Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

Photo credit: Baron Reznik/Creative Commons

The role of oil in the Syrian refugee crisis

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By Sarah Ben-Moussa

The recent influx of refugees into Europe and neighboring states can be traced back to a number of causes—civil unrest, ethnic power dynamics, and the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East to name a few. While the Syrian conflict is both nuanced and complex, a significant aspect of the most recent increase of refugees can be traced to the growth of the Islamic State (IS) in the area.

The IS in Syria is unlike any large-scale terror operation that has come before it. Part of what distinguishes this group from its predecessors is the organizational and financial success the group has achieved. In assessing the factors surrounding the financial foundation of the IS, it is imperative to first look at the role of oil, both in sustaining and advancing the success of the IS.


In a presidential statement in July 2014, the United Nations Security Council condemned any form of trade with the IS, either directly or indirectly, by member states. Most notably, they reminded states of their obligation to ensure that nationals and those within their territory do not commercially engage with the IS.

The significance of this language by the Council stresses the importance of individual state responsibility in going beyond traditional inter-governmental economic responses, and taking actions against private companies and individuals whose actions directly or indirectly, as the case may be for many private financial institutions, support the IS.

The Council also stressed the importance of member states preventing private donations by nationals and members within their territory to the IS. U.S. officials have criticized Gulf States, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for their failure to curb private donations to the IS.


While the international community has condemned any financial engagement or transaction with the IS, they have not addressed the more nuanced issue of trade sanctions on Syria and how the sanctions affect the oil trade in the region, especially with the IS.

In an Executive Order issued in April 2011, President Obama expanded trade sanctions on Syria in response to documented human rights abuses committed by the Syrian government, with the hopes of weakening the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Later, in December 2014, the U.S. targeted private companies based in Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Netherlands and Syria found to have trade ties to the Assad regime. The U.S. introduced measures that included issuing financial penalties, barring them from benefiting from American trade and freezing the American assets that the companies held. Although the effect of cutting off oil trade with Assad regime may have aided rebel groups in the short term, it has yielded an unforeseen result: the strengthening of the IS.

The vacuum left by recent trade sanctions has made the import of oil across the Syrian border difficult, causing the Syrian government to rely on alternative sources of fuel. As of Sept. 7 of this year, the last remaining oil field under the control of the Syrian regime fell to IS, further exacerbating the situation. Notably, reports have surfaced that the IS has been selling back barrels of oil seized in the eastern part of Syria to the Syrian regime through third party business intermediaries with close ties to the Assad regime. Some sources have even traced oil from the IS to Turkey, where smugglers sell the oil for roughly $350 a barrel, which is approximately triple the price of local Turkish oil. With such large profit margins, oil is a lucrative illicit industry for the IS.

Engaging in the oil trade with the Assad regime may have the effect of strengthening government forces, allowing for regime to perpetuate violence on its own citizens. However, cutting off ties with the regime opens up trade avenues that may produce much more disastrous results. As highlighted by former oil executives and energy experts in Syria, the IS is able to generate roughly $2 million in oil revenue a day from the sale of crude oil. Reports of recent clashes with rebel groups in the area have led to the IS using fuel as a means of political control, often resulting in disastrous results for citizens who are unable to fuel their homes, clinics unable to treat the wounded, and first responders unable to perform their duties. The ability of the IS to sustain itself through its oil revenue has made them an even more dangerous third party factor in the Syrian conflict.


The inevitable victims of this catch-22 are the Syrian citizens. With no better alternatives, their only remaining option is to leave their homes. Syria has become a political minefield, caving to the political interest of multiple state parties and private individuals. It is not enough to condemn the financial transaction of states with the IS—that much is evident. It is a complex and nuanced situation, which demands an international response that is catered to its specific set of circumstances. The refugee crisis cannot be addressed from a lens of migration, or counter-terrorism or state responsibility to protect refugees alone. Addressing the source of the conflict requires a solution that is as multi-faceted as the situation on the ground.

Sarah Ben-Moussa is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: Baron Reznik/Creative Commons

Author: leitnercenter

Rights Wire is the human rights blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.

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