Smoke-spewing makeshift refineries dot the desert landscape around Deir ez-Zor.
Deir ez-Zor, Syria’s sixth-largest city, is also the country’s oil capital. For four decades, the al-Assad regime (first run by Hafez, and now by his son Bashar) struck deals with Western oil companies like Shell and Total that resulted in the extraction of as much as 27,000 barrels of black gold from the sand every day. A pittance compared with other Middle Eastern countries’ production, but it made Syria a bona fide oil-exporting nation. At least this was the case until international sanctions were imposed in 2011 in response to the regime’s crackdown on the antigovernment protests, which quickly morphed into a civil war.
Located in the middle of the desert and less than 100 miles from the Iraq border, Deir ez-Zor dominates the eastern portion of the country and has had a long, fruitful relationship with the petroleum industry: before the war, its 220,000 inhabitants often worked for oil companies as engineers, technicians, and laborers.
Downtown Deir ez-Zor is still home to many modern glass-walled buildings erected by Western firms, but in the past two years, they’ve been largely abandoned as the battles between the rebels and al-Assad’s forces, each of whom hold portions of the city, have left them pockmarked, windowless, and scarred.
When I visited Deir ez-Zor in September, there were snipers lurking on roofs as combatants exchanged fire from Kalashnikovs, mortars, and heavy machine guns below. Beyond the city limits the suburbs give way to the mostly empty desert where the oil wells are located and where the rebels—most of them hard-line jihadists, and many of them with ties to al Qaeda—are in complete control. It’s a very different place than it was prerevolution, but it is still an oil town, albeit one of an entirely new sort. Instead of multinational corporations, it’s now the Islamist rebels who are providing jobs to the locals.
One such local is Ahmer, a 15-year-old I met on his way home from work. His face and clothes were stained with oil. “I never took part in the past year’s clashes,” he told me, suspicious of my question about the extent of his involvement in the revolution. “I only helped my father bring ammunition here and there in Palmyra, 135 miles away from Damascus, where fights are still going on.”
Ahmer lives with his mother and two younger brothers in a room they rent from the man who owns the makeshift kerosene refinery where all three of the siblings work. The refinery owner buys his crude oil from the rebels and distills it into kerosene; Ahmer and his brothers earn just enough to pay for the room and food while enduring horrifying conditions.
All day long, Ahmer helps to move barrels, which can weigh more than 200 pounds when full of crude, to and from a converted water tank suspended above a fire. The oil is heated until it begins boiling into vapor, after which it is pumped through pipes and into water-filled underground pits where, over time, it condenses into kerosene. It’s as rudimentary as the refining process gets, but the result is usable fuel.
Krahim splashes crude oil on a rudimentary refinery tank to keep it hot enough to boil kerosene. He’s ten years old and works nine hours a day.
Krahim, Ahmer’s ten-year-old brother, has been tasked with perhaps the most hazardous assignment: his job is to throw and coat the inside of the tank with oil to keep its temperature above the necessary boiling point. For two hours I watched him at work, his feet inches from the flames, his head engulfed in crude oil fumes.
His supervisor (whom I only spoke with momentarily and looked to be in his late teens) explained the process: “The higher the temperature, the higher the extracted kerosene’s quality,” he said, taking drags from a cigarette. The thing he didn’t mention is if the temperature rises too high, the gas could compress and violently blow up the tank.
These explosions happen on a weekly basis, according to Abu Mahmoud, one of the few doctors in the area who haven’t closed their practices to get into the oil-refining game. Between home visits to patients, runs to the Iraq border to buy medical supplies, and responding to emergencies, Dr. Mahmoud is perhaps better informed than anyone of the entire scope of the Deir ez-Zor oil trade. He told me that approximately 6,000 people were working in the refineries, and that by his estimates somewhere around 2,000 of them were kids like Ahmer and Krahim—many of them displaced war orphans whose parents were killed either by the regime or the rebels.
“All the families [I knew] left Palmyra,” Ahmer said. “Sometimes, I recognize a kid or two I used to go to school with. They’re here, hidden amid the oil fumes. It’s weird—I don’t want to talk to them today, really.” Ahmer told me his father aided the rebels, and lots of the kids his age had parents who were pro-Assad. To avoid potential workplace conflicts, he said, it’s safer to avoid talking at all. In the landscape of Syria’s convoluted civil war, this makes Deir ez-Zor a sort of no-man’s-land where hard workers are accepted without much interrogation. It doesn’t matter much because odds are that most of these workers have sealed their fates.
This is a fate all too real for Krahim, who was careful to pour the crude oil evenly across the tank’s sides to minimize the risk of blowing his head off. Every hour, he takes a second to wash off the layer of black dust that accumulates on his face. “I’ve seen many mutilated people, burned bodies destroyed by explosions,” he told me. Our conversation was soon interrupted by his coughing fits.
While an official diagnosis would be the only way to be certain in Krahim’s case, oil-related illnesses are spreading in Deir ez-Zor. Thanks to the smoke and dust kicked up by the unregulated, unclean extraction and refining operations and the leakages that pollute the precious groundwater, the crude refineries’ pollution is spreading to the surrounding desert villages. Common ailments include persistent coughs and chemical burns that, according to Dr. Mahmoud, have the potential to lead to tumors. He said that those who live in the immediate region are increasingly at risk to develop cancer, and some villages have now become uninhabitable thanks to all-too-frequent accidents. This contamination doesn’t just affect humans; in July, at the beginning of Ramadan, herds of goats died after drinking from a contaminated water table that was the only source of drinking water for three villages.
“Oil-related disorders are only starting to appear among the desert inhabitants,” Dr. Mahmoud told me. “I sometimes feel overwhelmed,” he said. “What I learned in medical school is no longer enough to understand all the pathologies caused by oil and its exploitation in the region.”
A young refinery worker suffering from chemical burns. Photo by Dr. Abu Mahmoud
East of Deir ez-Zor, near the Iraq border, lies the real money pit: the industrial oil fields. It’s here that Islamist rebel groups, including the al Qaeda–backed Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), extract the crude oil from the ground and bring it by truck to the hundreds or thousands of makeshift refineries scattered throughout the surrounding desert. Offices and dorms constructed and once owned and operated by Western companies have now been converted into dorms for radical jihadists.
One afternoon during my trip, I made the half-hour drive out there with two members of the Free Syrian Army who aren’t directly aligned with the Islamists running the show, but have had no choice but to band together against the government.
As we passed the village of P’settin, a set of giant white storage tanks appeared on the horizon. We pulled up to a roadblock, and my FSA guides advised me to stay in the car. “Even our generals are not welcome here anymore,” one said.
After two hours of waiting, I was allowed past the barricade. I noticed the unexploded shells and craters lining the wall surrounding the compound—the regime had been carrying out weekly air strikes against these fields for the past several months. Silent men in camo pants lurked in the shadows, and I could tell my FSA companions were nervous, even as they showed me the bullet-hole-riddled pipelines that they swore were operational.
Information about such activities in present-day Syria is dubious as best, but locals and my FSA contacts reported that these groups earn between $170 and $240 per refinery each month. I also heard there could be as many as 3,000 tanks, and based on the information available from reports released earlier this year on similar operations in Syria, my sources and I estimate the jihadists bring in somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million every month. Of course, no one but the principals of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS know exactly how much money they make from their makeshift refinery operations.
Profits may pale in comparison to what the oil giants running the place were raking in, but the new management may be taking the long view. If and when al-Assad falls, the al Qaeda–supported rebel groups are aiming to still be in control of the fields, where they will be free to build a much more efficient and profitable refining operation. Their goal is a bleak proposition for everyone else involved: a future where the oil money that used to line the pockets of Shell executives goes toward constructing an Islamic state that will bubble up from the ashes of the old regime.
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