At its 2014 height, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, or ISIS, earned $3-4 million a day from its captured territories, primarily from oil and criminal extortion, according to the RAND Corporation. Now, having lost its biggest source of extortion in Mosul, ISIS is all the more reliant on what remains of its Syrian oil fields. Now the forces of Bashar al-Assad, the besieged Syrian president whose 2011 crackdown began the civil war, have recaptured critical oil fields from the crumbling caliphate.
Syria has some 2.5 billion proven oil reserves, according to the CIA, and most of them are located either in the sparsely inhabited interior Syrian desert or in the country’s far northeast. When the civil war began, Bashar al-Assad’s strongest support was in the country’s capital city, Damascus, and its coastal province, Latakia. Damascus was home to much of Syria’s Christian, secular, merchant and Ba’athist populations, the backbone of Assad’s political support, while Latakia held sizable Alawite populations, the Shi’a-derived sect of which the Assad family belongs.
That left the Sunni hinterland and its cities, where the majority of the population lived before the war, in varying states of rebellion. As Assad’s forces began a scorched earth campaign against the rebellion, the desert and northeast slipped from Assadist control. Kurds took control of most of the northeast with a tacit ceasefire with remaining Assadist forces, who are now surrounded, but not directly besieged, in their last stronghold of Hassakah.
After splitting from al-Qaeda in early 2014, ISIS then began securing the desert oil fields that could not be held by either the Assadists or the splintering Free Syrian Army. Utilizing these funds, ISIS blitzed into Iraq in June 2014, capturing Iraqi fields in addition to Mosul.
These local sources of revenue have been critical to the group, which unlike other terror groups like al-Qaeda enjoys revenue closer to the tax systems of a government. That’s made it hard to cut off cash short of taking territory and has helped the group’s media wing wage its propaganda campaign with professionalism.
But with the fall of Mosul, the besieging of Raqqa, the group’s capital, by the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, and the increasingly possible death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS is fighting losing battles on every front. The rapid collapse of ISIS power has coincided with tensions over those who take its territory, with American and Russian air forces guarding their proxies who take former ISIS land. Turkey, which fears a Kurdish enclave emerging on its Syrian border, has also rattled sabers at the SDF, and last summer actually invaded Syria to prevent the Kurds from taking advantage of ISIS’s retreat.
Yet the group still has some of its once-considerable arsenal. ISIS-linked media released footage of T-62 tanks, a Soviet-built 1960s-era heavy weapon likely captured from the Assadists or FSA, and heavy weapons mounted on pickup trucks fighting against Assadist forces near Tabqa, just south of Raqqa.
Few experts believe the battlefield defeat of ISIS will result in its annihilation, but rather that the group will return to its underground roots and begin fighting much as it did when it was al-Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation. Nevertheless, that pivot will be all the more difficult without the cash to motivate recruits and purchase arms.
[Featured image by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]