American bombs, Russian bombs, French bombs. They have all fallen on the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State in Syria. For trapped civilians who have survived all the bombs and more, a new and very different threat is emerging: fuel prices are soaring just as the temperature drops and winter sets in.
Abu Mohammed, one of the founders of the citizen journalist and activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, told IRIN that prices have doubled in the past 10 days. A barrel of fuel oil now goes for 40,000 Syrian pounds ($180), whereas previously it ran at 15,000-20,000 ($68-$90).
That’s high enough that most civilians can’t afford to heat their homes, explained Abu Mohammed. “It’s really difficult,” he said. “People are trying to cut down trees [to burn] to keep warm.”
While IRIN couldn’t independently confirm the price hike, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported in late November an 80 percent rise in prices in areas that depend on IS oil. It said this was because “drivers have refrained from going to IS-held areas due to [the] targeting [of] their tankers by warplanes.”
Abu Mohammed is, of course, a pseudonym, a necessity for those brave enough to speak out about the conditions inside Raqqa. IS maintains a tight grip on the flow of information from its territory, and the penalty for any act of defiance can be dire.
“Speaking to you would be a death sentence,” an activist based in the UK who has family in IS territory told IRIN on condition of anonymity.
But some reports of life inside the self-declared caliphate have emerged, and they paint a picture of a population terrified of both IS and the international airstrikes. Relatively new escapees have described how civilians are desperate for water and electricity, and for work so they can support their families.
Is it just the bombing?
Since Britain’s parliament voted to join the US-led campaign last week, British jets have repeatedly bombed the IS-controlled Omar oilfields in northeastern Syria. Even before France stepped up its strikes following last month’s attacks in Paris, the coalition was redoubling its efforts to take out the oilfields, refineries and distribution networks that US and Iraqi intelligence estimate bring the group $50 million each month in sales.
“The reduction in supply partly is probably due to US, British, Russian and French airstrikes and this renewed fairly vigorous campaign compared to what was being done before,” Patrick Johnston, political scientist at the RAND Corporation, told IRIN. “Presumably [the airstrikes] have struck at their capacity to produce and supply, and this includes distribution, at least in part, to Raqqa.”
Another major hit to the IS distribution network came last month when Kurdish fighters (with US backing) took back the northwestern Iraqi city of Sinjar. The city, and the stretch of thoroughfare it sits on, is an important route connecting the two largest cities under IS control – Mosul in northern Iraq and Raqqa in north-central Syria.
Such setbacks for IS are part of the picture but Johnston cautioned that the reason fuel prices are soaring isn’t quite so cut-and-dried. He pointed out that temperatures had dropped of late in the Middle East, meaning more demand locally for heating, and that there were likely other factors at play too.
Pain on both sides
Those fighting IS are said to be buying its oil too. Late last month, the US slapped sanctions on George Haswani, an alleged middleman between the group and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
IS fuel oil, used to heat homes as well as provide electricity through generators, is reported to dominate sales in much of northern Syria. This means civilians outside the group’s control are also feeling the pain of the price hikes. From Aleppo, citizen journalist Rami Jarrah told IRIN that prices had gone up from to $0.56 a litre to $0.82. Locals reported that the increase began soon after Russia launched airstrikes against IS in late September.
In Damascus, prices have risen too, but not so sharply. They sit at $0.50-$0.70 a litre.
“US coalition and Russian airstrikes have been highly effective at destroying the Islamic State’s oil infrastructure, with estimates of revenue being cut by 45-50% over the last few weeks,” Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst at the IHS think tank, told IRIN.
“Considering oil accounts for about 45% of total IS revenue, that’s a sizeable chunk, which will no doubt have a significant impact on the Islamic State’s ability to govern,” he said. “Those revenue cuts will have to be passed down to the population in terms of ‘tax’ hikes, further confiscation of property, or as we’ve seen in Iraq, payments in return for the right to leave the caliphate. They’ll need to get creative."
IS certainly uses its captive civilian population as a source for revenue – exacting heavy taxes and other fees – but it isn’t clear if the high fuel prices are an attempt to make back lost revenue or just a reaction to changes in the market.
Even before the cost of fuel shot up, life inside Raqqa was getting harder. “People are of course trying to flee,” Abu Mohammed said, but they’re having a tough time of it.
Tel Abyad, a town on the border with Turkey, was once the first point of call for those displaced from Raqqa. But Abu Mohammed said locals are scared of the YPG, the Kurdish militia that controls the area. “They treat civilians as poorly as IS,” he said.
Amnesty International has accused the group of war crimes, including forced displacement and the destruction of homes.
Plus, it’s expensive to leave Raqqa, as it is to get out of any territory controlled by IS. Costs can include bribes to IS, payments to smugglers, or official “fees” for leaving. It’s even more difficult to make it to areas controlled by Assad, where day-to-day conflict is less common. “People can’t afford to get to regime areas,” Abu Mohammad said. A tough winter awaits those who remain.