Sat, Jun 29, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Oil fields create surreal battle lines

Tribal leaders are supplying oil and gas to both the government and rebels to spare their villages from attack — and make money

By Ghaith Abdul-ahad  /  The Guardian, DEIR EL-ZOUR, Syria

He stood up and walked to the edge of the porch, the slow, deliberate, short-stepped walk of the Gulf “nobility,” swaying slightly from side to side. He wore his keffiyeh [scarf] and dishdasha [robe] not in the style of Syrian tribesmen, but like rich Sunnis of the Gulf.

He led me to a gleaming BMW 4x4. Two gunmen jumped into the back seats. At the gates of the plant, four fighters standing guard hurriedly opened the gates. Zayed stood in front of the modern factory with its metallic chimneys, spherical tanks and eternally burning flames, like a benevolent ruler inspecting his nation.

A few shafts of light escaped the sand veil, shrouding the sun and danced wildly in the sky.

“This is a top-class factory,” he said. “They built all these factories on our land and only 10 guards and two cooks from our area worked here. The rest all came from the cities. Now it’s over. This is ours.”

“This plant makes £10 million a day. We protect it and we wouldn’t let anyone steal anything. We get gas and electricity from the plant and we sell the gasoline,” Zayed said.

Three engineers were walking about the factory inspecting warehouses. One broke away to greet the sheik.

“Everything is going well,” he told Zayed. “But we shouldn’t produce any more LPG [cooking gas]. We need it all pumped out today; I want to keep the tanks empty.”

A shadow of annoyance flickered across Zayed’s face. The cooking gas was very important to him, as some of it was pumped to a nearby gas plant under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra to keep its fighters happy. The rest was bottled and sold in the market.

“I am pumping 4.5 million cubic meters of gas into the main gas grid. That’s enough electricity for five times the needs of [the province of] Deir el-Zour,” the engineer said.

Who controls the main grid?

“The government,” said the engineer.

He had a weightlifter’s physique, but looked exhausted, with dark circles surrounding his small eyes.

“The regime wants production regardless of who is in control. I pump gas to the government and give the LPG gas to the terrorists,” he said, only half-joking.

“I tell the regime everything, I tell them that the Jufra field is under the control of Nusra, that the tribes have taken over the wells or have looted them. Yet the officials don’t want to listen. If we reduce production, they go mad. They tell me to send them my LPG production and I tell them the locals take that, so they shout at me. I tell them if they don’t like it I will shut the plant, so then they shut up. In their heads I think the regime still consider themselves the masters. Yet where are they to protect the facilities?” the engineer said.

“I pump about 5 million cubic meters of gas a day into the system that feeds the regime’s power stations. Even though the regime is rationing the electricity to certain cities, if I stop pumping, the system will collapse. In the end he [al-Assad] doesn’t mind dealing with rebels if they give him electricity,” he said.

A wall of dust loomed from behind the chimneys and moved like a wave over the plant, engulfing everything. Only the flame remained visible and, as if by magic, all the lights of the factory turned on.

The engineer invited us into his 1980s-style office. Only half the plant’s workforce showed up each day, he said: The rest had all deserted. When he asked them why, they told him that it was not only them and he should look at what had happened to the rest of the country.

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