Sunday 21 January 2018

Isil take mines vital to Syrian regime income

Residents carry a casualty at a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Arbeen town.
Residents carry a casualty at a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Arbeen town.

Ruth Sherlock in Beirut

The capture of two phosphate mines outside of Palmyra by Isil jihadis has dealt a major blow to the Syrian regime, putting an end to one of its "last" chief sources of income.

Pro-Isil Twitter accounts yesterday posted pictures from Khunayfis mine, located 70km south of Palmyra, with some jubilantly claiming the seizing of a new source of "millions of dollars" in revenue.

Whilst the extremists are unlikely to be able to make use of the raw phosphate in the mine, the victory divested the regime of one of its few major revenue streams.

"With the suspension of oil exports, phosphates represented one of the last sources of income of the state," according to Syria Report, an online business weekly.

In taking the fight to Homs, capturing the ancient city of Palmyra and pushing deeper into the province, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) are striking at the heart of what remains of the government's oil, gas and mining sector.

In 2013 Damascus lost control of all of its major oil fields when Isil captured parts of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa provinces in the north of the country. But it managed to keep many of its gas fields and so was able to continue to feed its power plants and produce electricity.

This new offensive has put that in capacity peril.

As the jihadists stormed across the desert plains from Deir Ezzor to the ancient city of Palmyra earlier this month, they paused to seize two major gas fields on their way.

Murdering 56 Syrian troops in the two-day assault they captured al-Hail and al-Arak, 40km and 25km respectively from Palmyra.

Al-Hail is the largest gas-field in Homs - where most of the gas still in the regime's hands is located - after the massive Shaer field.


Shaer remains under government control, but only tentatively so, having seen several attacks against it, with Isil capturing and beheading as many as a dozen Syrian soldiers when it briefly captured the plant last year.

Then, on Monday Isil pushed government troops out of Khunayfis phosphate mine.

With inflation rampant and Damascus desperate for a flow of foreign currency into the country, the mines had proven key, with phosphate production being one of Syria's few remaining exports. As the Syrian economy flounders more widely, phosphate was one of the only industries to improve this year.

Some 345,000 tonnes were exported worth $35.3m this first quarter, up from only $18.2m in the same quarter last year, according to Syria Report.

Rising prices, the loss of subsidies, and increasing power cuts have also started to affect the political durability of the Syrian regime, sparking incidences of popular protest in its core constituencies.

Alawites, Druze and members of other minority sects have begun to rely less and less on the Syrian government for their survival, with power concentrating increasingly in the hands of local leaders.

The Syrian government has tried to counter these economic losses by issuing a tender inviting international companies to use the spare capacity, created by the loss of its oil fields, at its two refineries in Homs and Banias.

The government's invitation appeared to have been tailored to appeal to Russia, the country's longstanding super power ally.

But this week's events in Homs may deter even the hardiest of investors. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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