LONDON — The extremist Sunni jihadist group that declared a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq has seized control of one of Syria’s most important oilfields after fighters from other factions switched their allegiance to support it.
In a crucial strategic advance for the Islamic State (IS), the organization that is tearing Iraq apart, anti-government rebels in Syria who had been loyal to the rival Jabhat al-Nusra switched sides, handing over Al-Omar oilfield, which has the potential to produce up to 75,000 barrels of oil a day.
The development represents a huge step up for the group — formerly known as the Islamic State of Syria & Al-Sham (ISIS) — in its struggle against Al-Nusra, which is backed by Al-Qaeda but regards the new grouping as dangerously extremist.
This means its caliphate now stretches from Deir al-Zour, central Syria, to Abukamel on the Iraqi border. Within neighbouring Iraq, to the east, it holds the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, has free rein in Anbar province and is threatening to attack Baghdad.
Saudi Arabia said it had sent 30,000 troops to reinforce its long northern desert border with Iraq to defend the kingdom against the growing threat from jihadists, including IS. The al-Arabiya news channel, which is private but close to the Saudi government, said Riyadh had ordered the troops to the border after the Iraqi side appeared undefended.
IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a 43-year Iraqi, has set himself as a rival to Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and has called on Muslims throughout the world to declare their loyalty. Anti-government fighters in Iraq who joined the insurrection last month were told last week they must lay down their arms unless they joined IS.
According to eye-witness accounts and social media postings Thursday, IS reinforced its presence in the Syrian oilfield and surrounding area, arriving with U.S.-made arms and vehicles captured from fleeing army units in Iraq.
“Islamic State has swept across Iraq, seized huge amounts of weapons and money and so it’s no surprise that insurgents inside Syria would seek their help,” said George Readings of the corporate intelligence company Stirling Assynt. Analysts believe the group is already making millions from the sale of oil from fields on its territory elsewhere and was the richest jihadist group in existence, assisted by stealing what was said to be more than $470-million from a branch of Iraq’s central bank in Mosul.
Syrian government forces lost control of Al-Omar field to Al-Nusra in November and, said Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, kept the facilities running, “selling 10,000 barrels a day.”
Full article: Islamic State fighters seize key Syria oilfield after rival faction switches allegiance (National Post)