ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have launched a campaign this week to prevent smuggling from areas under SDF control in Deir al-Zor to the Syrian regime by way of ferries across the river, sources asserted.
The east bank of the Euphrates river is controlled by the SDF forces while the west bank is controlled by the Syrian government and its allies.
“The campaign was launched to prevent smuggling into the areas of the Assad regime, and is the second campaign in less than a month, but this one was stronger than the previous one,” the news website Deir ez Zor 24 reported on Friday.
Omar Abu Layla, the executive director of Deir ez Zor 24, told Kurdistan 24 that the US-led coalition used helicopters near the village of Shheil.
The Turkish news website Yeni Safak also claimed that coalition airstrikes hit oil tankers.
However, Leith Aboufadel, founder of Al-Masdar News, said there was only heavy gunfire targeting one of the ferries that day, resulting in smoke. He added that the Syrian Arab Army said the incident was exaggerated “in the media.”
On the other hand, US Army Lt. Col. Donald Ryan public affairs officer for the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) had told Kurdistan 24 on Saturday that the US-led coalition “did not conduct any strikes in the area yesterday [Friday].”
He added that the US-led coalition continues to support SDF clearance operations against the Islamic State but did not clarify or confirm if it was also preventing oil from being smuggled to the Syrian government.
“These operations aim to deny Daesh [ISIS] a physical space and influence in the area and to deny them the resources they need to return. The back-clearance operations will be slow and through, and will help ensure the long term security for the area.”
Thus far, the SDF has refrained from stating any operations were being carried out specifically against the smuggling of oil. The group recently noted it had conducted various operations in the oil-rich Deir al-Zor province against Islamic State sleeper cells, but gave no further details.
However, a local Syrian source that worked with NGOs in northern Syria, including Deir al-Zor, confirmed the SDF was preventing locals from smuggling oil to the regime.
Since 2013, local tribesmen took over oil wells in the area after the Syrian government lost control in during the civil war.
“They made enormous profits, but it has also been a source of dispute and bloody conflict among various groups, including within same tribe, clan, and even family,” the source claimed.
The SDF does not accept these groups to transfer oil to the other side of the Euphrates, which has resulted in a loss of revenue for many, one of the reasons protests erupted in the province in April.
“The SDF sees it as national treasure that needs to be under the administration but fairly distributed among several localities. Thus, they seek to prevent seizures, thefts, and the illegal smuggling to GoS [Government of Syria areas],” the source further added.
According to Omar Abu Layla, the “SDF are the only who use the oil and transfer it to outside of Deir al-Zor.”
Nicholas A. Heras, a Middle East security analyst at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, suggested the operations could also be related to the US strategy in Syria, which is to apply maximum pressure on President Bashar al-Assad.
"With sanctions on the international sale of oil from Iran to Assad’s regime, and sanctions on the regime itself, Syria’s domestic oil supply is becoming very important to Assad," he told Kurdistan 24.
"The US wants to limit the amount of oil sold from SDF-controlled areas to the Assad regime. Most of this effort is to put pressure on the SDF to limit oil sales to the Assad regime.”
Editing by Nadia Riva