Black Gold Blues: The Hazards and Horrors of the Makeshift Oil Industry in Rebel-Controlled Syria
Deir ez-Zor, Syria’s sixth-largest city, is also the country’s oil capital. For four decades, the al-Assad regime (first run by Hafez, and now by his son Bashar) struck deals with Western oil companies like Shell and Total that resulted in the extraction of as much as 27,000 barrels of black gold from the sand every day. A pittance compared with other Middle Eastern countries’ production, but it made Syria a bona fide oil-exporting nation. At least this was the case until international sanctions were imposed in 2011 in response to the regime’s crackdown on the antigovernment protests, which quickly morphed into a civil war.
Located in the middle of the desert and less than 100 miles from the Iraq border, Deir ez-Zor dominates the eastern portion of the country and has had a long, fruitful relationship with the petroleum industry: before the war, its 220,000 inhabitants often worked for oil companies as engineers, technicians, and laborers.
Downtown Deir ez-Zor is still home to many modern glass-walled buildings erected by Western firms, but in the past two years, they’ve been largely abandoned as the battles between the rebels and al-Assad’s forces, each of whom hold portions of the city, have left them pockmarked, windowless, and scarred.
When I visited Deir ez-Zor in September, there were snipers lurking on roofs as combatants exchanged fire from Kalashnikovs, mortars, and heavy machine guns below. Beyond the city limits the suburbs give way to the mostly empty desert where the oil wells are located and where the rebels—most of them hard-line jihadists, and many of them with ties to al Qaeda—are in complete control. It’s a very different place than it was prerevolution, but it is still an oil town, albeit one of an entirely new sort. Instead of multinational corporations, it’s now the Islamist rebels who are providing jobs to the locals.
I Was Abducted by Hezbollah at Beirut’s Bombed Iranian Embassy
Yesterday, at around 9.30 AM, two suicide bombers attacked the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. The building is in Bir Hassan, a Hezbollah-controlled suburb in the south of Lebanon’s capital. Targeting the Iranian embassy sent a clear message. Iran is a major supporter of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as the Shi’a political and paramilitary organization Hezbollah. At least 25 people were killed in the blast—including the Iranian cultural attaché, Ebrahim Ansari. About 145 more were injured.
Within hours of the bombing, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades—a Lebanon-based jihadist group with links to al Qaeda—claimed responsibility for the attacks over Twitter. Sheikh Sirajeddine Zuraiqat, the group’s religious guide, described the twin bombings as a “double martyrdom operation carried out by two heroes from the heroic Sunnis of Lebanon.” The attack marked the third time this year that areas in Beirut’s Bir Hassan suburb have been targeted, with previous attacks on July 9 and August 15 killing a total of 27 people.
Lebanese politicians were quick to present a united front in condemnation of the attack. Caretaker Prime Minster Najib Miqati described the twin blasts as a “cowardly terrorist” attack, suggesting that foreign agents were using Lebanon as a “mailbox” for their own agendas, while opposition leader Saad Hariri stated that “the blasts should become a new impetus to steer Lebanon clear of the fires in the region”. Iran, as it does with everything from political instability to natural disasters, pointed the finger at Israel.
How Jihadists Are Blackmailing, Torturing, and Killing Gay Syrians
Even between the plush sofas and mood lighting of one of Beirut’s hippest bars, Ram shook with fear as he relived his ordeal. He turned his large green eyes from me to the translator and then back to me again, speaking in a low voice, even though we were the only people in the room.
"I think I was targeted for two reasons: because I’m a Druze, and because I’m gay," he said. "They told us, ‘You are all perverts, and we are going to kill you to save the world.’"
Ram’s nightmare, which unfolded on a hot summer’s afternoon in Damascus, forced the then 19-year-old to flee his home for Beirut, with just a few hundred dollars in his pocket. Even in Damascus, the stronghold of Assad’s regime—where the elite still dance and drink cocktails in exclusive nightclubs—society has broken down into a chaotic quagmire where criminal gangs operate with impunity and radical Islamist groups are strengthening their stranglehold.
Maybe it was only a matter of time before Ram was picked out as a target. He is a Druze—a member of the small religious group that makes up just three percent of the Syrian population—and comes from a wealthy family well known for supporting Assad’s regime. From the beginning of the revolution he had known that these things could put him at risk. But his homosexuality was always a secret between him and his gay friends; he never thought that it could finally force him to flee.
"I got a phone call from my friend," he recalled. "He asked me to come over to his house because he’d lost all his money and he needed my help. I could never refuse him anything, so I went there straight away."
But Ram had walked into a trap.
VICE News Exclusive: We talked to British nationals fighting with al Qaeda in northern Syria
Yesterday, Andrew Parker, the Director-General of the UK’s intelligence service MI5, announcedthat hundreds of British Muslims have traveled to Syria to take part in “terrorist tourism.” Today, we present exclusive video footage and interviews with British nationals fighting with al Qaeda in Syria. In the film, two young men with British accents echo the sentiments expressed by Lee Rigby’s killer Michael Adebolajo and declare jihad against the UK and United States.
“I say to the United States that your time will come,” says one of the men, who gives his age as 26, “and we will bleed you to death and, inshallah [God willing], shall raise a flag in the White House.”
The second jihadist calls on the British public to rise up against the government: “Like the guy in Woolwich, he explained that David Cameron would never walk on the street, and he’ll never get shot in the face, whereas you guys who are soldiers, or just normal folk, will take the blame for the crimes that are committed worldwide, by Britain itself, so we have to fight.”
The film also shines a light on the communication difficulties that arise when radicalized extremists from Britain, France, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Turkey, among other countries, get together to fight on the front line.
watch the video
The Invisible Scars of Syrian Teens
When Asalah, her daughter, and her son fled the war and left their home, Damascus for Iraq, they found themselves on the Syrian side of a closed border. Two months later, when the border opened on August 19, Asalah, her children, and 55,000 other refugeeshopped onto buses and trucks and entered Iraq’s Kurdistan region. They and another 30,000 refugees camped out wherever they could: parks, mosques, and even schools. By the time UNHCR arrived a week later, they hadn’t eaten in 36 hours and disease had spread among the refugees.
Asalah didn’t have a say in where she and her family could go in Iraq but technically lucked out when they were randomly assigned to Arbat camp by the Kurdistan government. Arbat camp is a transit refugee camp established by UNHCR located in the Sulaymaniyahprovince about six hours from the border Syrian-Iraq border. Arbat houses a small number of the refugees currently in Iraq—with only a 1000 refugees living in 500 tents compared to the Za’atari mega camp in Jordan that houses 130,000 refugees. The refugees were told they would temporarily stay in the transit camp for a few days while another, more accommodating camp was built. They’ve been there for almost two months.
Al Qaeda’s Teenage Fan Club
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realized Syria had turned into Mad Max. We were driving through Manbij, a small tumbleweed kind of town in the dusty northern outskirts of Aleppo province on a Friday afternoon during Ramadan, about a month before the August 21 chemical-weapons attacks that finally forced the international spotlight onto Syria’s two-year civil war.
Manbij’s deserted streets radiated in the midday heat of the holy month. Shopkeepers had pulled the crinkled metal shutters down over their doorways. When you’re fasting in Syria in the summertime, the daytime is for sleeping.
Our driver stopped the car on a side road near the yellow-gray town square. “Look,” he said.
We peered through a scrim of dust at a set of vague shapes in front of us. The figures quickly sharpened into an oncoming pack of men on motorbikes, roaring up the road with horns beeping. As they approached, the drivers’ passengers stood up on their seats with their arms outstretched, brandishing the black flags of al Qaeda as they yelped into the sky.
I fumbled for my camera.
“Be careful,” said the driver. “They won’t be offended because you’re a journalist taking pictures. They’ll be offended because you’re a woman taking pictures.”
The gang circled the square on the shiny little two-strokes that the Syrians call “smurfs.”
From the passenger seat, my friend—a Syrian with a sharp sense of irony—looked back at me. “Well,” he said, “that’s freedom. You never could have had a motorbike gang under Bashar.”
1000 Syrian Refugees Are Living in an Abandoned Lebanese Mall
In the central courtyard of an abandoned shopping mall in northern Lebanon, Hamad affectionately squeezes the cheek of one of his younger sisters. She briefly feigns disgust before planting a kiss on his cheek, turning on her heel, and running off into one of the many derelict shops that have become homes for Syrians fleeing the conflict in their home country.
Around 1,000 refugees—most of them Sunnis from the Syrian provinces of Hama and Idlib—currently live in the former shopping center, which is nestled in the small village of Deddeh, north of Tripoli. Most residents profess support for the Syrian opposition, though a number are in favor of the Assad regime and others appear apathetic, more concerned with looking after their families the the politics that led to them having to flee.
"Most of the kids here aren’t enrolled in school," says 17-year-old Hamad, who fled the northern Syrian city of Aleppo two months ago. "Some attend the local mosque for a couple of hours every day and receive instruction in reading and writing, but most of the time they don’t have anything to do and just try to amuse themselves."