The U.S.-led coalition targeting ISIS oil has a new game plan. The shift in strategy follows months of hints dropped by officials, which suggested the network was more resilient than originally thought. After a year of strikes, recent evidence suggests that ISIS has doubled down on crude oil production and scaled back its commercial-scale refining operations. (For more see my ISIS oil primer: Part 1 and Part 2.)
Suspicions that ISIS oil was on the upswing were confirmed on September 29, when the U.S. Treasury designated an ISIS agent who was credited with possibly increasing oil production over the summer. Details are scarce but it’s obvious that the coalition has gone back to the drawing board because it was alarmed by the durability and robustness of the trade. That sense of urgency has only grown since ISIS successfully attacked Paris on November 13. The grim reality is that every dollar ISIS earns from oil could be spent not only on the mundane day-to-day affairs of the so-called Islamic State—but also on suicide operations abroad.
The grim reality is that every dollar ISIS earns from oil could be spent not only on the mundane day-to-day affairs of the so-called Islamic State—but also on suicide operations abroad.
Strikes on ISIS-controlled oil fields, particularly the Omar field outside Deir az-Zor, ramped up in mid-October after a late summer lull. Then, in the first two weeks of November, the coalition hit more ISIS oil targets than it had in any previous month going back to 2014. Finally, on November 12, the Pentagon confirmed that a new and aggressive mission was underway. Dubbed Operation Tidal Wave II, it aims to cripple the ISIS oil trade at the source and prevent it from rebounding quickly like it did before. For reference, the original Operation Tidal Wave was launched in 1943 to destroy Nazi-held refineries in Romania; it was a daring and costly mission, the results of which were “less than expected” because the Germans quickly repaired the facilities.
Tidal Wave II represents a massive escalation in terms of both the volume of strikes and the variety of targets now being hit. Whereas before, the coalition typically hit a few targets a week (mostly oil in storage and ISIS-controlled refineries), today’s airstrikes are hitting several targets on an almost daily basis. Weak and critical points in the supply chain are now in the coalition’s crosshairs. The mission may be expansive but it is not designed to completely destroy the ISIS oil trade. According to the coalition, it aims to cut ISIS oil production by two-thirds.
A major turning point for the coalition’s understanding of ISIS oil came in May, when U.S. Delta Force commandos slipped into Syria and attempted to capture the highest ranking oil official in ISIS: Abu Sayyaf. Abu Sayyaf was killed but the raid produced valuable intelligence. This new information helped flesh out operations on the ground in ways that satellite and drone surveillance simply could not. Military planners are also being more creative than ever. ”The art we had of building target sets and doing deep studies on adversaries, in some cases was a lost art,” the head of the air campaign told the New York Times this month.
A major turning point for the coalition’s understanding of ISIS oil came in May, when U.S. Delta Force commandos slipped into Syria and attempted to capture the highest ranking oil official in ISIS: Abu Sayyaf.
Speaking about the Pentagon’s reassessment, Col. Steven Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, said on November 13 that the campaign initially targeted “pieces of the oil system that were easily repaired or replaced.” Sometimes “we’d conduct a strike against some piece of the oil infrastructure, and then within—you know, 24, 48, 72 hours—the enemy have managed to repair that piece of infrastructure… and were back up and running,” he acknowledged. Col. Warren was more blunt on November 18: “What we found out was that many of our strikes were only minimally effective.”
Now, however, everything seems to be fair game except those points where the oil reaches the surface and the makeshift refineries, which are run by civilians. The U.S. is still keen to avoid an environmental disaster; it is also carefully avoiding civilian casualties, which means the refineries—really just boilers run by locals—are off-limits. In recent weeks, the coalition has started hitting oil truck loading platforms at fields. It’s also targeting oil and gas separation plants for the first time, having destroyed 13 plants so far this month. Heavy machinery that might be used to repair facilities is also being hit. On November 4, strikes destroyed multiple cranes, rigs, excavators, pipefitters, and a front-end loader in Syria.
The one crucial change to these rules of engagement is that middlemen are now potential targets. Before Operation Tidal Wave II, middlemen were safe, but on November 16 U.S. warplanes destroyed 116 queued tanker trucks in ISIS territory. The Pentagon is confident that these truckers are not true believers or ISIS fanboys. That’s why warning leaflets were dropped along the route about an hour before strikes were launched.
These truckers may be in it for themselves but they are absolutely essential for moving ISIS oil. Without them, ISIS would have to maintain its own fleet and employ many more people, which cuts into profits. Hundreds of trucks carry ISIS oil on any given day and before the November 16 strikes they regularly lined up for miles outside fields. This fact suggests the fleet is redundant—there are plenty of idle tanker trucks and potential replacements available.
The tanker strikes are more than just a warning shot, but the U.S. has not reported any more trucks destroyed in the past week. Will it hit them again or has it only shortened the line for brave middlemen who do business with ISIS? It’s probably too soon to tell, but there are some early indications of success. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, fuel prices have jumped by 80 percent in parts of Syria and truck drivers are staying away from ISIS oil fields for now. Shortages are also being reported in ISIS territory on the Iraqi side of the border. According to the Financial Times, ISIS is now telling middlemen the exact time when they should arrive to receive oil so they aren’t sitting ducks.
The cat and mouse game is thus set to enter a new phase. Caught in between the two sides are five million or more innocent people trapped in ISIS territory.
Tidal Wave II is on track to cost ISIS dearly. That said, the group cannot afford to lose one of its top revenue sources, and it too will go back to the drawing board—just like the coalition did this summer. The cat and mouse game is thus set to enter a new phase. Caught in between the two sides are five million or more innocent people trapped in ISIS territory. Civilians who manage the refining and retail scene stand to lose precious income as the war continues, but it’s also local bystanders who will suffer the most from fuel shortages, especially as winter approaches.