Hitting ISIS In The Pocketbook

Mark Thompson remarks that strikes on ISIS’s oil refineries amount to America “going to war against oil, not for it”:

The fact that the U.S. and its allies attacked a financial hub of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Tuesday–the first day of strikes in Syria—and spent Wednesday and Thursday bombing its oil-production facilities, highlights ISIS’s predicament. Unlike a smaller terrorist organization—al-Qaeda, for example—ISIS now occupies, and purports to govern, a wide swath of desert straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border. It needs the estimated $2 million a day it’s grossing by smuggling oil because many, if not most, of its 30,000 fighters are in it for the cash, not the ideology. But the refineries represent only a small slice of ISIS’s oil revenues. It makes most of its money from crude oil, and the U.S. has refrained so far from attacking oil fields in the region. If the money eventually dries up, Pentagon officials believe, many ISIS fighters will head back home. The terrorists control about 60% of Syria’s total oil production, according to a Syrian opposition estimate.

But Jamie Dettmer calls cutting off ISIS’s oil wealth “a monumental task”:

Hitting a dozen rudimentary refineries isn’t going to undercut the group, according to analysts. They say the oil refined by ISIS inside Syria is for the militants’ own immediate transport needs and not for sale to dealers in Turkey, Jordan, and Iran. Revenue is generated from the sale of crude oil, according to Luay al-Khatteeb, an energy expert at the Brookings Doha Center.

To deprive ISIS of its oil revenue would require the U.S. and its allies to bomb nearly a dozen oilfields and hundreds of wells the group has seized in both Syria and Iraq—an operation that would require a huge commitment from the coalition’s air forces and if conducted would cause an environmental hazard. And the government in Baghdad has tied the Pentagon’s hands when it comes to oilfields seized by ISIS in Iraq; it has asked the U.S. not to bomb them, hoping to recapture them intact.

Even more than bombing, a key component in stopping ISIS from profiting from oil will be blocking militants from getting their oil to market by locking up the border with Turkey and Jordan and pressing Kurds to stop dealers in semi-autonomous Kurdistan from trading. The Turks have shown little enthusiasm for halting the trafficking in the past, although in recent weeks they have interdicted some tankers carrying illicit oil.