bellingcat – Dying to warm up: oil trade and makeshift refining in northwest Syria – ABOUT MAG 2020

Upon entering the 9th year of the war, access to the basic humanitarian needs of Syrian civilians, both displaced and local communities, remains an issue. Fuel for heating, cooking and transportation is difficult to access and has enormous financial and environmental costs. The first is a direct problem for families that often resort to the use of alternative means of fuel, such as wood and plastic, while the second will be a burden for the country in the post-conflict phase.

As documented in previous open source articles, Syria’s oil industry suffered a heavy blow, leading to significant damage in Production facilities as well as oil spills and the improvised ascent oil refineries in eastern Syria, mainly in Deir ez Zor and Hasakah. These refineries were loaded by necessity when the professional oil industry collapsed shortly after the peaceful revolution against the Assad regime turned into a bloody conflict.

Armed groups soon began taking over important refineries and oil fields, resulting in employees and new stops for regular production; or else the refineries were targeted by the U.S.-led coalition, as well as Russian air strikes, after ISIS took over these areas in 2014.

The increase in improvised refining, as crude oil could still be pumped and exported, soon became a viable source of income for local civilians, as these unsustainable coping strategies were necessary to compensate for unemployment. Armed groups have also capitalized on these income-generating practices and smuggling networks to finance their war machines, making these refineries a common business in Syria.

Main conclusions

This visual investigation aims to identify the large number of makeshift refineries that at one point or continue to be used in Syria and the enormous environmental health risks associated with these practices for civilians working in this industry. These are the main conclusions of this visual investigation

  • Using open source information and satellite images, we identified about 300 groups of refineries with between 1,500 and 5,000 refineries that were built and that at some point were used.
  • Knowledge and experience in producing refined oil from improvised facilities has increased rapidly throughout the conflict, with improved and safer facilities being built.
  • Explosive barrels and frequent fires have made these sites a serious health risk to workers, while people living nearby have faced additional environmental health risks from air and water pollution.
  • Displaced civilians were employed as cheap labor in larger groups of refineries, including many children and adolescents, while living in nearby fields.
  • The documentation shows that at least 10 improvised oil sets were bombed by Syrian and Russian fighter planes in the 2015-2019 period.
  • In Idlib and Aleppo, these refining practices were interrupted after regime forces captured the area or when the oil supply was cut off due to military developments.

Overview of oil refinery clusters in northwest Syria.

“We only earn $ 15 a day, but we get cancer for free”

Our previous search the oil industry conflict pollution articles used open source information collection and remote sensing to help reinforce the understanding of toxic dynamics caused by conflicts that could pose serious acute and long-term health and health risks environment.

Civilians working at refineries are exposed to a series of deadly dangers. Heating oil drums can be very unstable, and the incidents in northeastern Syria have taught us that there were many cases of people being killed or seriously injured due to the explosion of oil barrels. If not, smoke and toxic substances can still cause acute health problems, as many anecdotal reports in recent years include oil residues that infect wounds, serious respiratory problems from inhaling harmful vapors, and sometimes even death by direct inhalation of toxic vapors. from the burners, which contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) switched on carcinogenicity and mutagenicity.

So the question is what long-term exposure will mean for workers, many of them children. Fear of cancer is a common concern in all reports and interviews with workers, while in practice vapors are also likely to have high levels of particulate matter and heavy metals from oil burning that will affect internal organs, in particular the kidneys. A complete overview can be found in this table US Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health booklet on oil spills.

Dangerous chemical Adverse health effects
Benzene (crude oils rich in BTEX, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) Irritation to eyes, skin and respiratory system; dizziness; fast heart rate; headaches; tremors; unconsciousness confusion; anemia; Cancer
Benzo (a) pyrene (a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon reproductive [see below], formed when oil or gasoline burns) Eye and skin irritation, cancer, possible effects
Carbon dioxide (inert atmosphere, by-product of combustion) Dizziness, headaches, high blood pressure, rapid

heart rate, loss of consciousness, choking, coma

Carbon monoxide (by-product of combustion) Dizziness, confusion, headaches, nausea, weakness, loss of consciousness, suffocation, coma
Ethylbenzene (rich in gasoline) Irritation to eyes, skin and respiratory system; loss of consciousness; asphyxiation; effects on the nervous system
Hydrogen sulfide (sulfur-rich oils, decaying plants and animals) Irritation to eyes, skin and respiratory system; dizziness; somnolence; cough; headaches; effects on the nervous system
Tert-butyl methyl ether (MTBE) (octane reinforcement and clean air additive for gasoline or pure MTBE) Irritation to eyes, skin and respiratory system; headaches; nausea; dizziness; confusion; fatigue; weakness; nervous system, liver and kidney
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) (occur in crude oil formed during oil burning) Eye and skin irritation, cancer, possible reproductive effects, effects on the immune system
Sulfuric acid (by-product of combustion of acidspetroleum product) Irritation of eyes, skin, teeth and upper respiratory system; severe tissue burns; Cancer
Toluene (crude oils with a high BTEX content) Irritation of eyes, skin, respiratory system; fatigue; confusion; dizziness; headaches; memory loss; nausea; effects on the nervous system, liver and kidneys
Xylenes (crude oils with a high BTEX content) Irritation of eyes, skin, respiratory system; dizziness; confusion; change in the sense of balance; effects on the nervous system, gastrointestinal system, liver, kidney and blood

The long-term environmental impact of these refineries can also pose serious risks to human health and to local ecosystems and biodiversity. In particular, the storage of petroleum residues, collected in rivers and the dozens of spills in local streams or rivers, all serve to contaminate groundwater and soil, in addition to requiring cleaning, remediation and monitoring. However, these environmental considerations often remain absent or underfunded in post-conflict recovery programs.

Meanwhile, oil is not in one place, and trade and the (semi) improvised refining experience is spreading across the country along trade routes in the direction of Aleppo. This is also not without risks. So in this article, we’ll look at how the practice of oil refining quickly took root in northwestern Syria.

Syrian oil stories

Most of the oil pumped into the Deir ez Zor and Hasakah fields is being exported outside the production region, as these oil fields are heavily damaged, leaving virtually no refining and storage capacity behind. The practice of improvised refining has spread rapidly in these regions since the beginning of the conflict, with tens of thousands of small refineries appearing on the side of the road, in the yard and in large agglomerations to produce what locals call mazut, a low-level but functional form of diesel. Other refined products are benzene for engines, cars, trucks and kerosene for home heaters.

The combination of a relentless bombing campaign by the US-led Coalition and the Russian Air Force severely degraded ISIS capacity to produce oil. With the rise (and subsequent fall) of ISIS and the massive displacement in these areas, the specialist knowledge and know-how to build these refineries spread rapidly to the west.

According to the Financial Times article linked in the paragraph above, as of 2015, traders took oil from ISIS areas and exported it to territories held by rebels in Aleppo and Idlib, as seen in the image below.

Syrian oil trade, Financial Times, 2015

Satellite Archeology

For this research, we will mainly use Google Earth Pro (GEP) to see the development of improvised oil production in this part of Syria. This is also due to the fact that other free images, such as Planet Labs and Sentinel 2, were not yet available for this period or were difficult to process through easily accessible terrestrial observation platforms, such as Landsat 8.

For this reason, we mainly adhere to the GEP for high resolution identification. Considering the dynamics of energy change and economic activities, we researched certain areas using the “Historical Images” function in the GEP, which was instrumental in seeing the increase (and sometimes drop) of improvised refining in various areas in northwest Syria.

We also use Sentinel-2 images with a resolution of 10 meters provided through Sentinel Hub sweep areas for fires, smoke and burnt areas that may indicate refinery activity. In particular, the colored infrared bands (vegetation) proved to be very useful in identifying clusters, as the black spots contrasted well with the red color of the vegetation. We also use Planet Labs which has almost daily images, depending on the cloud cover, for possible confirmation of social media reports, using its 3 meter resolution. Finally, we used several keywords in English and Arabic to search open source articles over the past 9 years to learn about artisanal refinery locations (often known as primitive refineries, oil burners or makeshift refineries) and on Twitter searches.

Oil trade routes

Oil was being loaded into the oil fields at Deir ez Zor and Hasakah, and then transported by thousands of tankers through the SDF-controlled areas. There were several entry points into rebel-controlled areas, the largest being the Hamran border in the village of Umm al Jalud, west of Manbij, as documented by Twitter user @Obretix

In Google Earth Pro images, rows of kilometers long with tankers can be seen entering and leaving areas controlled by rebels in northern Aleppo, at the so-called Hamam crossing, as shown in the image below:

Crossing Hamam

Other input north of Aleppo from SDF areas used to open the north of Tal Rafay village, where tank trucks were seen in 2017 entering and leaving northern Aleppo from SDF areas, before being closed later.

Tel Rifay border crossing, 2017

The map below shows the general oil trade routes from Hasakah and Deir ez Zor to northwest Syria.

To the southeast of the Qarah Qawzaq bridge, which connects Aleppo to Raqqa province, also close to a former US air base and present-day Russia, there was also a oil installation located in the grain and cotton deposit facilities. In the satellite images from 2018, it can be seen that the oil storage tankers were placed on site, while the Sentinel-2 images from March 2019 indicated some type of spill occurred at this location – potentially, this it was the local waste of oil from refining, or other tankers dumped their waste there. In November 2019, this waste stream disappeared, indicating cleaning and discarding water, as the spill was visible for 9 months.

Oil storage for grain and cotton deposits, Raqqa.

The site appears to have been in use for at least a year, but recent images from 2020 indicate that the storage and processing of waste has been halted as oil tankers have been removed from this site, potentially after the Russian acquisition of the base neighboring U.S. air carrier in late 2019, following the Turkish incursion into northern Syria in October 2019 and the subsequent Russian presence.

Oil storage in the grain and cotton deposit

There are also reports of oil smuggling from SDF areas to regime-controlled areas in Deir ez Zor, but these appear to be mainly local gangs using boats, pipelines and trucks. But this is not likely to end in northwest Syria, as oil is mainly for local use in areas controlled by the regime.

In the next section, we’ll look at specific areas, the local refining dynamics and the living and working conditions in those locations.

Featuring artisanal oil refineries

Based on the available video and photo images, our previous reports on Deir ez Zor and field visits to northeast Syria in 2018, there are four distinct versions of the refinery.

Primitive refineries / road burners

These refineries marked the beginning of the process, were documented in several media reports and were easily visible on satellite images. They were simply built by digging a ditch, filling it with water and placing a furnace at the end. Then, a duct was placed through the water ditch to condense the heated oil and collect at the end of the duct. Due to their size, these refineries did not produce much oil per kiln, so they can be found with multiple ovens and ditches in one location. In particular, in Deir ez Zor, these types of burners were found in large quantities between 2013 and 2016, as documented in Scorched earth, charred lives 2016 report.

Improvised refining visualization. PAX, 2016

Below is a example with images of a refinery in Tel Rifaat in 2013, as well as a satellite image in the left corner of Deir ez Zor to show how these refineries look like space. They can usually be seen through the ditch and the black spot at the end with oil residues, which darken the soil around the oven.

Larger oil burners

Size matters in oil production, and people working in the informal oil industry have started to build larger, more professional versions. Soon, large types of improvised refineries were built with larger tanks, several pipelines and larger fortified constructions incorporated, sometimes above ground, with basins with adequate canvas to retain water. Below is an example of these refineries in Idlib, built from this interview from 2017.

Improvised Refinery Idlib 2017

Multiple burners

There are also larger versions with several burners built around a basin, as seen in the image below, composed of several photos in one Al Jazeera Aleppo item in 2017. There are larger tanks, a larger basin and several pipelines, but it still needs to be manually fed with fuel to heat the tanks. The blue screen is notable in these types of burners, making it easy to locate on satellite images

Several burners per refinery unit, Idlib, 2017

Semi-professional refineries

The traditional improvised refineries used often proved unstable, resulting in frequent explosions, killing and maiming local workers. Therefore, there was an effort to build stable refineries with less manual labor to heat up crude oil, minimizing health and safety risks for workers.

Tel Rifaat, 2017

Over the past three years, we have witnessed the emergence of semi-professional refineries, where the heating was done by means of diesel engines or by aspiration of the tankers to quickly heat the oil. In areas controlled by the SDF, these types of refineries are now more common after self-management shut down most of the burners on the road, after complaints from communities about pollution and health risks.

Two oil workers at a vacuum oil refinery, Haskah, November 2018. Wim Zwijnenburg

The newer installations also have solid basins, built from cement with more control settings to measure and regulate heating, which makes them more reliable and more operable. As a result, production appears to have increased substantially by refinery.

Below is a compilation of a video presenting a semi-professional refinery in Tel Rifaat, northern Aleppo, in 2017.

Tel Rifaat, 2017

The above refinery was built in 2017, but probably abandoned after Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish-led foray into the Afrin region of Syria in 2018. Geolocation by @obretix

Semi-professional refinery, Tel Rifaat

Informal oil refining cradles

The use of improvised refining outside Deir ez Zor would logically make sense to appear to be slowly moving westward, as knowledge of this practice is spread by displaced refinery workers. Therefore, we initially started in the province of Raqqa, where we look for refineries in satellite images. The first image available in this region is from October 2013, showing artisanal oil refineries near the M4 road from Raqqa to Manbij. The black spots at the end of the water ditch show oil residues in the soil, indicating that the refinery was recently active. In the same place, in 2016, we see that this has largely disappeared, which means that they are no longer active.

Improvised oil cluster, Western Raqqa, 2013-2016

The first visual confirmation, via satellite images, of informal refining on the west bank of the Euphrates River in Aleppo is from 2016. But the first media reports on this trend already appeared in 2013, showing [[[[filed]road refining in Aleppo province, as well as on here in Manbij, while civilians struggled to access affordable gasoline. From others reports it also indicated that the refineries were operational in Tel Rifaat, north of the city of Aleppo, where we found some burners on the road in 2013/2014, southeast of the city.

According to this interview with an oil worker in a 2013 Al Jazeera article, the use of “primitive burners” began in 2013 in Deir Hassan, a small village in the province of Idlib, on the border with Turkey. Using Google Earth Pro, we found 1 refinery east of the village in 2013 and more in 2014. About 8 kilometers north of the village, in the city of Salwah, several artisanal refineries also appeared in the 2014 images, while in the hills between, larger types of refineries appeared on the side of the road in 2017.

Artisanal oil refining cradle, Deir Hassan / Salwah, 2014

From Jarablus to Jisr Ash-Shugur

Informal refining became a common practice in northwest Syria in the period 2013 to 2020, with local oil entrepreneurs quickly learning how to improve technology and increase production at these refineries. In the beginning, until 2013-2015, it was possible to find a handful of low-quality refineries near the villages, but that changed after 2016, when we saw a rapid increase in various parts of the country. After 2016, these refineries can be found in smaller and smaller groups, as this probably facilitates transportation with large tank trucks to supply crude oil and export the refined version to its final destination.

In the next section, we’ll look at specific areas, the local refining dynamics and the living and working conditions in those locations.

East Aleppo Province

The area between the Euphrates and the Sajur River has become a hot spot for the local informal oil industry. In this northern part of Aleppo, we have identified 30 clusters with at least 400 refineries that are or have been used during the 2014-2020 period.

Al Kusa Refineries

On the west bank of Eufates, small pockets of refineries with large burners and, further on, a large cluster, appeared in the first weeks of January 2017, as can be seen in Sentinel-2 images. In March 2017, the site expanded rapidly, with about 60 refineries, but a few months later that number dropped again, with only a few operations. In 2018, the place seemed completely abandoned.

Comparison of Al Kusa refineries

However, in June 2019, the area was cleared and an internally displaced persons camp was built on the former oil refinery site. It is not clear whether adequate soil correction took place before building houses for displaced Syrians here

Nearby, a smaller group of refineries was still operational as a fire broke out in August 2019 at one of the locations in Bir Al Kussa, and the White Helmets were dispatched take it out.

This Al Jazeera interview as of 2017 it provides basic information about the refining process, as explained by one of the local workers at the site north of the Sajur River.

Tall Shair refineries

Just over 5 kilometers southwest of the city of Jarabulus, more groups of refineries began to appear in late 2016 – and grew rapidly in 2017. Several media reports were produced at this location in 2016, showing interviews with workers in different locations. The White Helmets fire brigade has become a frequent visitor to this area due to numerous fires it broke out.

Tell Clusters: More than 100 refineries, active and inactive, were counted in about 8 clusters near Jarablus

What also became clear after the assassination of the leader of the so-called Islamic State, Bakr Al Baghdadi, who was hiding in Idlib, on the border with Turkey, is that oil trade routes were often used to smuggle ISIS agents through SDF and rebel-controlled areas. ISIS used to have a presence in Idblib and Aleppo, before being defeated by rival factions.

On October 27, a US air strike was reported to hit an oil tanker on the road between Mazlah and Youssif Bik, just a few kilometers south of Tall Shair refineries. Soon, the attack was found to have killed Abu Al-Hassan al-Muhajiir, an ISIS spokesman. Apparently, oil trucks with hidden compartments were often used to smuggle individuals from Deir ez Zor to Idlib and Aleppo.

The oil industry has also become a target for Russia and Syria. The same area was bombed on November 25, 2019 by the Syrian Air Force. connected, although this night air strike was probably carried out with the support of Russia. This was part of a broader attack on informal oil refineries in Aleppo, and there was also the bombing of a large cluster in Tarahin, northeast of Al Bab.

Air strikes and explosions: a dangerous Al-Bab trade

When we followed the Jarablus road to the west, crossing the Sajur to the province of Aleppo, some smaller clusters were found along the side of the road. It is not until we reach the countryside north of Al Bab, where the real action began. There have already been some active road burners near Al Bab since 2013, according to this video, but we were unable to verify the location. Other small groups with more than a dozen refineries were created around 2015/2016, but it was not until the summer of 2017, when this area became an important oil production site.

Tahrin Refineries

Three main groups are located next to each other north of the village of Tahrin, or also known as Tarahin. Oil production and the concerns of civilians and workers in these locations were very successful documented in local reports. Using the Sentinel Hubs EO Browser, we took a time lapse showing the rapid growth of oil refineries in this location between May 2017 and May 2018.

Timelapse of Sentinel-2, 2017-2018. Infrared color.

This location appeared on our radar in June 2018, when an online publication appeared in which a Twitter user noticed how Syrians displaced in a nearby camp began to complain about the health effects of smoking. Dozens of children were hospitalized for respiratory problems due to continued exposure to harmful vapors at the camp site.

In the 2018 satellite images, a substantial amount of tents and campsites are clearly visible, set up in the orchard around the refineries.

Displaced people living in orchards near oil refineries

Still from a 2019 report by Orient TV at Tahrin refineries

Orient TV in Taharin, 2019.

In that video, probably from the same location in 2019, health problems are also mentioned as a serious concern among workers and local citizens. The risks also came from frequent fires – as happened in Taharin in June 2019, seen on these White Helmets video – and explosions of crude oil barrels

Another interesting thing that we learned in the videos had to do with the use of burnt residues of crude oil as coal for cooking. After the crude oil is heated and the benzine / gasoline / diesel is collected, the tar remains are discarded from inside the large barrels, usually by children / adolescents, as they fit inside the barrels. This exposes young people to harmful vapors in the countryside, explaining the large amount of respiratory diseases and skin problems from anecdotal reports. The “tar coals” they collect inside, as well as the “oil sands” outside the barrels where spills occurred, are reused again as a kind of kitchen material

Steps News Agency in Taharin 2019

Photographs from a 2019 video by the Step News Agency in Taharin show how the process of producing coal from oil waste is removed from the oil drums, which is then used for heating.

Air strikes against refineries

On November 25, 2019, that location was one of the top three targets for a air strike carried out by the Syrian Air Force and / or Russian Air Force, with the other targets being Jarablus and Al Kousa

Vídeos apareceu o dia depois de, mostrando um dos locais bombardeados com tanques de armazenamento de óleo queimados. Foi localizado geograficamente em Tahrin pelo usuário do Twitter @obretix

O bombardeio da refinaria e das rotas de suprimento aparentemente teve efeito, pois, segundo video do City Al Babs News, filmado no local em fevereiro de 2020, as refinarias foram fechadas porque o petróleo não era mais entregue a Taharin. No entanto, em um vídeo postado em abril de 2020 pelos Capacetes Brancos, quando um incêndio eclodiu um aglomerado de refinarias na estrada ao sudeste de Tahrin, perto da vila de Susanbat, indicando que ainda havia algum acesso ao petróleo bruto para refino

Outras refinarias de Al Bab

Além do maior aglomerado de Tahrin, a área em torno de Al Bab possui mais de uma dúzia de pequenos aglomerados de refinarias. Alguns deles também foram bombardeados pela Rússia, como este em Kabr Makri, quando oito civis foram assassinados e dezenas de feridos.

Houve outro bombardeio em 2016, novamente pela Força Aérea Russa, da qual o Ministério da Defesa russo divulgou imagens de vídeo que foram geolocalizadas por @obretix nas refinarias de Kabr Makri

Outros vídeos que não conseguimos localizar geograficamente também mostram vários incidentes com refinarias em sites em torno de Al Bab, como este video de grande incêndio a partir de 2017 e um explosão em uma refinaria em setembro de 2019. Abaixo uma visão geral de todos os clusters de refinarias localizados.

Aglomerados de refinarias de petróleo em torno de Al-Bab, Alepo

Produção de petróleo em torno de Alepo e Idlib

Como mencionado no início, o refino informal de petróleo já havia começado em 2013, entre a fronteira turca e a cidade de Alepo, nas cidades de Deir Hassan e Salwah, na parte norte de Idlib.

De acordo com um 2019 interview com um proprietário de um cluster de refinarias, existem 450 refinarias nessa área para onde o petróleo bruto é enviado – ou é refinado lá ou enviado para a Turquia, como declarado em uma entrevista com um comerciante local de 2013.

Em 2015, a construção começou em algumas refinarias nas colinas a oeste da cidade de Aleppo, enquanto mais refinarias apareceram em 2016 nas mesmas áreas em que essa prática começou, nomeadamente perto de Salwah, na fronteira com a Turquia. Em 2017, um punhado de refinarias improvisadas na estrada apareceu perto de Tal Adeh, no sul desta área. De acordo com este capacete branco video, a refinery west of Aleppo in the village of Al Houta was bombed in 2017 by Russian airplanes, and various incidents were reported with transportation of oil.

There are also incidental reports of accidents with oil refineries in the Kurdish- controlled area of Tel Rifaat.

Clusters of oil refineries west of Aleppo

Further down on the border between the two governorates, various large clusters can be found and their use has been well documented.

As one worker described it during an interview with Irfaa Sawtak, “Hand refineries are located in the Idlib countryside, at a rate of one to three in every village or city”. This statement is not far from the truth, going by the available satellite imagery that shows that some locations indeed have at least one refinery at every village.

As with other locations, environmental health risks are rampant, as a local doctor explained in this NRT video [[[[archived]from Idlib in 2017, and other discussions over the health concerns were raised in this Halab TV broadcast on oil refineries in Idlb from 2017, as well as this Al Jazeera Arabic interview at one the location in Idlib, also in 2017.

Maara Refineries

There are particularly large clusters around the town of Maara, which is often visited by the media, while documentation from the White Helmets shows that incidents regularly take place at the refineries on the roads around this town.

Clusters of oil refinieries around Maara, on the border between Idlib and Aleppo

Sinjar Refineries

Only 15 kilometres southwest of Maara, close to the city of Saraqib, a similar pattern of refineries, spread around various villages, can be found. The majority of these refineries seem to have been constructed and operational throughout 2017, as the most recent satellite imagery from 2018 on Google Earth shows most of them as abandoned. This area was also subject of this artigo published in 2016, where a local refiner claimed that there are over 3300 refineries in the “liberated areas of Syria.”  This area was taken over by the regime in 2018, explaining why they went out of service, as local populations fled and/or had access to refined oil from regime sources.

Clusters of oil refineries around Sinjar, Aleppo, 2017.

Similar constructions with various clusters around villages were also in operation in 2017/2018 on the road southward from Abu Adh Dhuru, leading to the town of Karayya, where multiple clusters are visible as well.  Some of the refineries close to Abu Ad Dhura were allegedly also targeted by Russian warplanes in 2016

The clusters at Karayya were also bombed in 2017, according to this Step news video footage that mentioned the nearby town of Sinjar in Idlib.

Clusters of oil refineries around Karayya, 2017

Through parts of Idlib and Aleppo, smaller clusters can be found as well — at roadsides and villages, or else we spotted single refineries in backyards for domestic use, including in villages in Al Fuhayl, in the rocky hills of Kafr Nabl, and in the countryside east of Khan Assubul. These are all locations we happened to come across, but there are likely hundreds and hundreds of more locations where these toxic refineries once or still form the backbone of the much needed energy production used by civilians. Cooking fuels, transportation, and heating are all essential uses in the harsh wartime conditions.

From The Barrel To The Grave.

Summing up our findings, oil trade and refining has quickly spread throughout Syria after professional production collapsed in the wake of the conflict.

In non-regime controlled areas in particular, civilians struggled with access to fuel for cooking, transportation, and heating, and artisanal refineries quickly started spreading as a coping strategy. Oil smugglers, criminal gangs, and armed groups increasingly profited from the export of crude oil from the oil fields in eastern Syria to rebel-held Idlib and Aleppo, where local workers and displaced civilians build and operated refineries.

These backyard burners and cluster refining practices also came with an additional health impact for civilians already bearing the brunt of the bloody war.

Working day in and out, surrounded by the noxious fumes of burning oil, rubber and refined petrol, thousands of people, including many children, suffered from acute serious respiratory problems, skin problems, and infected wounds, while those with prolonged exposure could suffer from internal organ damage through accumulation of toxins in the body.

In total, we identified at least 300 clusters of makeshift oil refineries in the period of 2013-2018. At each cluster, there is at least 1 refinery, though we found clusters with 50 refineries as well.

For example, at Maara in Idlib, we placed roughly 40 points, and counted 150 refineries. So taking 5 refineries per points as a minimum gives us a total of at least 1500 refineries as the lower estimate. Given the fact that at some locations there are substantially more refineries, and the fact that we very likely missed many refineries due to outdated or absent imagery, a more accurate estimate is likely to be around 5000 refineries.

This estimate covers all refineries that have been built, though it should be noted that not all have been used at the same time. In some locations, we witnessed the construction and later abandonment of these refineries, most of the times associated with recapture of the area by regime troops, due to targeting by airstrikes or other military activities, or else due to reasons unknown.

With the large number of refineries that once were or still are operational, this means thousands of civilians, including many children and teenagers, have seen prolonged exposure to hazardous substances and noxious fumes, which could have long-term health complications.

Numerous incidents have been reported of people dying from exploding barrels but also casualties from airstrikes against these oil targets by Russian and Syrian warplanes. We still have to arrive at a better understanding of how the local environment is affected by the oil waste products that polluted local water sources and soils, as this could seriously hamper post-conflict living and working conditions for local communities.

Proper documentation of this type of conflict pollution is needed to minimize the health and environmental risks to civilians. We have demonstrated  that a head start can be made with open-source investigation and the use of remote sensing to identify both the specific locations and the magnitude of this phenomenon.

The findings should spur inclusion of these risks in humanitarian and medical response policies, and, at a later stage, in post-conflict remediation and reconstruction efforts, as was also recommended by UN Environmental Assembly resolutions and recent informal debates in the UN Security Council on environment, peace and security.

This article could not have been written without the valuable help of Samir @obretix who provided information air strikes, transport routes and geo-locations of refineries, to Noor Nahas @NoorNahas1 for video footage and translation, to Maha Yassin @MahaalGhareeb for translation and Yifang Shi for QGIS support


Paula Fonseca