Attacks on oil facilities carry with them environmental and health risks that are often trumped by claims of military necessity.
As the United States, Russia, and others step up attacks on the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), there is concern over their direct and long-term environmental and public health impacts.
The acceptability of attacks on oil facilities
Many air strikes have targeted lucrative oil installations under the control of ISIS, and these could have severe detrimental effects for Syria’s future, both environmentally and socio-economically. Questions around the effectiveness of these strikes, both from a military and political perspective, seem to be missing in the wider debate.
Although essentially forbidden by the Geneva Conventions, attacks on industrial infrastructure, including oil facilities, have been commonplace in armed conflict. Retreating Iraqi forces set close to 700 Kuwaiti oil wells on fire during the 1991 Gulf War. NATO forces targeted oil refineries and oil depots in Pančevo and the Novi Sad oil refinery in Serbia during the Balkans war in 1999. Israel struck storage tanks for a thermal power station in Lebanon in 2006, and Russian forces have bombed oil wells in Chechnya.
In many cases, military strikes caused air and soil contamination that added to existing legacies of pollution, making the post-conflict road to recovery and stability even longer. In the former Yugoslavia, the perception that allied forces cased additional harm contributed to the local population’s general mistrust towards the international community.
The environmental health effects of targeting oil infrastructure can be multi-faceted. Oil fires release harmful substances into the air – sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and lead. These can be transported over a large area before deposition in soils and cause severe short-term health effects for people and wildlife, especially people with pre-existing respiratory problems. Damage to oil storage sites and processing facilities can lead to the release of a range of dangerous substances. Groundwater contamination threatens agricultural land and the people who rely on ground and surface water for irrigation, drinking, and domestic purposes. Long-term exposure may lead to respiratory disorders, liver problems, kidney disorders, and cancer.
Targeting the Islamic State
Since the beginning of U.S.-led strikes against ISIS in September 2014, oil infrastructure has been a priority target in order to limit the Islamic State’s funding.
Prior to the war, Syria’s production capacity was around 383,000 barrels of crude oil a day, and 316 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. Oil production has since dropped to 25,000 barrels a day in government-controlled areas. The production capacity in rebel and ISIS-held areas is unknown, but ISIS does control Syria’s biggest oil asset, the Omar oil field. In 2014, experts estimated ISIS controlled 40,000-80,000 barrels of crude oil a day, though other estimates vary. Despite UN sanctions against buying oil from Syria, revenues collected by ISIS were growing and funding their insurgency operations as well as being used to buy support from local tribes and other armed groups.
The first U.S. air strikes against ISIS oil installations took place on September 24, 2014, in the Deir ez-Zor region. To date, the U.S. military claims to have damaged 260 ISIS targets related to oil installations and destroyed hundreds of fuel trucks. By mainly focusing on oil transportation and secondary oil infrastructure objectives, this targeting should ideally limit environmental impacts.
With Russia’s involvement in the war as of October 2015, the types of oil targets changed. Russia’s air force has been seemingly less hesitant with regard to the long-term impact of their strikes and has targeted larger refineries and storage facilities. Current claims by the Russian Ministry of Defense are that they have damaged 32 oil refining complexes, 11 oil refineries, and 23 oil pumping stations, while destroying 1,080 oil tankers. When amateur observers sought out targets in one Ministry of Defense video, however, they found grain silos instead of the claimed oil storage site (perhaps in line with an effort by the Assad regime to starve out the opposition). Furthermore, the number of destroyed oil tankers seems overestimated.
If NATO’s attacks on Pančevo and Novi Sad during the Balkans War are predictive with regards to their scale, Syria will likely see wider damage to the environment and long-term social-economic development. It is only the remoteness of Syria’s oil industry that will hopefully limit the public health impact.
Planning for Tomorrow
The environment footprint of the conflict, now in its fifth year, keeps growing. The impacts of these strikes vary, but civilians generally bear the brunt. Although the rationale used by Russian and U.S.-led coalition forces is that the oil industry is a legitimate target as a “war-sustaining activity,” it’s questionable how viable a strategy it is if the objective is to defeat ISIS. There is huge demand for oil – by the Assad regime, Kurdish groups, even the Turkish government – and so oil smuggling will continue.
The clearest solution is obviously to bring an end to hostilities as quickly as possible. Beyond this miracle though, identifying environmental hazards remotely is possible and could help prevent civilians from the worst health effects. Communicating risk to civilians could prevent exposure to hazardous materials. Sharing medical and environmental intelligence between governments is often low on the list of priorities, but several tools are available to undertake such an exercise (e.g., the Flash Environmental Assessment Tool).
There is the challenge of delineating between pre-existing pollution and what has been caused by hostilities, an issue exacerbated by little background data or environmental statistics for the region. The dearth of data is another argument for paying closer attention now, however, both to increase accountability for those targeting critical infrastructure and to be prepared for remediation as soon as the opportunity arrives.
Like protection from torture and religious persecution, a healthy environment is a human rightthat deserves more scrutiny in conflict-affected countries. The wider issue of the environmental footprint of conflict and how it affects populations needs a stronger legal framework to address liabilities and provide timely support to those affected. Consideration for post-conflict environmental remediation and protection of natural resources deserves more support and scrutiny in this on-going legal debate and will hopefully be taken up at the first UN Environment Assembly, in Nairobi, later this year.
The overarching question in Syria is whether or not targeting oil infrastructure is a sound long-term strategy. As long as there is a market for oil, smuggling will continue. Disrupting smuggling activities and enforcing stricter border controls will likely have a greater effect on ISIS’s finances than air strikes on infrastructure – with the added benefits of preventing long-term damage to the environment, socio-economic development, and public health.
In the end, stopping oil smuggling requires political will from neighboring countries to put in place stricter policies. In the meantime, remote assessments and preparing post-conflict remediation work can help ensure the United States and other militaries don’t contribute to the misery of the Syrian people for generations to come.
Wim Zwijnenburg is the project leader for humanitarian disarmament at PAX, a Dutch peace organization and works on conflict and environment related issues in the Middle East.
Annica Waleij is a senior analyst and project manager at the Swedish Defense Research Agency’s Division of Chemical, Biological, Radioactive, and Nuclear Defense and Security (FOI). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Swedish Ministry of Defense.
This blog was originally published by New Security Beat, the blog of the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program.