Learning from Abu Bakr al-Baghdad’s mistakes: How HTS is making its own money
by: Sami Moubayed
It seems that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has learned its lessons well by simply watching the rise and fall of the Islamic State (ISIS). Its leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, has taken careful note of every single mistake committed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, vowing never to repeat them.
For starters, Golani refuses to rely on foreign fighters, who had formed the backbone of ISIS, insisting on recruiting nothing but Syrian nationalist into his organization. Those Syrians know the terrain in which they are located and are deeply attached to their towns and villages. That guarantees that they will not pack up and leave like the hundreds of foreign fighters who fled the battlefield the collapse of ISIS rule al-Raqqa back in 2017.
Golani also refuses to stretch himself thin by sending arms and fighters to affiliate groups across the world. That is what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did when he extended support to ISIS-affiliates in Nigeria, Egypt, Gaza, and Libya. Golani has no desire to establish emirates loyal to him, focusing exclusively on the territory that he controls within Syria. He has no desire to expand, whether vertically or horizontally, and no desire to declare himself caliph of the Islamic world, as Baghdadi did from Mosul in 2014.
But the real lesson learnt from ISIS is how to make money to self-finance HTS’ military activities. The mother group from which both groups were founded, al-Qaeda, had relied almost exclusively on donations from members and sympathizers. Those donations started to dry up after 9-11 and 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden. ISIS earned its own money through theft, kidnapping, arms procurement, the smuggling of historical artefacts, and extracting, then selling Syrian and Iraqi oil to whoever was willing to buy.
This is where HTS has gone a step further. Unlike ISIS it controls none of the oilfields that provided steady income for Baghdadi during the years 2014-2017. That forced Golani to buy oil from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-backed Kurdish militia controlling entire swaths of territory east of the Euphrates River. At first glance this may seem puzzling, how Turkish-backed rebels buy oil from Kurdish militias fighting their Turkish patrons. But in the complex web of the Syrian battlefield, anything can happen. No less than 30-35 trucks of crude oil were sold daily by SDF to HTS. Golani bought the oil for $175 USD/ton. He would then resel it with profit to end-users in Idlib, for $300 USD/ton. The Kurds are capable of extracting the crude oil, but not refining it, explaining why they had high hopes that the Delaware-based US firm, Delta, would build refineries for them—an ambitious project devised by the former Trump Administration. The Turkish-backed armed opposition has a refinery in the countryside of Turkish-occupied Jarablus, but it is no match for the modern refineries that the Americans promised the Kurds, nor to the government refineries in Homs and Banias. In addition to being rather primitive, the Jarablus refinery was bombed and severely damaged last January.
Three companies linked to HTS.
Abu Mohammad al-Golani realized that relying on the Kurds for oil was simply too costly and insecure, prompting him to think of alternate methods to make money and provide heating fuel to his own constituency. In 2018 HTS established its first oil company, called Watad, tasked primarily with buying oil from Ukraine, via Turkey. That oil enters Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, at a reduced tariff of $3 USD/ton. Watad was founded by Mohammad Qadid (aka Abu Abdul Rahman Zarbeh), a close confident of Abu Mohammad al-Goalni. His protégé and relative, Naser al-Shawwa, currently serves as its director. Overnight it became a giant in the field (compared to the size of opposition held territory). It now has four departments displayed proudly on its website: one for oil importation, one for the refining of oil, and for its distribution, and one for market study and research.
So successful was the project that HTS has since supplemented it with two other oil companies called Kaf and al-Shahba, the latter established as recently as December 2020. A fourth is firm also present but it is small and incomparable with the rest, called Embdad, run by the Syrian National Army (SNA) in the Euphrates Shield Area. All of these oil firms are licensed by the Idlib government and pay taxes directly to it. There is a fine thread linking the three oil companies, Watad, Kaf, and al-Shahba, although Idlib authorities insist that they are unrelated and owned by different entities. At least two figures have proven a connection to all three firms, however, being Mohammad Khalifa and Sabir Amaya. Khalifa is HTS’ fixer with the Kurds while Amaya is a businessman with shares in all three companies, officially registered as one of the founders of Kaf. The three companies operate under different names to show both diversity and competition. They were created by HTS to absorb rising anger within the opposition street after Idlib authorities raised the price of heating fuel (twice over the past year) and were accused of making high profit from sale to end-users in opposition held areas.
Abu Mohammad al-Golani is no economist, however, and certainly lacks the brains to come up with such lucrative ideas. The three projects have been a big success, and if they continue to grow, will give HTS a lifeline to survive much longer than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS.