Why Are Russian Engineers Working at an Islamic State-Controlled Gas Plant in Syria?

Officially, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and his Russian allies are at war against the Islamic State. But a gas facility in northern Syria under the control of the jihadi group is evidence that business links between the Syrian regime and the Islamic State persist. According to Turkish officials and Syrian rebels, it is also the site of cooperation between the Islamic State and a Russian energy company with ties to President Vladimir Putin.

The Tuweinan gas facility, which is located roughly 60 miles southwest of the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, is the largest such facility in Syria. It was built by Russian construction company Stroytransgaz, which is owned by billionaire Gennady Timchenko, a close associate of Putin. . . .

A senior Turkish official said that after its seizure, Stroytransgaz, through its subcontractor Hesco, continued the facility’s construction with the Islamic State’s permission. He also claimed that Russian engineers have been working at the facility to complete the project.

Syrian state-run newspaper Tishreen published a report appearing to corroborate this claim. In January 2014, after the facility was captured by the Islamic State, the paper cited Syrian government sources, saying that Stroytransgaz had completed 80 percent of the project and expected to hand over the facility to the regime during the second half of the year. The article didn’t mention that the facility was under the control of the Islamic State.

According to David Butter, an associate fellow at London-based Chatham House, who has seen a letter written by George Haswani explaining the details of the project, the facility’s first phase of production started towards the end of 2014, and it became fully operational during 2015. “Some of the natural gas goes to the Aleppo power station, which operates under the Islamic State’s protection, and the remainder is pumped to Homs and Damascus,” he said.

Abu Khalid said that Russian engineers still work at the facility, and Haswani brokered a deal with the Islamic State and the regime for mutually beneficial gas production from the facility. “IS allowed the Russian company to send engineers and crew in return for a big share in the gas and extortion money,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State and attributing the information to Syrian rebel commanders fighting the Islamic State in the area. “Employees of the Russian company were changing their shifts via a military base in Hama governorate.”

Haswani has rejected the Treasury Department’s allegations that he worked as a middle man in oil deals between the Islamic State and the Assad regime. But he has never denied Hesco’s continued work on the gas facility after the Islamic State captured it.