Syrian oil fields, now in rebel hands, still play crucial role in nation’s economy

With colorful bandannas covering their faces to protect against the noxious smoke, displaced Syrians have been flocking to the country’s oil-producing east to scratch out a living by operating primitive refineries in a setting that seems straight out of purgatory.

The pumps are running at the former state oil wells that dot the landscape, but since the area about a year ago came under the control of rebels who are battling to topple the government of President Bashar Assad, the pipeline has been shut down. Arab tribes in the region grabbed the land and now pocket the proceeds.

Usama Idris, 40, is one of the entrepreneurs who buy the crude, at 1,000 Syrian pounds – roughly $4.65 – a barrel. He then refines it into diesel fuel by a primitive and dangerous method – boiling it in vats over an open fire.

Many of the “refiners” are from the Deir el Zour area, but Idris is from Homs, some 180 miles southeast of here, and his story is typical of Syria’s internally displaced, of which there are some 4.5 million, according to U.N. estimates. He’s had to move five times in 18 months, forced each time from his temporary lodgings by government advances or food running out. By training, he’s an Arabic-language teacher for elementary and middle schools but there’s almost nowhere now to teach, with the schools here housing thousands of displaced people, Idris and his family included.

So he risks his life and his lungs daily as an oil refiner. “I have no other income,” he told a McClatchy reporter.

Still, the $8 to $12 he earns each day isn’t enough to sustain his wife and four children. His 15-year-old daughter is about to marry a man who’s 23. Idris is not happy about the betrothal and seems embarrassed. “But it is an inescapable evil,” he said. “We have to.”

Others earn still less, among them several of his neighbors from the Karm al Zeitoun district of Homs, who help him operate the primitive, smoke-belching refinery. “I make about $2 a day,” said Khalid, 18, who asked to be identified only by his first name for security reasons.

Idris isn’t the only one who’s had to make unthinkable compromises to keep going. At the natural gas-processing plant nearby, which opened in 2000 and once was operated by ConocoPhillips, gas continues to flow through the Arab line – to the Syrian government.

“The gas plant still sends gas to the regime,” said Fadel Abdullah, 31, a former army officer who commands the rebels’ Al Qadisiya brigade that has charge of Deir el Zour. “If it didn’t, the regime would bomb the plant.”

In Jandar, south of Homs, the government burns the natural gas to generate electricity. The gas is sent for free, but the government pays the salaries of some 400 technical and white-collar staff who keep the plant going, plant employees say.

The only exception to this is bottled gas, which generally used in Syria for cooking. That concession belongs to the Nusra Front, the al Qaida-affiliated group that’s been at the forefront of many of the anti-Assad forces victories. Natural gas, drawn from the pipeline, is sold close to cost and then resold in other parts of Syria at a substantial markup.

Deir el Zour supplies about 10 percent of Syria’s natural gas needs, local experts said, making it a vital factor in the country’s energy supplies. When the pipeline shut down in mid-July – apparently because of a squabble between rebels from the more moderate Free Syrian Army and Nusra – the lights went off in Damascus.

“Forty-five percent of the Syrian people are getting their electricity from gas,” Abdullah said.

The gas plant has come under government attack, however. In April, shelling from government troops stationed across the Euphrates River destroyed a warehouse where American-origin spare parts were stored. Distressed plant officials phoned the national Oil Ministry and pleaded for the government to halt the attack. After about a half-hour, the shelling stopped.

Employees think the shelling was the work of a local commander, not some higher-level official. “The government doesn’t control its soldiers in areas of battle,” said one employee who asked that he not be named for security reasons.

Whatever the cause, a shutdown usually leads to further problems. Thieves, for example, take advantage of the electricity cutoff to steal electrical cables and strip them of their copper, which they can resell.

The oil pipeline no longer operates and has been “completely compromised,” said a gas plant employee who also didn’t wish to be named.

Lawlessness prevails. At one of the wellheads, controlled by the al Agaidat al Bakayir tribe, a member didn’t miss a beat when he was asked who owns the well. “We own the wellhead – until the next government takes it over,” he said, identifying himself only as Uday, age 27.

He said his tribe wasn’t concerned about losing its claim to another tribe. “We stole it,” he said. “We grabbed it. We are all thieves.”

While the local tribes can celebrate their good fortune, the newcomers have tales of woe. Idris said he and his family, who are members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, had fled Homs under threat of death from government troops and irregular pro-Assad militia known as the Shabiha in January 2012.

Idris said his Homs neighborhood was a mix of Sunnis and Alawites, adherents of the Shiite Islam offshoot to which Assad and much of Syria’s elite belong. Then “one morning army soldiers, together with about 50 militiamen in black, told us we had to move out,” he said. “We broke through the back walls to get out.” He said he saw people shot while walking on the street.

He fled with his family to Rastan, a city north of Homs, and then to Termale, in the Homs countryside. Shelling drove them to Hasaka in eastern Syria. But there was no electricity, gas or water, and uncertain security, so they left for the village of Jadid Baggara in rebel-held Deir el Zour, where they now live.

Reconciliation with Assad now seems impossible, especially for the internally displaced. Khalid recalled that his family house in Homs had two floors, and the family’s big machine shop in the town employed seven.

“Then they told us, ‘We don’t want any Sunni here,’ ” Khalid recounted. “We left with only the clothes on our backs.” Now he’s alone in Deir el Zour. His father, a biology teacher, sells cigarettes in Hasaka, a brother – one of seven siblings – is fighting near Homs and others are in Hasaka.

“God will deal with him,” he said of Assad. “He made me homeless.”

Idris, when he was asked whether there was anything he regretted or would do differently, had a succinct reply. “We had to revolt against this regime. It was brutal,” he responded. “But the price we are paying is too high.”

That said, “when the revolution wins, we will consider it worth the price. We have lost materially, but our spirit has not been defeated.”