Europe’s Two-Time Turnabout on Syria/Iraq

  • Analysis by Peter Custers (leiden, netherlands)
  • Saturday, August 30, 2014
  • Inter Press Service

On August 15, the foreign ministers of the European Union gathered in Brussels and decided that each would henceforth be free to supply arms to Kurdish rebels fighting Sunni extremists of the Islamic State in the north of Iraq. Even Germany which in the past had been unwilling to furnish military supplies to warring parties  in ‘conflict zones', is now ready to provide armoured vehicles and other hardware to the Kurds opposing the Islamic State's advance.

The decision of Europe's foreign ministers may surprise some because, barely a year and four months ago, in April 2013, the European Union had lifted a previously instituted ban on all imports of Syrian oil.

Peter Custers Peter Custers

Moreover, the lifting of this boycott was quite explicitly intended to facilitate the flow of oil from areas in the north-east of Syria, where Sunni extremist rebel organisations had established a strong foothold, if not overall predominance over the region's oil fields.

The Islamic State was not the only Sunni extremist organisation disputing control over Syrian oil fields. Yet there is little doubt that the fateful decision that the European Union took last year helped the Islamic State consolidate its hold over Syrian oil resources and prepare for a sweeping advance into areas with oil wells in the north of Iraq.

The outcome of the recent Brussels' meeting thus appears to overturn a disastrous previous decision. To underline the point it is useful to briefly describe the extent to which Sunni extremist rebels have meanwhile established control over oil extraction and production in both Syria and Iraq.3

The Syrian oil fields are basically concentrated in Deir-ez-Zor, a province bordering on Iraq. Whereas oil extraction in Syria has always been very limited in size if measured as a percentage of world supplies, control over the Syrian oil wells plus its refinery has become crucial for the financing of the Islamic State's war efforts.

In neighbouring Iraq, oil reserves are not concentrated in one single geographic region as they are in Syria. The bulk of the oil wells are to be found in the country's south, at great distance from the Islamic State's war theatre in the north. Only one-seventh of Iraq's oil resources are said to be located in areas controlled by the Islamic State on the one hand, and Kurdish fighters on the other. Nevertheless, recent reports indicate that the Islamic State controls at least seven major oil wells in Iraq alone.

Using expertise gathered after it established control over wells in Syria, the Sunni extremist organisation is able to draw huge profits from the smuggling and sale of oil. It is the Islamic State's oil-backed armed strength amassed in two adjacent civil wars that has now sent shivers throughout the Western world.

If the European Union's April 2013 decision appears to have helped trigger the Islamic State's current success, the situation created is historically novel. To my knowledge, never before has a rebel force fighting a civil war in the global South been able to base its war aspirations on control over oil.

True, in most of the civil wars that have rocked Africa over the last thirty years, access to raw materials has been fundamental. Witness the cases of Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo (DRC) and Sudan. It is also true that oil exports have been a specific mode of war financing, for instance in Angola and the Sudan.

Yet, in those cases, the state remained in command of the oil wealth. In Angola, the right-wing rebel movement UNITA relied heavily on smuggling rough diamonds towards financing its war, while the country's oil fields were located at great distance UNITA's war theatre.

In Sudan, oil fields are concentrated in the country's south, that is, close to and in the region which was disputed by the rebel movement. But the regime of Omar Al-Bashir pursued an inhuman policy of depopulation through aerial bombardments, massacring hapless villagers and forcing survivors to flee. In the self-same process the rebels were deprived of access to people and oil.

Hence, strictly speaking there is no precedent for the oil-fuelled civil wars waged by Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq.

Now – in turning from de facto supporters to opponents of the Islamic State – Europe's foreign ministers have followed the U.S. lead, because the United States had just started bombardments of Islamic State positions in Iraq's north.

Though loudly defended on the grounds of the Islamic State's relentless persecution of minorities, the renewed U.S. military intervention is not devoid of self-interest. Uppermost in the minds of Pentagon officials is the nexus between oil and arms.

Shortly after President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of U.S. occupation forces from Iraq in October 2011, the United States clinched a huge deal for the sale of F-16 fighter planes and other armaments to Iraq's military, valued at 12 billion dollars. At least four in five of the top U.S. military corporations are beneficiaries of Iraqi purchases.

Coincidentally, around the time when the U.S.-Iraq agreement on arms' sales was sealed, the extraction of Iraqi crude was back to old levels, crossing the threshold of three million barrels per day in 2012. As the Iraqi government's income from oil extraction and exports rose exponentially, U.S. and competing Russian arms' manufacturers both lined up to bag the orders.

And there is robust confidence that the oil-and-arms nexus can be sustained – according to euphoric projections of the International Energy Agency (IAE), the body of Western oil consumer nations, Iraq holds the key to future increases in world production of crude!

Western policy-makers are feverishly espousing the cause of Muslim Shias, Christians and Yezidis, who are persecuted in areas of Iraq controlled by the Islamic State and, yes, there is no doubt that the Sunni extremist force is guided by a Salafi ideology that severely discriminates against religious minorities, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.

But at what point in the past have Western states consistently defended religious minority rights in the Middle East? The idea seems to have emerged as an afterthought of the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq.

And are Muslim and Christian Arabs in Israel, Muslim Shias in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – to name just some of the groups mistreated by the West's close allies – likely to be charmed by the West's resolve to save the Yezidis of Iraq?

In any case, it is high time that the policy reversals in Brussels be questioned.

To recap: a turnabout in relation to the twin civil wars in Syria/Iraq was staged twiceFirst, in September 2011, a general prohibition on investments in and exports of oil from Syria was imposed, affecting both Assad's government and Syria's opposition. Then, in 2013, the European Union shifted de facto towards a position favourable to Syria's Sunni extremist rebels.

Although the European Union's foreign ministers now appear to have realised their sin, the damage can no longer be repaired without a complete overhaul of E.U. policy-making towards the Middle East.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

*  Peter Custers, an academic researcher on Islam and religious tolerance with field work in South Asia, is also a theoretician on the arms' trade and extraction of raw materials in the context of conflicts in the global South. He is the author of ‘Questioning Globalized Militarism'. 

© Inter Press Service (2014) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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