Nicole J. Leonard
Last updated: 6 June, 2013

Does oil equal power in the Syrian conflict?

Syria has oil and natural gas, but not enough to make them a deciding factor in the war, writes Your Middle East’s energy analyst Nicole J. Leonard.

The European Union’s decision to lift sanctions on Syrian oil has been hailed as proactive economic support for the Syrian opposition, which is generally believed to now hold the majority of Syria’s oil assets. As an effort to aid the Syrian opposition, this decision is largely a misconceived assumption that oil could be a deciding factor in this conflict.

The fact that the opposition has gained control of the divided country’s natural resources would, in other states and other situations, indicate a massive win for the opposition. The EU’s offer to purchase Syria’s opposition-controlled oil could entirely turn the tide of the war in favor of the opposition.

If it were a different state.

Oil is often synonymous with power as has been proven by Syria’s neighbors. A majority of analysts and writers in the West have focused on Syria as an oil producer. Many have wondered why Western leaders have yet to intervene since Syria has approximately 2.5 billion barrels of exploitable oil beneath their soil (not including the substantial, untapped oil and gas off the country’s coast) and have speculated that maybe Syria does not have enough oil to spur the US and Europe to military or diplomatic intervention.

Syria has oil and natural gas, but not enough to spark energy-hungry countries to intervene

Oil may allot power to its beholder in Syria, but not to the same extent as in countries like Saudi Arabia. There are two reasons why control over oil resources will yield little strength to the opposition: the factious nature of the opposition and the lack of refining capabilities.

Because of the nature of oil (it’s referred to as “black gold” for a reason) and its value, Syria’s oil reserves have been a target of every opposition group. Each has laid siege to this rich natural resource with the hopes of converting it into much needed revenue, and there has been little to no cohesion amongst these groups. It has been speculated that instead of aiding Syria’s moderate opposition, the EU will be supporting the more militant opposition as an unintended consequence of the lifted embargo. Without cohesion, however, the export of crude oil will prove only to spur more fighting and the oil will likely be wasted.

The Assad regime also (extremely strategically) maintained a strongly pro-government workforce in its oil industry. The human resources for extracting, refining, and utilizing crude oil have fled. As a means of fuel for vehicles and electricity, it is necessary to refine the crude oil that requires little manpower to extract. The opposition, however, has very little technical experience in refining, leading to dangerous makeshift refineries that have caused multiple deaths, illness, and pollution. Due to opposition attacks on Syria’s oil wells, coupled with the refining botches, the holders of these oil wells are losing nearly 5,000 barrels of oil and 52,000 cubic meters of gas on a daily basis. Though the Assad regime once relied on oil for a third of its state income, it hardly seems as though the opposition will translate Syria’s oil into a comparable income.

In reality, Syria has never been in a position of power because of its natural resources. Its exports were modest at best, while its reserves were hardly sufficient to sustain the country’s domestic energy needs, let alone reap large state incomes, and never truly afforded Syria much international significance. In addition, energy infrastructure in Syria was in dire need of renovation even before the conflict began. It is hard to even imagine the state of disrepair in which Syria’s oil industry has been left.

Syria has oil and natural gas, but not enough to spark energy-hungry countries to intervene in the nearly two-year old war, not enough to affect global oil prices, and not enough to create panic. Black gold is the last thing on the minds of the Syrian people and quite insignificant in comparison to the horrifying loss of human life that plagues the country.

This discussion is important because the West often values Middle East countries in terms of their exploitable natural resources and generally discounts the socioeconomic, religious, and historical motivations behind a conflict like this one. Syria, therefore, becomes an interesting case study for the role of oil in troubled states. Hopefully, it will serve as an example for the West (Europe) to concentrate less on oil and more on social and regional dynamics.

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