A northern wind had been blowing since early morning, lifting a veil of dust that had blocked the sun and turned the sky the color of ash. Abu Zayed was sitting on the porch of his unfinished concrete home, watching the storm build. He loved sandstorms. They reminded him of Dubai, where he had lived before the war. He admired the people there for turning a desert into a paradise. They had vision, he told his followers.
Six months ago, he left the Gulf to join the Syrian revolution, attending opposition conferences in Istanbul and Cairo, jostling for position on behalf of his father, the leading sheik of a powerful tribe in eastern Syria.
However, Zayed became disgusted with the bickering among the rebel leadership.
“There is an opposition council in every hotel lobby in Istanbul,” he said. “You can’t distinguish them from the regime.”
Instead, like other disaffected tribal leaders, Zayed returned to his clan, taking control of his energy-rich ancestral lands. Most of the oil and gas fields in eastern Syria lie idle or pump meager quantities that are refined using primitive techniques to generate a pittance, but Zayed’s land has a huge gas plant near his home.
His father chose him out of his 40 brothers to look after the plant because he was seen as a man of vision. The war had given him a chance to realize his dream: to build an oil-fueled emirate.
The hard edges of Syria’s front lines — dogmatic, revolutionary, Islamist or pure murderously sectarian — almost melt away outside the oil fields. New lines emerge, pitting tribesmen against battalions, Islamists against everyone and creating surreal lines of engagement where rebels maintain government oil supplies to spare their villages from bombardment, then being allowed to siphon oil for themselves.
“There is chaos now,” Zayed said. “The Free Syrian Army is chasing loot and they don’t care about civilians. The military councils are stealing aid and selling it. There are dozens of battalions, we don’t even know who is manning a checkpoint at the end of the street. Some people are saying the days of [President] Bashar [al-Assad] were better, that the opposition has betrayed the people. But we can organize this,” he said.
“Look at this gas plant. Things are organized and we can do the same for other fields. Most of the people who control the oil fields are making about 5 million Syrian pounds a day. They exploit a field for a few weeks, but because of the chaos, another powerful cousin or battalion soon arrives to fight for it and take control of it,” he said.
“I tell these people to lease me the field for ￡10 million [US$15 million] a month. I bring in companies to exploit them properly and organize convoys to sell the gas to Turkey. Then we’ll buy Patriot [missile] batteries and drones to protect the fields. Once you have economic power you can convene a council for the tribes and organize all the military units in one military council,” he said.
Using the old definition of tribal land from the French colonial era, each tribe is now claiming ownership of the fields in its wajeh (tribal territory). As the Syrian regime has crumbled, society in the desert east has fallen back on the tribes.
“Even [al-Qaeda affiliate] Jabhat al-Nusra can’t do anything against us,” Zayed said. “They try to get fields, but they can’t. Not Nusra, not even the Americans could take these fields.”