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Farah Stockman

The oil mistake

An anti-government fighter sits with an anti-aircraft weapon in front an oil refinery in eastern Libya in 2011.

associated Press

An anti-government fighter sits with an anti-aircraft weapon at an oil refinery in Libya in 2011.

Oil may be the most sought-after resource in the world, but it’s no secret that it can also be a curse. Political scientists have long observed that the oil industry concentrates power in the hands of the few. Governments that rely on oil sales, rather than taxes, are less democratic and quicker to quash dissent. According to Michael Ross, author of the “The Oil Curse,” petroleum-producing countries are 50 percent more likely to be ruled by dictators — and twice as likely to descend into civil war.

That’s because oil gives people something extra to squabble over, as we have seen recently in South Sudan, Libya, and Syria. In a new twist on an old problem, rebels in all three countries have laid claim to their nation’s oil. Instead of blowing up pipelines and destroying oil infrastructure, these rebels are trying to keep the oil flowing, so they can pocket the profits for themselves.

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In Libya, separatist militia leader Ibrahim Jathran captured four of the country’s largest oil ports in a bid to establish an autonomous region called “Cyrenaica.” Since January, rebels have used shadowy connections to try to sell the oil, in defiance of the central government in Tripoli. They filled up a 37,000 ton North Korean-flagged commercial tanker, which departed for Cyprus. They would have gotten away with it had the United States not sent a Navy SEAL team in to arrest the ship.

It’s a good thing that the United States came to Libya’s rescue. But we are partly to blame for the fix that Libya is in. In 2011, before the ousting of longtime dictator Moammar Khadafy, the US Treasury Department gave the green light for rebels to take over oil installations and sell the oil as a way to weaken Khadafy’s grip on power.

The same thing is happening in Syria. In an attempt to dislodge President Bashar Assad, the Office of Foreign Asset Control eased the embargo on Syrian oil, as long as oil sales benefited the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces or its supporters rather than the Syrian government.

The move was aimed at encouraging rebels to take over oil installations and deprive Assad of much-needed revenue and fuel for his tanks.

Sure enough, Kurdish fighters, who have long sought greater autonomy, took control of key oil fields in their region “in order to protect and distribute these natural resources fairly.” The Free Syrian army also captured oil fields further south.

But once you open the door to the idea of rebels with guns claiming a country’s oil, a free-for-all over oil ensues. Instead of strengthening the rebel groups, the oil is dividing them as they fight each other over the spoils.

“It’s a big issue,” said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer and senior associate with the Soufan Group, an intelligence and security company. “Those militias would probably get along a lot better if they weren’t trying to split a finite resource.”

To make matters worse, extremist groups are getting in on the act. The Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the al-Nusra Front have also claimed some oil installations. Black market oil is a great way for terrorist groups to raise money undetected. Evidence suggests they are making money by selling the oil back to the Assad regime.

“Al-Nusra is fighting in the north, because that’s where the oil is,” Skinner told me. “If they really wanted to destroy the country, they’d blow up the oil fields. But they are not, because they want to sell the oil.”

Rebels in South Sudan have also laid claim to their country’s oil, just three years after the country won its independence from the north. Rebel leader Riek Machar spent two decades fighting against the north, because it took oil from the south and gave little in return. But now Machar is fighting his own former allies in the south. “This is our oil,” he told The New York Times in April. Luckily, the United States isn’t encouraging Machar. We have no dog in this fight. Last week, US officials drafted a resolution that would allow United Nations peacekeepers to protect South Sudan’s oil installations.

Protecting the oil from guys with guns is a far better policy than encouraging guys with guns to take the oil. By doing so in Syria and Libya, US officials may have unwittingly prolonged those terrible conflicts.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.
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