Official: Environmental Concerns Kept U.S. from Attacking Islamic State Oil

AFP/Ministry of defence of the Russian Federation
Russian airstrike on ISIS oil terminal in Syria (AFP/Ministry of defence of the Russian Federation)

Environmental concerns, along with worry about the fortunes of Syrian civilians after ISIS is gone, kept the Obama administration from striking Islamic State oil targets, claims former CIA director Michael Morell.

When the U.S. joined Russia in bombing Islamic State oil convoys a few weeks ago, many wondered why the Islamic State’s lucrative oil resources were not previously attacked, as part of President Obama’s prolonged strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. This was especially puzzling because the Islamic State is known to rely heavily on petro-dollars for its financing.

One of the reasons was provided at a Pentagon briefing last week by spokesman Col. Steve Warren, who explained that airstrikes against ISIS oil convoys have been limited because the U.S. government doesn’t want to injure the truck drivers.

Col. Warren outlined a successful operation in Al-Bukamal, where he estimated that 116 tanker trucks had been destroyed, seriously damaging the Islamic State’s ability to move its oil. “This is our first strike against tanker trucks, and to minimize risks to civilians, we conducted a leaflet drop prior to the strike,” he explained. “We did a show of force, by — we had aircraft essentially buzz the trucks at low altitude.”

He even had a copy of the leaflet to show reporters. It said, simply, “Get out of your trucks now, and run away from them. Warning: airstrikes are coming. Oil trucks will be destroyed. Get away from your oil trucks immediately. Do not risk your life.”

Later in the briefing, in response to a reporter’s question, Warren admitted that strikes against other elements of the Islamic State’s oil infrastructure had been “minimally effective.” It was not easy for commanders to decide that hitting the oil trucks was necessary. “We have not struck these trucks before,” he conceded. “We assessed that these trucks, while although they are being used for operations that support ISIL, the truck drivers, themselves, [are] probably not members of ISIL; they’re probably just civilians. So we had to figure out a way around that. We’re not in this business to kill civilians, we’re in this business to stop ISIL.”

On Tuesday, another piece of the puzzle fell into place, when Morell told Charlie Rose of PBS that environmental concerns, along with worry about the fortunes of Syrian civilians after ISIS is gone, kept the administration from striking oil targets.

“We didn’t go after oil wells, actually hitting oil wells that ISIS controls, because we didn’t want to do environmental damage, and we didn’t want to destroy that infrastructure,” said Morell, as transcribed by The Hill.

“There seemed to have been a judgment that, look, we don’t want to destroy these oil tankers because that’s infrastructure that’s going to be necessary to support the people when ISIS isn’t there anymore, and it’s going to create environmental damage,” he added.

According to Morell, those priorities were re-evaluated after the Paris terror attacks. “So now we’re hitting oil trucks, and maybe you get to the point where you say, we also have to hit oil wells,” he said.

In other words, the administration’s theories about “containing” the Islamic State died on the streets of Paris.

Combined with domestic political pressure from Republican candidates contemptuous of President Obama’s ineffective strategy, these international pressures are forcing the administration to take ISIS enemies seriously for the first time. Until now, President Obama has treated them as a political annoyance to be managed. The downing of Russia’s Metrojet passenger plane in Egypt, which Morell described in another interview as adding to “the perception that ISIS is winning,” might have been enough to force a reassessment. Paris made it impossible to avoid.


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