US targets oilfields to disrupt ISIS finances

ERBIL (Iraq) • The United States and its allies have sharply increased their air strikes against the sprawling oilfields the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) controls in eastern Syria, in an effort to disrupt one of the terrorist group's main sources of revenue, US officials said this week.

For months, the US has been frustrated by the ability of ISIS to keep producing and exporting oil - what Defence Secretary Ash Carter recently called "a critical pillar of the financial infrastructure" of the group - which generates about US$40 million (S$57 million) a month, or nearly US$500 million a year, according to Treasury Department estimates.

While the US-led air campaign has conducted periodic air strikes against oil refineries and other production facilities in eastern Syria that the group controls, the organisation's engineers have been able to quickly repair the damage.

The first evidence of the new strategy came on Oct 21, when B-1 bombers and other allied warplanes hit 26 targets in the Omar oilfield, one of the two largest oil-production sites in all of Syria. US military analysts estimate the Omar field generates US$1.7 million to US$5.1 million a month for ISIS.

The Obama administration has also baulked at attacking ISIS tanker trucks - its main distribution network - fearing civilian casualties. But now the administration has decided to increase the attacks and focus on inflicting damage that takes longer to fix or requires specially ordered parts.

The first evidence of the new strategy came on Oct 21, when B-1 bombers and other allied warplanes hit 26 targets in the Omar oilfield, one of the two largest oil-production sites in all of Syria. US military analysts estimate the Omar field generates US$1.7 million to US$5.1 million a month for ISIS.

French warplanes struck another oilfield nearby earlier this week.

The goal of the operation over the next several weeks is to cripple eight major oilfields, about two-thirds of the refineries and other oil-production sites controlled by ISIS.

"We intend to shut it all down," Colonel Steven Warren, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said in an e-mail on Thursday. More broadly, the intensified targeting of one of the major financing sources of ISIS is part of the Obama administration's effort to accelerate the pace of the campaign against the group.

Lieutenant-General Charles Brown Jr, the head of the air campaign, headquartered in Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, said in an interview last week that allied warplanes are intensifying attacks on a series of fixed sites such as oil-production facilities, bomb-making factories and other so-called critical nodes that support the war effort of ISIS.

The revamped plan for attacking the oil production sites comes after weeks of intense study of eight major fields - Omar, Tanak, El Isbah, Sijan, Jafra, Azraq, Barghooth and Abu Hardan - to determine how to inflict more financial pain on ISIS.

US commanders cautioned that it may take some time to gauge the impact of the new targeting, given the financial reserves the militant group has built up. Unlike measuring the immediate impact of bombing tanks or soldiers, "it might be longer to feel the effect of oilfields", Lt-Gen Brown said.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2015, with the headline 'US targets oilfields to disrupt ISIS finances'. Print Edition | Subscribe