By Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT (Reuters) - In Syria's eastern province of Deir al-Zor, a network of tribes and smugglers has exploited the chaos of war to create an illicit oil trade that makes European hopes of buying crude from President Bashar al-Assad's opponents a distant prospect.
Powerful Sunni Muslim tribes have deployed armed fighters around oil production facilities and pipelines that have fallen under their control and set up smuggling and trade deals, according to sources in the province including rebels, an oil company employee and people with ties to the tribes.
Deir al-Zor is critical to Syrian oil output that has more than halved in the past two years of fighting. The hijacking of the oil industry by tribes complicates Western efforts to help the Syrian opposition fund itself and will make any future reconstruction even more difficult.
"Each tribe now is in control of at least a part of an oil field, it depends how big it is and how many fighters it can deploy," said the state oil firm employee who gave his name as Abu Ramzi.
As well as production facilities, tribal fighters had seized control of pipelines, often drilling into them to extract oil.
Thousands of barrels of crude are smuggled to Turkey daily by small tankers using farm roads, said Abu Ramzi. The oil is taken to the Bab al-Hawa or Tal Abiad border posts, a source close to the smugglers in Deir al-Zor said. The price of a barrel depends on the quality of the crude oil and the cost of transport - the shorter the trip the cheaper - but it could be 8,000 Syrian pounds, slightly over $50, he said.
In recent weeks, some wealthy smugglers have begun using "mobile refineries" stationed on trucks to process crude into fuel and other products. Costing up to $230,000, a medium sized mobile plant can refine up to 200 barrels a day. Fuel smuggled into Turkey sells for roughly 50 percent more than in Syria.
Western-backed rebel commanders, who the European Union hoped would benefit from last month's EU decision to allow the purchase of oil from the Syrian opposition, concede they have little immediate prospect of winning a share of the trade.
The power of the tribes in the deeply conservative and traditional east of the country, and the fact that they have fighters in many of the different rebel brigades, makes tribal leaders almost untouchable. The patchwork of tribes and fragmented opposition are complicating Western efforts to find an effective response to the crisis in Syria.
The other force in the region is the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which has reached an understanding with the tribes over the division of spoils, sources say. The Nusra Front has used its profits to buy more weapons and pay its fighters.
The Western-backed rebel military command fears that any attempt to take control of the oil fields would trigger a bloody confrontation and create a lasting cycle of tribal revenge.
Its immediate priority is to take over the city of Deir al-Zor before dealing with those it calls the "oil thieves" - an emerging class of warlords linked by oil, money and arms.
"This is very difficult, people now have tasted money and also tasted the power that comes with it. They will not give up without a fight," said a rebel commander.
"The rebels do not want to clash with anyone right now. It is a tribal province and anything could backfire against the rebels - who themselves are sons of tribes."
Some rebel sources said their commanders had made contact with some tribes, seeking to convince them to share a percentage of their profits. So far the talks have been fruitless. "We can not get close to it without blood, let's be realistic," one source in the rebel command said via Skype.
Another source close to one of the strongest tribes in the area said the collapse of central authority after two years of conflict in Syria had allowed the tribes to become increasingly organized and powerful. "These people will not allow anybody to touch the pipelines," he said.
There are at least 11 oil fields in Deir al-Zor province - the largest of them, al-Thayem just 6 km (four miles) from the provincial capital of Deir al-Zor city, which lies on the Euphrates River upstream of the border with Iraq.
As Assad's forces retreated in recent months and rebel brigades focused on trying to take Deir al-Zor city, powerful tribal sheikhs stepped in to fill the security vacuum.
Gradually the tribes began taking over the oil wells. With the presence of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in Turkey, it was easy to establish contact with Turkish businessmen. Soon, the tribes had control of the provincial oil firm too.
Other tribes joined in. Smaller ones formed alliances to compete with bigger ones. Dozens of fighters were deployed around oil sites and vehicles mounted with guns - or even stolen tanks - were stationed to guard the new sources of wealth.
The government still has a foothold in the area. Assad's forces control the city of Deir al-Zor and most of al-Thayem oil field. Some oil is still pumped hundreds of miles to the west to the government-controlled Banias refinery on the Mediterranean.
In the three decades of oil production in Deir al-Zor, residents of the mostly desert province say they saw few benefits and continued to make a living from agriculture.
"Now that the government is no longer present here, the oil returned to us - but only briefly because it has been confiscated by thugs, gunmen and tribes," said a resident who only gave his first name, Mazen.
That bitterness is echoed by people who have lost privileges they enjoyed under government rule, only to see men with guns and tribal connections grow wealthy.
"Some are so rich now that they are saving up their money in bags. Some have billions of Syrian pounds. Their luck has changed. You have people who went to bed as a poor vegetable seller and woke up rich oil smugglers."
For others, the prospect of growing rich has eclipsed earlier talk of toppling Assad. Some are buying houses, land, others are taking a second wife.
"It is all selfishness. The revolution vanished in Deir al-Zor since we tasted the oil, it is a curse," said a commander who heads one of the main rebel brigades in the province.
The illicit oil business has a direct health impact too, residents say. The primitive distillation tanks which have sprouted across the province create a blanket of black smoke over villages, causing breathing problems.
A resident called Nour said that some people are burning the oil to refine it. "There are many diseases appearing. Some people are now covered with boils. They do not wear anything for protection, they even smoke cigarettes while they are doing it."
(Editing by Dominic Evans and Janet McBride)