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Fuel Is Crucial In The Battle Over Syria

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

The battlefronts in Syria are complex and shifting. The power map inside the country is being redrawn. Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. have taken territory in the North, as have self-proclaimed Islamic State forces. Syrian rebels seized a provincial capital, and Syrian government forces are battling to hold on to Damascus and the western part of the country. One resource that's affecting these internal borders is fuel. Rebels and government soldiers can't move without it. Fuel is also the commodity that runs generators for hospitals, bakeries and aid delivery trucks. NPR's Deborah Amos joins us now from Istanbul. She's just returned from a trip near the Syrian border. Good morning, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

WESTERVELT: So the fuel that's vital to all sides in this and is being fought over, where's it coming from?

AMOS: You know, Syria is now a war for territory, but it's also a war for resources. It's striking that the regime only controls 8 percent of pre-war oil. Kurdish forces control about 12 percent. ISIS controls 80 percent, according to Syrian economists and outside experts. So ISIS has become kind of a militant OPEC. They've been setting prices on sales. They sell to the regime and to the rebels that they're fighting. And even aid organizations, some of them that are funded by the U.S., buy ISIS oil indirectly because if you're working in Syria, that's what's for sale. Now, in June, ISIS enforced an energy embargo - no sales outside ISIS-controlled territory. It was a way to mark their border and a way to flex their energy power.

WESTERVELT: ISIS controls 80 percent of the oil. That's just amazing. And if they stop selling oil, what happens inside Syria?

AMOS: Well, services started to collapse. You had some field hospitals that closed down. Bakeries started to shut down, even humanitarian aid deliveries were slowed. I'm now going to introduce you to two Syrian economists. They work for the Syrian Economic Forum. It's a privately-funded think-tank from the U.S. They told us that two sellers stepped into the market to challenge the embargo. First, the Syrian regime - they let it be known that they would sell oil across rebel lines, says economist Rami Halabi. And he said the regime put out a notice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAMI HALABI: We can supply all quantity you want from the oil. But in this price, it's fixed price, which just means make a very big - high profit margin for the region.

AMOS: That's Rami Halabi. He's with the Syrian Economic Forum.

WESTERVELT: So did anyone, Deb, from any of the multiple other factions in this conflict, buy oil from the regime?

AMOS: Oh, yes they did because some medical facilities had to. They were desperate to keep their generators running. And I have this confirmed from medical personnel inside Syria - bakeries bought at that high price. Now, the Turks also stepped in, and they pledged to supply fuel to rebel areas. They said no taxes, so hospitals have been supplied again. You know, water pumps, incubators, lights, all these things run on generators. Now, about a week ago, ISIS ended the embargo, and they just started selling oil again.

WESTERVELT: Do we know why? I mean, do Syrians on the ground say why ISIS started selling fuel again, and what does it say about ISIS?

AMOS: Well, there's some speculation that the Turks and the regime's sales show that there was an alternative. The rebels threatened to cut key ISIS supply routes. Again, at the Syrian Economic Forum, Rami Halabi and Tammam Baroudi - they're charting the economy inside ISIS-controlled territory. They look at food, health care, water. They say that in ISIS-controlled territory, you'll find the most stable pieces of anywhere on the battlefield. Here's economist Tammam Baroudi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TAMMAM BAROUDI: There is a lot of bad things they are doing, so the people need freedom, not just eat.

AMOS: So his point is that there is something that can be done. They've written a report that says if you imported oil into northern Syria - you price it lower, you offer better quality - you could put ISIS out of the oil business. And that is what this embargo, strangely, has shown.

WESTERVELT: NPR's Deborah Amos in Istanbul. Thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.