The Gloves Are Coming Off in the U.S. War Against the Islamic State’s Oil

Paul McLeary

American military officials have come to the conclusion that the U.S.-led air campaign targeting Syria’s oil infrastructure — which has provided the Islamic State with hundreds of millions of dollars over the past two years — has been too cautious. A new offensive aims to change that.

Officials would not say if the rules of engagement for the U.S.-led air war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have changed to allow for a new and more aggressive round of strikes. But there was little doubt that the U.S. aerial assault that tore through 116 ISIS oil tankers parked near an Iraqi border crossing Sunday night signaled that the militant group’s financial infrastructure was now squarely in American crosshairs.

In the early days of the campaign last September, American officials made a point to say that the Islamic State’s mobile oil drilling assets were high on the target list, but a Pentagon spokesman said on Monday that the coalition has actually been trying to spare some of Syria’s largest oil producing facilities.

The coalition has been conscious of the “degree of damage we want to do to these things, recognizing that they remain the property of the Syrian people,” said Capt. Jeff Davis. But as the war has dragged on, and ISIS continues to pull in anywhere from $1 to $2 million a day from its black market oil smuggling operations, that thinking appears to have changed. As well-supplied ISIS fighters stubbornly hold out in cities like Raqqa, Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi, and the group begins to conduct operations as far away as Egypt, Afghanistan, and Paris, military planners have decided to expand their target lists. “We have gone after them more aggressively,” Davis said.

This month, the coalition has launched over a dozen airstrikes against the Dayr Az Zawr oil facility in the heart of Syria’s oil producing region, as well as the Abu Kamal oil collection point near the Iraqi border, where the 116 trucks were incinerated on Sunday. Pentagon officials estimate that about two-thirds of the Islamic State’s oil revenue comes from the Dayr AzZawr region southeast of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital.

American aircraft first hit ISIS oil facilities on the very first night of the air campaign 14 months ago, but have been unable to make much progress in shutting down the trade in black market oil. The failure has led to the new air offensive, dubbed Operation Tidal Wave II after the World War II air campaign that destroyed German oil fields in Romania. It’s far too soon whether the new U.S. campaign will have remotely as much success.

Almost a year’s worth of tentative strikes against the Islamic State’s oil system were only delivering glancing blows to the group’s ability to pump and sell more oil, and any damage was being “easily repaired or replaced,” according to coalition spokesman Col. Steve Warren. In many cases, ISIS was able to get equipment back up and running within a day or two.

“We realized we needed to re-look how we were targeting these oil facilities,” Warren told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, and “we wanted them broken longer. Rather than 24 to 48 hours, we’re looking at something that would take maybe a year to repair.”

There has been some disagreement over how much money ISIS is able to pull in from its black market oil operations, but all assessments agree that it is in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

Last year, IHS Jane’s estimated that the organization was taking in an estimated $2 million a day — $800 million a year — selling oil on the black market. But just weeks before that estimate came out, Nicholas Rasmussen, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told Congress that the U.S. government’s estimate was closer to $1 million a day, which added to the revenue gained through robberies, smuggling, and ransom payments for hostages. The Pentagon is sticking with the $1 million a day oil revenue estimate in its own assessments.
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