Sitting at the edge of a vast and barren desert in Syria’s gas and oil production region, Ash Shaddadi, a city of 70,000, has become the nightmare that many fear if Syria’s radical Islamist forces triumph in this country’s civil war.
Since mid-February, the city has been under the control of the radical Islamist militia known as Jabhat al Nusra, or the Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to al Qaida. The spoils of conquest include much of eastern Syria’s petroleum resources: a major natural gas plant here, many oil wells in the countryside of Deir el Zour province to the south and much of the production of grains and cotton.
Nusra, which the U.S. government has branded a terrorist organization, captured Ash Shaddadi from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad with the help of the pro-Western Free Syrian Army rebels. But the better-equipped Nusra – many of its fighters veterans of battles against U.S. forces in Iraq – took the lead in the four days of fighting, capturing weapons, ammunition and government property.
Today Nusra runs the town. It controls the grain silos, the cotton warehouses, and most important the region’s gas and oil output. Yet the biggest windfall from victory may have been the proceeds from the sale of some 400 major construction vehicles, which they captured when they overran state facilities in January. The sale of the equipment netted 4 billion Syrian pounds, almost $40 million at the time, according to local Free Syrian Army commanders.
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Townspeople have taken to the streets repeatedly to protest Nusra’s inability to provide basic services and its claim to piety and religious values while it seizes public property for use as it sees fit. But the protests haven’t shaken Nusra’s hold on the area, and because Nusra is self-sufficient in Ash Shaddadi, its fighters say there’s no way for outsiders to shut down support.
With Assad’s forces ousted from the area, the United States is their primary foe, Nusra fighters say.
“America is our enemy. They must get out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt, and they must put pressure on Israel,” said Abu al Walid, 21, a student of petroleum engineering who’s now guarding the Ash Shaddadi gas plant.
How powerful Nusra and similar groups are as a force in the anti-Assad movement is hotly debated in the United States amid concerns that the sudden collapse of Assad’s government would end up placing al Qaida-affiliated fighters in charge. U.S. Secretary of States John Kerry, in testimony before Congress when the administration was pressing for authorization to launch a strike on Syria, said they made up only a small part of the rebel movement and that moderate rebels, with democratic instincts, were in the ascendancy.
But there’s no doubt that Nusra runs this region and has no moderate rival for influence – and no plans for moderation.
Receiving a McClatchy reporter at the gas plant, Walid and his colleague, Abu Nawaf, 23, gave an unvarnished, if unofficial, description of how Nusra runs the area and what it plans for the future.
Walid said Nusra in Ash Shaddadi consisted primarily of local residents, apparently built on a base of conservative Islamists known as Salafists from a nearby village. Ten percent of the Nusra members here are non-Syrian, mainly Yemenis, Tunisians and Iraqis.
Nusra has been pressing the local population to be more serious about religious observance, Walid said. People “were far from religion because of the regime,” but now they’re attending mosque more often, “and we have an office to teach and advise them. We are giving courses on the Quran.”
As for democracy, he said Nusra was opposed to elections and that if townspeople insisted on them, Nusra wouldn’t take part. But the movement is willing to allow girls to attend school, including higher education, provided they’re separated from boys.
The gas plant, which appears to be about 20 years old, has been closed since February for technical reasons, but Nusra intends to controls the entire mineral wealth of the region. Walid said the movement would use the proceeds to pay the salaries of movement members, as well as to donate to the poor and internally displaced. Nusra controls about 10 percent of the oil wells in the region, with the rest in the hands of the Free Syrian Army and local tribes.
“We will not give it up. We will keep it,” Walid said. The exception is if the townspeople of Ash Shaddadi adopt Shariah law for daily life. “If the new government will apply Islamic law, we will share it. Otherwise, we will keep it,” he said.
That approach is different from what’s taking place in Deir el Zour, about 80 miles to the south, where the Free Syrian Army accepted an arrangement under which gas is shipped to the Syrian government, which distributes it throughout the country. The government, in turn, pays the salaries of the employees who keep the plant going.
Nusra has no such plans in Ash Shaddadi. “We will not send any gas to the regime. The fighters here will not accept it,” Walid said.
It isn’t clear whether the regime, which is paying the salaries of engineers and technical experts here, will go along.
The plan here is to bottle much of the gas and sell it – at cost, Walid said – to residents for cooking and other household uses. The rest will be shipped to Deir el Zour to power an electricity plant that will provide power to Hasaka province, where Ash Shaddadi is located.
Oil and gas aren’t the only businesses Nusra intends to pursue. The group controls the grain silos in two towns south of here, and it bought a flour mill in Turkey and had it installed in the Syrian town of Margada.
The Syrian government’s attitude toward that control is ambivalent, Walid said. It continues to pay the salaries of specialists who manage the silos even as warplanes bomb the sites an apparent effort to destroy the food supply. Walid said that after regime aircraft bombed a silo at Margada in late spring, government experts advised on how to prevent mold or disease from ruining the wheat stored there.
Nusra is charging a minimal amount for the bread – eight flatbreads for 25 Syrian lira, about a penny a loaf – and fears that it cannot raise the price. “Nowadays, people are used to their freedom. If we charged more, people would demonstrate,” Walid said. He noted that there’d been protests over Nusra’s failure to provide electricity. “We fixed it. It’s on now,” he said.
Cotton, on the other hand, is staying in the warehouses. “We are storing cotton. We are thinking of next year,” Walid said.
Nusra has a difficult relationship with the population. There have been repeated demonstrations about Nusra’s management of the city, which Syrian citizen journalists, at some risk to themselves, have reported in social media. Demonstrators called Nusra “an agent of the Syrian regime” during protests July 15 and demanded that its fighters leave the town. A blogger, Huda al Hassan, reported that Nusra activists had arrested and whipped several demonstrators, among them a boy of 15. In mid-August, Nusra killed two demonstrators, according to reports from the town.
Tensions are just below the surface and can burst forth at unexpected moments. A McClatchy reporter and photographer were sitting in a parked car near the entrance to the main military compound housing the Nusra staff when a middle-aged man drove up on his motorbike and started to declaim.
“I want the whole world to hear us. You, Nusra, you are not elected. You are stealing all that we have,” he said. “We have nothing, no electricity, no running water. And tonight we will demonstrate against you.”
A Nusra officer barked back at him: “We will shoot you.”
A few minutes later, Nusra militants in plainclothes yanked open the doors of the journalists’ car and seized a camera, complaining that the photographer had taken a photograph of a child soldier without permission. They also seized the reporter’s cellphone and an interpreter’s laptop, as well as a pass from a senior Nusra commander asking all checkpoints to let the group travel freely. After escorting the journalists at high speed toward the city limits, the local authorities finally returned the camera, then ordered the group not to show up again.
Special correspondents Zakaria Zakaria in Ash Shaddadi and Paul Raymond in Istanbul contributed to this report.