U.S. Strikes ISIS Oil Installations

The latest round of airstrikes targeted one vulnerable part of the terror group's illicit empire. But that doesn't mean ISIS oil fields will be bombed next.

Mark Wilson - Getty
Mark Wilson - Getty

The United States and its Arab allies targeted Islamic State oil installations in the latest round of airstrikes, an expansion of the coalition’s campaign meant to strike a blow at one of the terror group’s main sources of revenue. Attacking oil installations, such as mobile refineries, rather than oil fields in eastern Syria could minimize the environmental damage and long-term impact from the strikes, but also lessens the impact it could have on the group’s coffers.

The latest round of strikes launched Wednesday evening included about a dozen Islamic State "modular oil refineries" in eastern Syria, used to turn crude oil into refined products that are then smuggled to buyers in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.

"We are still assessing the outcome of the attack on the refineries, but have initial indications that the strikes were successful. These small-scale refineries provided fuel to run ISIL operations, money to finance their continued attacks throughout Iraq and Syria, and an economic asset to support their future operations," the Pentagon said in a statement.

The oil assets of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, have been in the crosshairs since even before U.S. and Arab attacks began this week. Since taking over chunks of territory in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, the terror group has used illicit proceeds from oil to fund its operations.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Wednesday that cutting off ISIS oil income should be a key part of any attack on the group. Her staff released a report on ISIS oil operations that shows varying estimates of the size, scope, and profitability of ISIS’s illegal oil business. Most experts believe the group could be making between $1 million and $3 million a day from illicit oil sales, making it one of the best-funded terror groups. The Pentagon said that ISIS earns an estimated $2 million a day from oil sales.

The U.S. Treasury and the United Nations have sought in particular to choke off ISIS oil funding. A U.N. Security Council resolution passed in August seeks to get member states to crack down on the shadowy networks of individuals that buy oil products from ISIS.

The group’s dive into the oil business, while bolstering its revenue stream, has also created fresh vulnerabilities, as the latest airstrikes seem to show. Because the group has to maintain control over the territory where oil fields are located and work to maintain oil output, then move the refined product for sale, it represents a potentially easier target.

"If ISIS wants to run an oil industry, it is extraordinarily vulnerable to military attacks," Michael Knights, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told FP in an interview this summer. ISIS’s move to bigger tanker trucks presents a particular weak point. "They’re slow, they’re big, and they explode when you hit them. This is not a reliable way of making money," he said.

U.S. and coalition forces could attack ISIS-held oil fields in Syria, which would further erode the group’s ability to turn black gold into black profits. But two concerns have so far kept oil fields off the target list: The underground resources belong to the Syrian people, and they would likely suffer long-term damage and a decline in their productive capacity if they were attacked.

And memories of the choking, black fires that came from burning oil wells sabotaged by Saddam Hussein’s forces in the first Gulf War underscore the potential environmental damage that a concerted oil attack could leave. As it is, ISIS refining operations, carried out in makeshift facilities, have already inflicted local environmental damage in many parts of eastern Syria, observers there say.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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