Aircraft from the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates struck a dozen small oil refineries in eastern Syria on Wednesday in an effort to deprive the Islamic State of one of its main sources of revenue.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby described the airstrikes as the next phase in U.S. efforts to degrade the Islamic State’s ability to operate. He said the Islamic State earns $2 million daily from sales of refined products from the refineries.
In an appearance on CNN, Kirby said that aircraft from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates accounted for most of the strikes against the refineries, but he provided no specifics for the number of aircraft involved or the total number of munitions expended. He said the assault lasted about 90 minutes and that all aircraft returned safely.
It was unclear how sophisticated the targeted facilities were or how easily the Islamic State would be able to replace them. Kirby called them “modular oil refineries,” a term that suggests an installation worth several million dollars that would be constructed elsewhere and then installed in a location – an acquisition the Islamic State would be unlikely to make in the world market.
But much of the output of oilfields controlled by the Islamic State is processed in makeshift refining stations that are at best primitive – in some instances consisting of little more than barrels where crude oil is boiled into other products. The Islamic State revenue also comes from selling crude oil to black market dealers who resell it.
The Islamic State’s largely self-sustaining business network, which generates by some estimates as much as $40 million monthly, has made it the wealthiest terrorist organization in the world, enabling it not just to pay salaries to its fighters but to provide a range of services to its supporters. In addition to oil sales, the Islamic State’s revenue stream includes extortion payments from businesses in areas it controls, sales of confiscated property and duties on food and merchandise shipments that cross from Jordan into Iraq and Syria.
The strikes on the refineries, which came shortly before midnight in Syria, were in addition to five airstrikes the U.S. launched against Islamic State targets earlier Wednesday – four in Iraq and one in Syria.
On Tuesday, coalition aircraft flew roughly 200 missions over Syria, striking 22 targets with an array of weapons that included 47 cruise missiles. Among the targets was an Islamic State financial center in Raqqa that U.S. officials said they believed was critical to the Islamic State’s tracking of its income.
U.S. officials on Wednesday declined to offer new assessments of the effectiveness of Tuesday’s attacks.
U.S. aircraft also made no new effort to target positions of the Nusra Front, the al Qaida affiliate that had been sheltering what American officials have dubbed the Khorasan group, a unit of senior al Qaida members thought to be plotting attacks on the West. On Tuesday, U.S. cruise missiles hit eight Nusra encampments, killing 50 militants – including perhaps leading members of Khorasan – and angering so-called moderate rebels, who view Nusra as an important ally in their efforts to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. They were furious that Nusra was hit but not Assad’s forces.
Kirby told CNN that U.S. officials had been unable to verify reports that the attacks on Nusra outposts had killed a key al Qaida figure, Muhslin al Fahdli, who was a close confidant of Osama bin Laden and whom U.S. officials say was dispatched to Syria by current al Qaida head Ayman al Zawahiri to organize attacks on Western targets. In October 2012, the United States offered a $7 million reward for information leading to Fahdli’s death or capture.
For its part, the Syrian government reacted to the strikes with a series of aggressive actions, pushing a long-running ground offensive in Aleppo, where rebels occupying the center of Syria’s second-largest city are increasingly squeezed between government forces and those of the Islamic State. But it was unclear whether Tuesday’s coalition airstrikes had improved the government’s positions.
Syrian activists and civil defense workers in the city said government forces had made multiple strikes from jets and helicopters – including with massive improvised munitions known as barrel bombs – against neighborhoods along the main line between government and rebel troops. In the suburbs of Damascus, far from where any of Tuesday’s coalition strikes had hit, government-allied forces from Lebanon’s Hezbollah attacked a number of rebel-held suburban neighborhoods, employing ground-to-ground missiles.
Seemingly undeterred by Tuesday’s attacks, Islamic State forces pushed their siege of the Kurdish town of Kobane, just north of Aleppo along the Turkish border, employing heavy weapons and armor to move to within about 10 miles of the city center, which is now surrounded on three sides by the militants. At least 150,000 residents of the town and its outlying areas have fled over the border into the safety of Turkey, which also has allowed a small number of Kurdish fighters to enter Syria from Turkey to reinforce Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State.
Kurdish forces from Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK in Kurdish, a group designated by the United States and Turkey as a terrorist organization, and the peshmerga militia of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, some wearing civilian clothes, pushed an offensive along the Turkish border from the east to relieve Kobane, which is known in Arabic as Ayn al Arab.
One peshmerga intelligence official, who spoke anonymously because he is not cleared to speak to the news media, confirmed that several hundred Iraqi Kurdish fighters had volunteered to help break the siege on Kobane in appreciation for assistance from both the YPG and PKK when Irbil was threatened with being overrun by the Islamic State in August.
“They are acting as Kurds and not representatives of the peshmerga or any political party here in Kurdistan,” he said. “They are not in uniform.”
When asked if the fighters were armed and equipped by the peshmerga despite their lack of uniforms, the official laughed and said, “They are operating in a space between approval and allowance,” implying that the men were being unofficially equipped by their military leaders for the operation.
Meanwhile, a French hostage kidnapped Sunday in Algeria became the first victim since the Islamic State issued a call Monday for its supporters throughout the world to kill Westerners in retaliation for the U.S.-led attacks. Herve Gourdel, 55, was beheaded by militants belonging to an al Qaida splinter group, Jund al Khalifa, that has sworn loyalty to the Islamic State. The group had demanded that the French withdraw from the anti-Islamic State coalition.
French President Francois Hollande confirmed the murder in an emotional speech before the United Nations General Assembly in New York and vowed that France would not give in “to blackmail, to pressure, to barbaric acts.”
“He was abducted, and he was beheaded,” Hollande said. “This is what terrorism does.”
He challenged U.N. members with a question: “Will we remain spectators, or will we be actors together?”
France is the only country that has joined the United States in launching airstrikes in Iraq, and Hollande announced over the weekend that he would refer to the Islamic State only as “Daash,” an Arabic acronym that is considered derogatory. Those steps apparently factored into a statement Monday by the Islamic State’s official spokesman, Abu Mohammed al Adnani, that singled out the “filthy French” for retaliatory killings.
Hannah Allam contributed to this report from the United Nations.