Six months ago in Funding The Syrian Insurgency I noted the conflict in northeast Syria regarding control of the oil fields. Those wishing to understand the importance of the connection between insurgency and the illicit networks that fund them should look at Paul Collier & Anke Hoeffler’s Greed & Grievance in Civil Wars (pdf).
Today I noticed Insight: War turns Syria into major amphetamines producer, consumer, which reveals an interesting set of interlocking issues. The trade itself is apparently producing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, providing income for both the government and rebel forces, as well as fueling the duration and intensity of street battles.
I have more digging to do before I can make any sort of sensible characterization of what is happening. This post is going to be an inventory of what I believe to be relevant, and it will likely be rather disjoint.
Five months ago I wrote Yemen’s Food & Water Crisis. Residents of the Horn of Africa and the Saudi Peninsula use khat, a mild stimulant that is consumed by chewing the fresh green leaves of the plant. Khat is a thirsty but profitable crop, being grown at the expense of food production in Yemen.
Khat’s active ingredient, cathionone, breaks down within about 48 hours after harvest, so the leaves must be chewed when fresh. The methylated form of this naturally occurring compound has similar effects to methamphetamine and it is a small but dangerous component of the overall stimulant abuse problem in the rural U.S. The Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula have a cultural norm of consuming a stimulant somewhat stronger than coffee, an entry point for more dangerous substances, such as methamphetamine dressed up to look like the milder Captagon, or phenethylline, a popular drug in the region.
Bulk methamphetamine production requires the availability of ammonia, the world’s most common industrial chemical. We make around 140 million tons a year globally, 30% with hydrogen from natural gas, mostly in the west, and 70% using hydrogen from coal. This is a value added product produced using stranded gas pools, notably in Trinidad in this hemisphere, formerly in Punta Arenas, and U.S. ammonia plants have been shut down, packed up, and reassembled in natural gas rich Qatar. Ammonia is easier to transport than compressed or liquified natural gas.
Syria has two large nitrogen production facilities located at the same geographic location, near Homs. Although the link providing the coordinates is about sulphuric acid production, other sources indicate this is also an ammonia production facility. Ammonia is a precursor for ammonium sulfate and a plant that first extracted sulfur from petroleum coke, then gasified it to make hydrogen would be a normal setup near an oil refinery. The nearby water source is also consistent – ammonia plants produce large volumes of low grade heat that is discarded via water fed cooling towers.
General Fertilizer Company Plant, Homs, Syria
General Fertilizer Company, Homs, Syria
The United States banned ammonium nitrate sales after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. This chemical is still our most common fertilizer, but it’s delivered as a solution known as UAN, urea/ammonium nitrate, which is not usable as a component of explosives. The other delivery methods are as anhydrous ammonia, a cryogenic liquid and as urea alone, a water activated solid. Lesser amounts of ammonium phosphate and ammonium sulfate are used when soils need these elements as well as nitrogen.
The link between ammonium nitrate, agriculture, and insurgency produced explosives is a fairly intractable problem. Smallholders in developing countries don’t have the infrastructure to handle liquid UAN, let alone a cryogenic gas. They need nitrogen fertilizer in a bagged form. Urea is a solid, but it has to be applied just before or during rain in order for it to work. This doesn’t work in relatively arid places, so ammonium nitrate is still the solid fertilizer of choice. Producers have attempted to address this issue by making calcium ammonium nitrate, but recovering ammonium nitrate from it is a fairly simple chemical reaction.
That is what I think I know, here are some “known unknowns” that would help sharpen the overall analysis if they can be resolved.
- Is Homs indeed the site of Syria’s in-country nitrogen production?
- Who controls the plant? The Homs area? Who is in a position to divert ammonia?
- Based on the Reuters article, global Captagon consumption is 21 tons. A tiny ammonia plant will produce a hundred tons a day.
- How much, if any, of the plant’s output is ammonium nitrate?
The last point is important. There are many reports of Syrian regime helicopters dropping ‘barrel bombs’. These are 55 gallon drums, old water heaters, or lengths of iron pipe. The first video shows a string of devices employing parachutes to retard their fall. This is sometimes employed to permit a low flying aircraft to escape a large blast, but I believe this might be a strategy to reduce the failure rate of these hastily constructed IEDs, which use improvised impact fuses.
The second video shows a large blast that begins with a rolling cloud of flame and smoke. Hollywood dramatizes action sequences by using incendiary charges in place of actual high explosives, which often look like this, but high explosives don’t cause effects like this unless they hit something that has a liquid fuel supply. If the regime is making ammonium nitrate/fuel oil bombs and they’re adjusting the mixture for incendiary as well as blast effects, the use of incendiaries against civilian populations is a war crime.
Syria’s civil war has been understood in the west as conflict between the following:
- Alawite/Shiite versus Sunni
- Assad regime versus the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
- Former Soviet client state versus western friendly nations
While those three are all somewhat true, the missing component is the haves versus the have nots. People who are treated unfairly protest, if they’re starved as well they will engage in open revolt against the administration that is failing to meet their minimum needs.
Syrian Wheat Outlook on 12/8/2012 was my first inspection of agriculture in the country. Seven months later the New York Times provided information that led to Syrian Wheat Becomes Strategic. Food security in the country is a complex issue, but if you can only watch a single metric, wheat availability, price, and quality are a good proxy.
Attempting to stop thousands of foreign fighters by direct attack is the most destructive strategy of all for Syria. Stopping the flow of arms and explosives into the country, as well as interdicting the repurposing of domestic fertilizer into explosives attacks the problem at a lower level.
If the region’s entire Captagon habit were supplanted by methamphetamine it would only require one tenth of the daily production from a tiny ammonia plant to fill the requirement. If the diversion of ammonia is happening and it can be pinched off at the source this defunds a portion of the conflict.
The most likely entity that could protect an ammonia production source and divert a portion of it to drug production is … the Assad regime. If it were a rebel facility and pair of helicopters dropping a string of those parachute bombs would easily disable it.
It is functionally impossible to separate the production of food and the making of IEDs in arid regions where production depends on smallholders using bagged fertilizer. Ponder that concept while I go off and dig deeper into Syrian agriculture.