A Matter of Business in Syria

A Syrian Kurdish policeman patrols the border between Syria and Iraq in the oil-rich region of Hassakeh, on October 14, 2013. (FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP/Getty Images)

A Syrian Kurdish policeman patrols the border between Syria and Iraq in the oil-rich region of Hassakeh, on October 14, 2013. (FABIO BUCCIARELLI/AFP/Getty Images)

In a small, cramped room in the suburbs of Amman, a Homsi family of four gathers around two posters stuck to the white wall. The posters show downtown Homs—aerial photographs taken from the days before the skyline crumbled beneath the bombs and the people starved under siege. Sabeen—just turned four, with a Free Syrian Army flag wrapped around her skinny neck—grins into the camera. “Horreya,” she says as the camera clicks.

With the word—which means “freedom” in Arabic—so often on the lips of those Syrians forced to flee, and with so many on the ground in Syria still fighting for democracy, it is tempting to view the conflict as something purely ideological. But today, it is not just ideological goals fueling this war. Increasingly, the goals are also economic.

The war may have decimated Syria’s once-centralized economy—the country’s infrastructure destroyed, investors forced to flee, and the international community imposing sanctions—but today, a new ‘war economy’ is emerging. As so often occurs in wars, groups and individuals are proving themselves adept at exploiting the breakdown in security for economic gain.

In the northeast of the country, bitter battles have been fought among and between Al-Qaeda-linked militants, Arab tribes and Kurdish militia for control of the region’s oil fields. Today, (ISIS) controls a worryingly large proportion of them, profiting from smuggling oil barrels across the border with Turkey—as well as reportedly also selling it to the Assad regime. Elsewhere in the country, groups have captured factories and grain stores, seized or established checkpoints and border posts (at one border post with Turkey, the rebels controlling it were recorded to be levying 1,000 US dollars on every passing truck), and trafficked stolen national antiquities (ISIS reportedly earned 36 million dollars from trafficking antiquities from the Nabuk region.) Even outside the war zone, new economies have emerged exploiting the crisis next door. In Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, enterprising locals have started charging Syrians hundreds of dollars to smuggle them out through the camp’s barbed wire fence or to provide false references to sponsor them into Jordan.

While this economic ‘entrepreneurialism’ is frequently used by groups to fund their war efforts, the funds gained from purchasing weapons, medicines and technology are also going straight into individuals’ pockets, producing a new breed—the ‘warlord’—and driving a battle for selfish economic gain. Jihad Yazigi, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and founder of the Syria Report, recently commented that “many rebel brigades are now believed to focus entirely on their business operations, and have effectively given up the fight against the regime.” The availability of wealth is certainly no secret: consider the tweets posted by British jihadists earlier this year illustrating their lavish living conditions. Hilltop palace with swimming pools, Four-wheeled drive vehicles pizzas, Cadbury’s chocolate, all the latest Apple gadgets, and a hell of a lot of shiny weapons . . . anyone?

The Syrian war economy is also altering the region more widely. As recent events in Iraq have illustrated, newly powerful groups such as ISIS are flourishing within the chaos and are now threatening the stability of countries surrounding Syria.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki may have blamed Saudi Arabia for ISIS’s recent rampage towards Baghdad, claiming that Riyadh has bankrolled the group, but it is largely the group’s success in extorting money within Syria that has facilitated its recent achievements. Following the group’s looting of 425 million dollars from the central bank in Mosul, ISIS militants are now deemed the “most cash-rich extremists in history.” As one jihadist—Abu Yusuf Al-Britani, also known as @MuhajidMuhajir—tweeted, alongside a map illustrating areas of ISIS control, “The areas in #Iraq and #Syria under #ISIS control, notice where all the oil fields are, Allahu Akbar.” (This tweet has now been removed.)

No longer relying solely on support from wealthy international donors trying to have a say in the group’s activities, ISIS is now able to transfer its assets to where they are needed most with as much flexibility and precision as the central bureaucracy of a state—and the world stands on edge, fearful of its next move.

Syria’s new war economy poses multiple difficulties for the international community. Actors driven by economic gain promote “fighting for fighting’s sake,” and chances of de-escalation become ever harder. Moreover, with militant groups profiting from the chaos, Syria is rapidly becoming an arena fueling wider jihad.

After three years, Syria’s war has become synonymous with destruction—with good reason. But now, if we stand any chance of stalling this agonizing conflict, we have to be wary of the entities it is creating, as well as their power to destroy.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.