Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said in an April 7 message that Syrian opponents of Bashar Assad should work to establish an Islamic state. Civil war, now in its third year, shows few signs of ending and a lack of international solidarity on the way forward has fractured the country's rebel movement. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, described Syria's al-Qaida wing, Jabhat al-Nusra, as the "fastest growing al-Qaida movement in the world." Al-Nusra's allegiance to al-Qaida has forced the Free Syrian Army to distance itself from the movement, highlighting the lack of cohesion among opponents of the Assad regime. Nevertheless, next week the European Union may consider opening the door to purchases of Syrian crude oil from members of the opposition.
The Syrian oil industry posted a loss of around $2.9 billion because of the civil war. The United States and European Union long ago slapped restrictions on Syrian oil exports as punishment for the civilian death toll. Gulfsands Petroleum, one of the last company's holding any sort of allegiance to working in Syria, suspended operations there more than a year ago. Since then, oil pipelines and other major infrastructure tied to the energy sector have been destroyed by conflict. As of October, the government said around $220 million worth of damage has been caused to energy infrastructure.
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Russian objections to draft resolutions at the U.N. Security Council have handicapped the international community's ability to present a unified front on the way forward in Syria. Most governments have expressed frustration with the mounting bloodshed, though the way out of the crisis remains unclear. Last year, President Barack Obama said the Syrian Opposition Council was "inclusive enough" to be considered the legitimate representation of the Syrian people. Similar developments in Libya helped break the back of the Gadhafi regime, though that momentum was supported by a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Libya. There's no such buffer in Syria.
Rebel group al-Nusra helped opponents of the Assad regime take control over areas in northern Syria. It's established social programs like food distribution, but has also set up a de facto justice system based on Sharia law. Zawahiri, in an audio message, called on the rebel organization to establish an Islamic state in Syria. A divided rebellion has created problems for Western governments looking for ways to arm Syrian rebels and al-Nusra's allegiance has only complicated issues further. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week the conflict in Syria can be resolved only through negotiations without "any preconditions," suggesting there's no major political breakthrough expected in the crisis.
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Syria's proven oil reserves are estimated at 2.5 billion barrels, placing it just behind Iraq in terms of regional reserves. Though expensive to refine, European markets in 2011 imported around $3.6 billion worth of oil from Syria. Next week, European leaders may consider lifting some of the limitations, which would open the door for crude oil purchases from the opposition. Restrictions would remain in place so that Assad supporters won't benefit, however.
Syrian oil production is down as of October by more than 60 percent from figures posted a year ago so it's unclear what, if any, rebound would develop. Italian energy company ENI led the march back to Libya six months after NATO imposed its no-fly zone there. While a parallel course is unlikely, following the money trail in Syria may point to a road that leads to a way out of the crisis.
By. Daniel J. Graeber of Oilprice.com