The Islamic State (IS) has extended its control westward toward the province of Homs, in what may be the most dangerous development yet. The group has expanded in the opposite direction from the line of advance it has maintained for the past few months and has altered the conflict’s calculus for the foreseeable future. This will be especially problematic if the Syrian military proves to be unable to push IS back to front lines in the desert and into the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, in the depths of northeastern Syria.
The present threat emanates from the proximity of IS forces to the cities of Homs and Hama, especially from the group’s ability to cut off Syria’s energy supply — specifically petroleum and electrical energy — as it has gained control over the lion’s share of the country’s energy resources.
Following violent clashes with Syrian military forces and National Defense paramilitary units near the Sha’ir gas field and the city of Palmyra in Homs, IS has succeeded in adding another massacre to its records. Nearly 100 Syrian soldiers were killed in what appeared to be field executions, while the fate of 250 surviving soldiers and workers remains unknown. IS sources report that the survivors were taken as prisoners, but the group has not published any photographs confirming the validity of the claim. Meanwhile, IS has published photographs of regime casualties, in addition to a number of tanks, artillery pieces, military vehicles, weapons and crates of ammunition that the group has captured.
A source close to IS noted that Abu Ayman al-Iraqi planned the surprise attack against the Sha’ir plant, in cooperation with Abi Zajjanah al-Zir, the group’s military leader in Deir ez-Zor, which is now considered one of the faction’s most important military leaders. IS leaders carrying German citizenship also participated in the attack, including Abu Luqman al-Almani, who is also known as “the German,” and Abu Talha al-Almani, who is known as “the penitent singer.”
The Sha’ir operation proceeded according to the usual script: A suicide bombing coincided with simultaneous attacks against the majority of the eight defensive positions the regime maintains in the region. At the same time, IS fighters cut regime forces off from their support and supply routes.
None of the government facilities in the region of Homs are considered secure, as civil servants have faced sniper and car bomb attacks, which have resulted in a number of deaths. Recently, the facilities’ engineers and employees came under the protection of National Defense units, which used the Sha’irat airport as their headquarters. These units ran convoys to escort the cars transporting the engineers and employees to protect them from ambushes and car bombs. The Syrian military regained control last year of this field and several smaller fields from armed groups.
Though oil infrastructure is considered one of the Islamic State’s primary targets at this stage in the conflict, the seizure of the Sha’ir facilities amounts to more than the mere takeover of a natural gas field. Information indicates that IS leadership is pursuing a clear strategy of consolidating control over the areas it considers “the heart of the state,” including Mosul in Iraq and Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa in Syria. From there, it aims to “put pressure on distant points to ensure that the core remains protected” from any sudden attack. Geographically, the Sha’ir Mountains are among the most important points in the ring formed by the Islamic State’s military presence in Anbar, Raqqa and the surroundings of Hasakah, Aleppo and Homs. These areas constitute the “[Islamic] State’s” frontiers which has its epicenters in Mosul, Iraq and Deir ez-Zor, Syria.
According to a source close to IS, the attack has other objectives as well. These include putting pressure on two nearby airbases from which attacks against the group are launched, and on areas that support the Syrian regime — particularly “loyalist” villages east of Homs — by targeting them with artillery and mortar fire.
The defeat of the paramilitary units assigned to protect the Sha’ir natural gas field will also have an important impact on Syria’s electricity sector, because of its critical reliance on the field for the production of nearly 3 million cubic meters of gas, all of which is used for the production of electricity.
Natural gas produced at the Sha’ir field is converted into fuel gas at the neighboring Ebla gas plant. Due to its critical role in Syria’s energy sector, the plant faces a serious threat from the so-called "Islamic State." This is especially true since the group considers the conquest of the Sha’ir field a preliminary step to putting pressure on the Syrian electricity sector as a whole. Before the Islamic State’s advances in the area, the region around Sha’ir had witnessed back-and-forth fighting between the Syrian military and armed groups of various loyalties. The latter group targeted the Sha’ir field because it could not be profitably exploited, since the conversion of liquid gas into sellable fuel is impossible without the requisite infrastructure.
The nearby Ebla plant, which is dozens of kilometers from Sha’ir field, makes the conversion possible. It is connected to the field by a 77-kilometer [47-mile] natural gas pipeline, and distributes natural gas products to Syria’s national pipeline network.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad inaugurated this modern facility in 2011, aiming to make use of natural gas as an alternative to fuel oil to produce energy. The plant is noteworthy for its location in the Furqlus region, which is situated at the intersection of a number of provinces. The natural gas field that IS captured is located nearby, suggesting that the group has the capacity to expand its control not merely on the military level, but also over Syria’s energy distribution channels. The Sha’ir field is only 110 kilometers (68 miles) from the city of Homs, 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the city of Palmyra, and even less distant from the city of Hama in central Syria.
IS has come to control the supply of electricity, but sources close to the Syrian government told As-Safir that this does not necessarily mean that production and distribution will cease, given the group’s own energy needs. Three hydroelectric dams in the north of Syria — the Euphrates, Baath and Tishreen dams — continue to operate below capacity and produce electricity for the national grid despite Islamic State’s long-standing control over them. The employees of these facilities also continue to receive their wages from the state without disruption.
The gas pipeline that runs between the Sha’ir station and the plant was attacked at the beginning of June. This led to a decrease in the number of hours of electricity rationed to Syrians across the country, until the pipeline was repaired several days later.
Another gas plant lies in the south of the central region, and produces the equivalent of 6 million cubic meters from the Sadad, Abu Rabah and Fayd fields. The combined output of this plant and Ebla equal half of the country’s current supply of natural gas, approximately 16 million cubic meters.
A source close to the state-run petroleum sector disclosed to As-Safir that the Syrian state is dedicated to protecting central Syria’s oil wells using military units, recently-licensed private security companies or even agreements with the leaders of local tribes. These arrangements make production much more expensive, and security costs can exceed $10 per oil barrel. In light of recent developments, and given the importance of protecting the remainder of the energy sector, the government has become convinced that the cost of defending gas plants like Ebla may exceed any previous price.
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