BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels firing mortars and rocket-propelled grenades captured an oilfield in the country's east on Sunday after three days of fierce fighting with government troops protecting the facility, activists said.
The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said rebels overran the Al-Ward oilfield in the province of Deir el-Zour near the border with Iraq early Sunday. About 40 soldiers were guarding the facility that the rebels had been pounding for the past three days, he said, adding that opposition fighters also captured several regime troops.
Oil was a major source of revenue for the cash-strapped regime of President Bashar Assad before the European Union and the United States imposed an embargo on Syria's crude exports last year to punish the government for its brutal crackdown on protesters early on in the uprising.
"This field used to supply the regime with fuel for its tanks and our aim was to stop these supplies," Omar Abu Leila, an activist in Deir el-Zour, told The Associated Press by telephone. He said there was heavy fighting recently near the oil facility that is located just east of the city of Mayadin.
Both activists said the rebels shot down a fighter jet near the oil field Sunday. It was not clear if the warplane was taking part in fighting in the area.
Abu Leila said that the oilfield had been functioning up until shortly before the rebels seized it. It was not clear whether the facility was damaged in the fighting or sabotaged by regime forces.
Analysts say the rebels would not benefit economically from capturing the oil filed, although the opposition's latest conquest could reduce crude supplies available to the government.
"It's another blow to Assad in terms of ... the oil available to him," said Robin Mills, head of consulting at Manaar Energy Consulting & Project Management in Dubai. The capturing of Al Ward is largely symbolic, Mills added. The rebels face serious challenges getting much — if any — of the captured oil to the market since the main export pipeline along the Mediterranean coast remains under government control.
"I don't see how they can export the oil that way," Mills said. "And even if they could, I don't see that anyone would pick up that oil."
In the past year, Syrian officials have repeatedly accused rebel units of targeting the country's infrastructure, including blowing up oil and gas pipelines in the energy-rich northeast of the country.
Syria exported some 150,000 barrels of oil a day before European and U.S. imposed sanctions took effect. In 2010, it earned $4.4 billion by selling to EU countries alone.
The uprising against Assad started with peaceful demonstrations in March last year, but has since morphed into a bloody civil war. Activists say more than 36,000 people have been killed in 19 months of fighting.