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.”
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.
“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.”