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

“I produce 120 megawatts [MW] of electricity. I give this to the rebel areas because if I shut electricity off they will attack me tomorrow and if I stop pumping gas to the government they will bomb,” he said.

“I feel like I am sitting on a bomb. The rebels fight at night,” he said with a look of rebuke toward his new master: “over their shares of the gasoline. They don’t use Kalashnikovs anymore, but anti-aircraft guns. If one bullet got in the gas tanks, the whole area would explode. That’s why I try to keep them empty.”

As we drove back through the storm, Zayed tried to explain why he was still pumping gas to the regime.

“If we don’t pump, the regime will attack the plant, which is providing us with gas and electricity,” he said.

“The engineer is a very honest and patriotic man. He stayed when others fled. I told him: ‘Don’t wag your tail and try to send fuel to others, this is our land and you have your factory here, fine, but it’s ours now,’” Zayed said.

By nightfall the sandstorm had moved on, leaving everything covered in a thick brown layer. A cold wind was blowing over the porch, where more men had gathered. Beyond it, a trail of headlights followed the road linking the highway to the gas plant.

The caravan of tankers and pick-up trucks was heading to the plant to fill up with gasoline. As they did every night, tribesmen and kinsmen from local rebel battalions congregated at the pumping station to scoop out the precious gasoline that would be resold a few miles down the road to oil traders.

The tribesmen brought heavy 23mm anti-aircraft guns mounted on pick-up trucks as a precaution, should any disagreement arise over each group’s quota. An old Russian tank stood like a muscled bouncer, ready to intervene.

Zayed walked around the porch striking deals as the buyers sought his influence to increase their quotas, reduce those of other tribes, or buy tanks of cooking gas.

Two commanders were sitting on the porch, lamenting the state of revolution in theatrical voices. Each ruled a considerable oil fiefdom.

“Oh Hassan, what has become of us?” asked a commander with a very thick black mustache. “Where is the beauty of our early jihad? In the first days — before the damn oil came and everyone started building their fortunes and leaving the fight.”

Hassan, a notorious bandit-cum-rebel who had become one of the richest men in Deir el-Zour, replied: “I swear to Allah that with the revenue from my oil I am equipping and organizing a battalion that will go and fight in the city.”

“Oh Hassan, this is why Allah is not rewarding me with martyrdom yet,” the commander with the mustache said. “As long as the city is there waiting for us, we fight.”

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