Marco Werman: Even though the so-called Islamic State releases slick annual reports about its violent deeds, it has not published its operating budget. We have heard a few things about how it gets some of its money - taxing residents in the areas it controls, kidnapping foreigners for ransom, trafficking in Iraqi antiquities and selling oil. That last one may be bringing in more than a million dollars a day from the 11 oil fields ISIS is said to control in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. Joshua Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Joshua, if oil fields in Syria are controlled by ISIS, specifically, concretely, how is that oil then getting out?
Joshua Landis: It’s being put onto trucks and it’s being driven to wherever it needs to go. There is a big border with Turkey, there’s also a border with the Kurds and so forth and everybody has an interest in making tons of money. It’s like when Saddam Hussein was breaking the sanctions in the 1990’s, he sold oil to everybody. People like to make money.
Werman: So, apparently Syria is forced into this position because of sanctions, so does that mean that there is an active cooperation going on between ISIS and the Syrian government?
Landis: Well, there is, of sorts. It seems that this is going through brokers, that ISIS sells it. In particular, one person has been fingered as a very prominent Christian businessman close to the president, who buys it and then arranges with the Syrian government to have it shipped back. So everybody knows what’s going on. The Assad government has to run its war machine, it has to run its cities, it needs power. It can’t get power in any other way but from the own fields which are there and they’re discounted, so it’s very cheap to get power from ISIS. There’s clear collusion between ISIS and the Syrian government.
Werman: How difficult would it be to seal Turkey’s borders with Syria to prevent oil, and not to mention ISIS fighters, from crossing?
Landis: Well, we can put pressure on Turkey, we could easily take out the oil. We can bomb ISIS’ tankers, we can bomb the oil wells. This would be very easy. They’re sitting out there in the desert, everybody can see them. We’ll see if America gets around to that. It may ask the neighbors to stop exporting it first because it doesn’t want to destroy all this infrastructure. But it could do it very easily.
Werman: Could US airstrikes actually help cut off oil revenue to ISIS?
Landis: Oh, totally, I’m sure we could destroy them all in a day. It just depends whether we really want to do that. It will of course cause a lot of hardship to the civilian population and I’m not sure America is there yet.
Werman: I know you’ve got personal connections to Syria. How is this all feeling personally for you now that we’re in year 4 of this conflict?
Landis: Well, my wife is Syrian and her family is okay, they live on the coast. But almost every Syrian has had their families destroyed, people are refugees. You want America to go in and fix the problem and I think most Syrians do want some Deus Ex Machina to come in and fix it, but it’s very difficult at this point to see how the United States can really solve Syria’s problems. Syria has very deep differences between its population and the trouble is it’s turned into a terrible proxy war where the Russians and Iranians are on one side supporting the Assad regime, where the Saudis and the Turks are on the other side supporting the Sunni Arabs, and everybody is giving enough money that their side doesn’t lose, but not enough money so that their side can win. That’s condemning Syria, it’s locked Syria into this constant struggle.
Werman: That is an awful parting shot I’ve got to say, a war of attrition. Where do you find any ray of hope in the Syria story?
Landis: Well, the United States has gotten deeply involved now in this larger crisis. Hopefully that will lead to greater participation from the international community. That’s the biggest hope for the region.
Werman: Joshua Landis at the University of Oklahoma, always great to speak with you, thanks.
Landis: Thank you.