U.S. steps up its attacks on ISIS-controlled oil fields in Syria

U.S. steps up its attacks on ISIS-controlled oil fields in SyriaThe United States and its allies have sharply increased their airstrikes against the sprawling oil fields that the Islamic State controls in eastern Syria in an effort to disrupt one of the terrorist group’s main sources of revenue, American officials said this week.

For months, the United States has been frustrated by the Islamic State’s ability to keep producing and exporting oil — what Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter recently called “a critical pillar of the financial infrastructure” of the group — which generates about $40 million a month, or nearly $500 million a year, according to Treasury Department estimates.

While the American-led air campaign has conducted periodic airstrikes against oil refineries and other production facilities in eastern Syria that the group controls, the organization’s engineers have been able to quickly repair damage, and keep the oil flowing, American officials said. The Obama administration has also balked at attacking the Islamic State’s fleet of tanker trucks — its main distribution network — fearing civilian casualties.

But now the administration has decided to increase the attacks and focus on inflicting damage that takes longer to fix or requires specially ordered parts, American officials said.

The first evidence of the new strategy came on Oct. 21, when B-1 bombers and other allied warplanes hit 26 targets in the Omar oil field, one of the two largest oil-production sites in all of Syria. American military analysts estimate the Omar field generates $1.7 million to $5.1 million per month for the Islamic State. French warplanes struck another oil field nearby earlier this week.

The goal of the operation over the next several weeks is to cripple eight major oil fields, about two-thirds of the refineries and other oil-production sites controlled by the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL.

“We intend to shut it all down,” Col. Steven H. Warren, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said in an email on Thursday.
U.S. steps up its attacks on ISIS-controlled oil fields in Syria

More broadly, the intensified targeting of one of the militant group’s major financing sources is part of the Obama administration’s effort to accelerate the pace of the anti-Islamic State campaign. The campaign against the militant group also includes helping Kurdish fighters retake the Iraqi border town of Sinjar, and sending some 50 Special Operations troops to assist opposition fighters in eastern Syria as well as the air campaign.

Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the head of that campaign, headquartered in Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, said in an interview last week that allied warplanes are intensifying attacks on a series of fixed sites such as oil-production facilities, bomb-making factories and other so-called critical nodes that support the Islamic State’s war effort.

The revamped plan for attacking the oil-production sites comes after weeks of intense study of eight major fields — Omar, Tanak, El Isbah, Sijan, Jafra, Azraq, Barghooth and Abu Hardan — to determine how to inflict more financial pain on the Islamic State, American officials said.

Instead of putting the group’s oil-production capability out of action for days, the new goal is to knock out specific installations for six months to a year, the officials said. This involves targeting fuel oil separators and elements of pumping stations at sites in Islamic State-controlled areas of Deir el-Zour, a city on the Euphrates River near the eastern border with Iraq.

At the same time, the United States shifted some of its surveillance and reconnaissance planes from bases in the Persian Gulf to Incirlik air base in Turkey, a much shorter flight to Syria to allow planes to spend more time lingering over their targets.

The new operation is called Tidal Wave II, named after Operation Tidal Wave, the World War II campaign to hit Romania’s oil industry and thus hurt Nazi Germany. Lt. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, who in September became the commander of the international coalition’s effort in Iraq and Syria, came up with the name.

Much of the initial targeting was done in South Carolina at Shaw Air Force Base, which has become a leading symbol of the military’s ability to carry out global operations from afar.

One of the main objectives for the scores of analysts and planners at the air base has been to attack its ability to produce and sell oil.

In the air campaign’s first three months, for instance, allied warplanes damaged or destroyed more than two dozen smaller mobile refineries and about twice as many collection points where drivers dump their crude oil to be hauled to refineries.

Now that targeting is being intensified. “The art we had of building target sets and doing deep studies on adversaries, in some cases was a lost art,” General Brown said. “What targets are we not striking that we could go strike? How do we bring all the intelligence together?”

On the Oct. 21 mission, American aircraft struck Islamic State-controlled oil refineries, command and control centers, and transportation infrastructure in the Omar oil field, which produced about 30,000 barrels a day when it was fully functioning. More recently, the field produced about a third of that or less, analysts said.

“It was very specific targets that would result in long-term incapacitation of their ability to sell oil, to get it out of the ground and transport it,” Maj. Michael Filanowski, a military operations officer, told reporters in Baghdad after the strike.

The French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said on Tuesday that his nation’s warplanes had attacked more oil targets in the same region.

It was France’s fourth wave of strikes in Syria since President François Hollande decided in September to join the campaign there against the Islamic State, and the second in as many days.

American commanders cautioned that it may take some time to gauge the impact of the new targeting, given the financial reserves the militant group has built up.

Unlike measuring the immediate impact of bombing tanks or soldiers, “it might be longer to feel the effect of oil fields,” General Brown said.

Source: New York Times
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