.
“I mean this huge number of supporters has resulted in a serious problem: It made every brigade think that it doesn’t need the other brigades. For example, Liwa al-Tawheed doesn’t need Ahrar al-Sham, just as Ahrar al-Sham doesn’t need al-Nusra, and this brought forth various armies inside the one army and caused a problem,” Herbash continued.
Kuwait is the main hub for arming extremist rebels. However, the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow through the country to groups like ISIS come from all over the Gulf, including U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
In her report, Dickinson asserts that the Kuwaiti government is complicit in financing jihadi groups. She quotes a member of the opposition as saying, “They know, and they are silent.” She quotes another as saying, “The government facilitates it, if not explicitly. They say, ‘do your work, just don’t make too much noise.’”
A relationship of convenience: Selling oil to Assad and the West
In this Thursday, July 31, 2014 photo, a column of smoke rises from an oil refinery in Beiji, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, after an attack by Islamic militants. AP Photo
Yet oil sales are the primary means for ISIS to amass its millions. The most unique element about the so-called “Islamic State,” as the group prefers to be called, is found in its name, Antonia Juhasz, an oil and energy expert based in California, told MintPress.
Juhasz said that unlike many other terrorist organizations, ISIS is trying to found a state. “And in the Middle East, if you want to form a state, you need oil,” she said, explaining that ISIS has been building its capacity to have its own state based on oil.
She observed that the group started off in Syria by capturing major oil fields there. The vast sums of money ISIS was able to secure through oil sales became the basis of the group’s ability to expand. They can use this oil as their own fuel and sell it on the black market.
“At the high point, estimates were that they were making as much as $2 million a day, which is an enormous amount of money, if correct,” Juhasz said. “It’s more than the Taliban was making selling heroin/poppy.”
This alone would have made ISIS one of the most well-funded terrorist organizations in the world, Juhasz noted.
When it was still part of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra gained control of oil fields in eastern Syria in the spring of 2013. Western intelligence sources have been quoted as saying the group started raking in millions of dollars from sales to the Assad regime.
“The regime is paying al-Nusra to protect oil and gas pipelines under al-Nusra’s control in the north and east of the country, and is also allowing the transport of oil to regime-held areas,” the source told The Telegraph. “We are also now starting to see evidence of oil and gas facilities under ISIS control,” they continued, explaining that there is a link to current events.
Barabandi, the former Syrian diplomat, explained a similar situation to MintPress, but went one step further: “ISIS is controlling everything and the regime is the main source buying from them.”
“The pipeline from the oil field to the refineries is still working. The gas pipeline from the gas fields to the refineries is still working. So it depends who controls this area, which is now ISIS, and why these refineries are still working,” he said.
The two main refineries in Syria are located in Homs and Baniyas — two cities controlled by Assad. Power output in government-controlled areas was running at a “relatively robust” rate as of February 2014, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which cites measurements from the Syrian government’s electricity company, Public Establishment for Electricity Generation (PEEG).
Up until today, “the Assad regime, they have fuel, they have diesel, they have electricity, they have the services,” explained Barabandi. “That means they have the diesel as raw material to run the electricity, plants or refineries. So it is there, they have the sources, all the resources to keep the government or the regime functioning on a daily basis.”
Barabandi also referenced reports about ISIS selling oil to other countries, including Iraq and Turkey. These reports are true, but he believes that most of ISIS’ profits from petrochemicals come from the regime.
“Let’s say if you have 200 tanks, and you need fuel for them for 24 hours, can you imagine the quantity you need to keep them running?” he told MintPress, attempting to illustrate how much oil is needed to fund Assad’s war.
He explained that Iran, an Assad ally, wouldn’t be able to supply this much oil, partly because of problems associated with sanctions on the country. To support this argument, he noted that, physically, it would be very difficult for ISIS and other al-Qaida groups to make significant profits by trucking oil to Turkey and other countries.
“Just try to imagine that if you wanted to get $2 million out of this market, how many trucks you need to smuggle!” he said. “Every day, you’ll need at least 500 [trucks] to go and come back. So, practically, this doesn’t work.”
Barabandi emphasized that to understand how ISIS makes money, it’s important to think rationally about the refineries, pipelines and areas controlled by varying factions in Syria. He described it as a relationship based on needs and convenience: The regime needs oil and gas, and ISIS needs to make money.
“Everybody knows that there’s so many black markets in Syria between the regime and people who control the oil fields and the gas fields,” he said. “It’s not a secret. The secret is ‘who are they!’”
“If you’re smuggling crude oil, you have to smuggle a large quantity of it to get value. It’s not like diamonds,” Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, who advises the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, told Time magazine in November. “That’s why it’s better to have a pipeline.”
Juhasz told MintPress that Syria is an important part of the equation for interrupting ISIS oil flows, but also emphasized that she believes the group is making most of their money by taking oil out of Syria and into Turkey and possibly Kurdistan. “If you could cut off the black market through Turkey, I think you could deal a dramatic blow to the Islamic State,” she said.
In “How the west created the Islamic State,” Nafeez Ahmed also touches on this point, poignantly highlighting how Western countries are tacitly complicit in ISIS oil smuggling. He explains how the European Union lifted an oil embargo in 2013 that it had put in place at the beginning of the Syrian war. Lifting the embargo was meant to aid opposition fighters, but it later emerged that those oil fields were controlled by al-Qaida-affiliated groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Oil from these groups was being “trucked by road to Turkey where the nearest refineries are located,” Ahmed wrote. He quoted Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, as saying, “The logical conclusion from this craziness is that Europe will be funding al-Qaeda.”
The tacit consent of Turkey and other U.S. allies in buying oil and giving other means of support to extremist groups in Syria prompted U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to say: “The Turks were great friends, and I’ve a great relationship with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, … the Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. [But] what were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war.”
“They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra, and al Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world,” Biden said while speaking to the JFK Jr. Forum at Harvard University in October.
Regarding Turkey’s complicity in oil sales, he continued: “President Erdogan told me… ‘You were right; we let too many people through. Now we are trying to seal the border.”
The border areas close to Turkey have been used to lay primitive pipelines where oil can be extracted and traded in Turkey for cash for the militants. Ahmed wrote, “[T]he Turkish government is tacitly allowing IS [ISIS] to flourish as it prefers the rebels to the Assad regime.”
Meanwhile, EU Ambassador to Iraq Jana Hybášková has admitted that some European countries have purchased oil from ISIS. Hybášková made the revelations at a meeting of the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee in early September, but refused to “reveal the names of the EU countries which purchased ISIS’s oil to finance the organization, despite insistent questions,” reported the Turkish Daily Sabah.
Juhasz said ISIS was able able to buy troops, weapons and fuel with its oil money and other sources of income — namely, extortion from the people it governs and kidnappings — and move into Iraq, where it also took over oil fields.
America’s new campaign in Iraq and Syria
Thick smoke from an airstrike by the US-led coalition rise in Kobani, Syria, as seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Monday, Oct. 20, 2014 . Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
The U.S. began to bomb oil fields and refineries controlled by ISIS in September. Juhasz told MintPress that the U.S. initially got involved because Western oil interests were threatened and because there was an opportunity to use the conflict to put pressure on the central Iraqi government to get rid of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and replace him with Haider al-Abadi, who the U.S. perceives as less sectarian.
At the time, Erbil and Kirkuk were being threatened by ISIS. In order to fend off this threat, the U.S. used the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar over the summer as a pretext to bomb ISIS. Juhasz explained that Erbil is significant because it is where the offices of Western oil companies are located and the center of their activity, while Kirkuk is one of the largest oil fields in the world and contested between the central Iraqi government and the Kurdistan regional government.
When ISIS threatened Kirkuk, the Peshmerga, the military arm of the Kurds, pushed back and secured the oil field. “Now, for the first time, this enormous oil field is in the hands of the Kurds, which supported their long-time desire to be independent of Iraq,” said Juhasz.
The Obama administration used the situation to demonstrate to Baghdad that if it didn’t change its government and support more inclusive reforms, the U.S. would assist the Kurds in their efforts for independence, Juhasz contended.
The Iraqi government complied, and Abadi is now prime minister.
The more recent September bombing campaign came about as a result of the beheadings of Western journalists. Thus, the U.S. has been goaded back into the fight and is being used by various players in the conflict for their own means: American neoconservatives, weapons manufacturers, and oil companies are looking for profits and have some of the same machinations outlined by Nafeez Ahmed; the Kurdish regional government wants independence; ISIS wants the U.S. to bomb Sunnis so they will become extremists and fight against the Americans and whomever else gets in their way; and Russia, Iran and Syria want to point to the hypocrisy of U.S. actions and imperialist intentions as an excuse to prop up the Assad government and protect their own imperial interests in the region.
It is a grand mess, but is bombing the only solution?
Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project, told MintPress that “160,000 troops at a time, rotating in almost a million U.S. troops over almost a decade, could not create an army [in Iraq] that was accountable, that was inclusive, [or] that functioned.”
“Now we think we’re going to do that with 3,000 trainers?!” she quipped.
She said the way to get out of Iraq is to “first, do no harm [the Hippocratic Oath].” The invasion of Iraq, bombing and other American violence against the region has brought it to where it is today, she said, noting that any more bombing is sure to make matters worse.
Second, the U.S. needs to put more emphasis on diplomacy. “Don’t talk about it like, ‘Oh yea, and we’ll do some diplomacy, too,’” she said, explaining that the twice-failed Geneva talks need to be revived and the U.S. should not set preconditions that ensure failure, such as the notion that all the parties have to start from the premises that Assad must go and Iran cannot be at the table.
Then, she said, there needs to be a cease-fire. The U.N. special envoy to Syria has been talking about local cease-fires, she said, which are beginning to take hold in a number of different places. The U.S. should support this initiative and broader regional cease-fires.
Finally, Bennis said, an arms embargo needs to be put in place. “Because no matter how good your cease-fire is, if you keep flooding the place with arms on all sides, that cease-fire’s never going to hold,” she explained. The U.S. needs to start this, she said, because it could never expect Russia and Iran to stop sending weapons to Syria if the U.S. doesn’t stop selling its weapons to the Gulf, which is arming many of the rebels.
She conceded that “none of this is politically easy.” For the U.S., it would be mean going up against the arms industry’s lobbies. “A huge task,” she said.