Syria: Attacks on Oil Infrastructure
Case prepared by Mr. Elem Khairullin, LL.M. student at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, under the supervision of Professor Marco Sassòli and Ms. Yvette Issar, research assistant, both at the University of Geneva.
N.B. As per the disclaimer, neither the ICRC nor the authors can be identified with the opinions expressed in the Cases and Documents. Some cases even come to solutions that clearly violate IHL. They are nevertheless worthy of discussion, if only to raise a challenge to display more humanity in armed conflicts. Similarly, in some of the texts used in the case studies, the facts may not always be proven; nevertheless, they have been selected because they highlight interesting IHL issues and are thus published for didactic purposes.
A. U.S. Steps Up Its Attacks on ISIS-Controlled Oil Fields in Syria
[Source: “U.S. Steps Up Its Attacks on ISIS-Controlled Oil Fields in Syria”, New York Times, 12 November 2015. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/13/us/politics/us-steps-up-its-attacks-on-isis-controlled-oil-fields-in-syria.html]
 ERBIL, Iraq — The United States and its allies have sharply increased their airstrikes against the sprawling oil fields that the Islamic State controls in eastern Syria in an effort to disrupt one of the terrorist group’s main sources of revenue, American officials said this week.
 For months, the United States has been frustrated by the Islamic State’s ability to keep producing and exporting oil — what Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter recently called “a critical pillar of the financial infrastructure” of the group — which generates about $40 million a month, or nearly $500 million a year, according to Treasury Department estimates.
 While the American-led air campaign has conducted periodic airstrikes against oil refineries and other production facilities in eastern Syria that the group controls, the organization’s engineers have been able to quickly repair damage, and keep the oil flowing, American officials said. […]
 But now the administration has decided to increase the attacks and focus on inflicting damage that takes longer to fix or requires specially ordered parts, American officials said.
 The first evidence of the new strategy came on Oct. 21, when B-1 bombers and other allied warplanes hit 26 targets in the Omar oil field, one of the two largest oil-production sites in all of Syria. American military analysts estimate the Omar field generates $1.7 million to $5.1 million per month for the Islamic State. […]
 The goal of the operation over the next several weeks is to cripple eight major oil fields, about two-thirds of the refineries and other oil-production sites controlled by the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL.
 Instead of putting the group’s oil-production capability out of action for days, the new goal is to knock out specific installations for six months to a year, the officials said. This involves targeting fuel oil separators and elements of pumping stations at sites in Islamic State-controlled areas of Deir el-Zour, a city on the Euphrates River near the eastern border with Iraq.
 The new operation is called Tidal Wave II, named after Operation Tidal Wave, the World War II campaign to hit Romania’s oil industry and thus hurt Nazi Germany. […]
 In the air campaign’s first three months, for instance, allied warplanes damaged or destroyed more than two dozen smaller mobile refineries and about twice as many collection points where drivers dump their crude oil to be hauled to refineries.
 On the Oct. 21 mission, American aircraft struck Islamic State-controlled oil refineries, command and control centers, and transportation infrastructure in the Omar oil field, which produced about 30,000 barrels a day when it was fully functioning. More recently, the field produced about a third of that or less, analysts said.
 American commanders cautioned that it may take some time to gauge the impact of the new targeting, given the financial reserves the militant group has built up.
 Unlike measuring the immediate impact of bombing tanks or soldiers, “it might be longer to feel the effect of oil fields,” General Brown said.
B. U.S. Warplanes Strike ISIS Oil Trucks in Syria
[Source: “U.S. Warplanes Strike ISIS Oil Trucks in Syria”, New York Times, 16 November 2015. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/17/world/middleeast/us-strikes-syria-oil.html]
 ISTANBUL — Intensifying pressure on the Islamic State, United States warplanes for the first time attacked hundreds of trucks on Monday that the extremist group has been using to smuggle the crude oil it has been producing in Syria, American officials said.
 According to an initial assessment, 116 trucks were destroyed in the attack, which took place near Deir al-Zour, an area in eastern Syria that is controlled by the Islamic State.
 The airstrikes were carried out by four A-10 attack planes and two AC-130 gunships based in Turkey.
 Until Monday, the United States refrained from striking the fleet used to transport oil, believed to include more than 1,000 tanker trucks, because of concerns about causing civilian casualties. As a result, the Islamic State’s distribution system for exporting oil had remained largely intact.
 To reduce the risk of harming civilians, two F-15 warplanes dropped leaflets about an hour before the attack warning drivers to abandon their vehicles, and strafing runs were conducted to reinforce the message.
 The area where the trucks assemble in Syria has been closely monitored by reconnaissance drones. As many as 1,000 trucks have been observed there, waiting to receive their cargo of illicit oil.
 On Monday, 295 trucks were in the area, and more than a third of them were destroyed, United States officials said. The A-10s dropped two dozen 500-pound bombs and conducted strafing runs with 30-millimeter Gatling guns. The AC-130s attacked with 30-millimeter Gatling guns and 105-millimeter cannons.
 The pilots saw several drivers running to a nearby tent and did not attack them, an American official said, and there were no immediate reports of civilian casualties.
 Col. Steven H. Warren, the American-led coalition’s spokesman in Baghdad, confirmed that A-10s and AC-130s had been used in the attack and that 116 tanker trucks had been destroyed.
C. Here Are the Leaflets We Dropped on Islamic State
[Source: “Here Are the Leaflets We Dropped on Islamic State”, War Is Boring, 22 January 2016. Available at: https://warisboring.com/here-are-the-leaflets-we-dropped-on-islamic-state-e30052b932a9]
 “We assessed that these trucks, while although they are being used for operations that support ISIL, the truck drivers, themselves, probably not members of ISIL,” U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, the top spokesman for the task force in the region, told reporters on Nov. 18, using a common acronym for Islamic State. “They’re probably just civilians.”
 At the press conference, Warren showed a copy of one of the leaflets. “Warning. Airstrikes are coming, oil trucks will be destroyed,” the Arabic text states. “Get away from your oil trucks immediately. Do not risk your life.”
 […] As it turns out, the leaflet provided to the press was only its front side. Flip it over, and the back side appears to show a burning truck.
 “Oil trucks are being destroyed because buying this oil is the lifeblood of Da’ish. Leave the trucks and flee,” the Arabic-only message explains. Da’ish is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
 A second leaflet seems like it could be targeted at refinery workers and truck drivers. The quality … isn’t great. The low resolution, black-and-white scan makes it hard to determine the background image.
 “Oil operations controlled by Da’ish fund terrorism and oppress the people,” the second leaflet’s front side declares. “The Coalition Forces will continue to attack all Da’ish controlled oil facilities until Da’ish is defeated.”
 For the reverse side, graphic artists included a map of the region and prominently marked the oil fields in eastern Syria. “Warning! Trucks and oil equipment used to support Da’ish can be targeted by the Coalition.”
 According to the information we received, a U.S. Central Command cultural adviser reviewed both “products.” To be most effective and not unintentionally offensive, the messages would need to use language and vernacular appropriate to the region.
 We don’t know how well the warnings worked before either attack. “We did see some civilians run away from their trucks, but for some reason they ducked into a tent that was maybe 100 meters or so away from where these trucks were congregated,” Warren said after the Abu Kamal strike.
 “You know, because of their proximity to where they were and what they were doing, these civilians were — these truck drivers were absolutely legitimate military targets.”
 Warren then lauded the A-10 pilots and AC-130 crews for avoiding the tent as they raked the trucks with cannon fire. “Those pilots made a decision, you know, from the cockpit that they could accomplish their mission without striking that tent and without hurting any of those civilians.”