There has been some revealing new information coming out recently regarding the strategy against ISIS. One aspect many find troubling is the apparent failure of U.S. and coalition forces to sufficiently target and destroy oil infrastructure located in ISIS territory, which accounts for a significant portion of the terror group?s annual income. The argument goes, if we want to impact their operations, we should target their primary sources of income, and choke off their operational funds. So, why does ISIS oil infrastructure still stand? Is this the result of an intelligence failure? Negligence? Or, is there a more purposeful reason?
Using data from the Department of Defense, we can see the targeting of oil infrastructure has indeed been a relatively low priority. Buildings and military positions receive the bulk of coalition attention, and only 260 oil-related targets have been destroyed since operations began, out of 16,075 targets damaged or destroyed. And, we now know just how many of these oil-related targets remain. So, what reason could coalition forces have for holding off?
We now know with a high degree of certainty that ISIS receives the majority of its oil income selling unrefined crude, at the pump. There was some idea this was the case, but now it is more certain. This means the ISIS oil trade goes as far as pumping oil from the ground, and then selling it to a long line of waiting tanker trucks that are typically not affiliated with the group. And, while ISIS used to run some marginal refining operations, that appears to no longer be the case. Additionally, we now know the organization?s largest market is not from exports, but through sales to its local, monopolized market in northern Syria. The fact that most of the income is local, and not from exports is even more fascinating when you learn that not only does this oil find its way to local civilians that need fuel for power generation, but that much of the fuel finds its way to Assad?s government forces and the various rebel groups that are arrayed against ISIS itself.
We also now have a better understanding of the extent of ISIS? diverse revenue stream outside of oil. For instance, last year, in the midst of the chaos in northern Iraq, the terror group turned to robbery, and stole well over $500 million from Iraqi banks. They also onerously tax the locals that are unfortunate enough to live under their rule. And, most surprising are the large revenues garnered from farming on very fertile Syrian and Iraqi land. These sources are far more important than the oft-reported revenues from hostage taking and the selling of sex slaves. This tells us oil is important, but not a silver bullet to disrupt operations.
So, a possible reason for not decisively interrupting oil operations could include preservation of infrastructure for rebuilding after the conflict. This certainly has precedent, since coalition forces have tried this in Iraq and Afghanistan most recently, and territorial shifts occur rapidly in this current conflict. Consider this a lesson learned from Kuwait in 1991.