Terry H. Schwadron
Oct. 30, 2019
Donald Trump has made it plain: We’re keeping troops in southeast Syria rather than withdrawing them, as he said last week, to protect oil fields.
Sending our mechanized military to protect oil fields raises troubling questions. The moves embody the continuing stereotype that we’re in the Middle East only to get the oil.
We ignore responsibility to protect Kurdish allies and any rights to a homeland, but we’re happy to protect oil wells that seem dilapidated and, by most measures, pretty tiny. One estimate this week was that Syria produces fewer barrels of oil a year than Illinois.
Of course, the reason we need to protect the oil fields is because Trump pulled U.S. troops away from northern Syria, abandoning Kurdish allies to invading Turkish military invasion and clearing efforts. Before this, we apparently didn’t need to protect oil fields.
Repeatedly this week, Trump has argued that we need to keep any oil revenues away from ISIS terrorists, and also from Russian, Syrian, Iranian or other claims. He is willing to share the revenue from oil wells with Kurdish allies — now displaced Kurdish allies — but he was unabashed in suggesting that the United States actually owns the oil.
“We are leaving soldiers to secure the oil,” Trump told reporters after the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi this week. “And we may have to fight for the oil. It’s OK. Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case they have a hell of a fight. But there’s massive amounts of oil.”
Nevertheless, experts are telling news outlets that there is not much oil there — and what there is belongs to the Syrian government. As NPR reported, the idea of controlling the oil fields is one that has long appealed to Trump. And it may provide a rationale for maintaining a U.S. military presence in Syria, reversing the president’s promise of a full withdrawal. Trump has argued that the U.S. should seize Middle Eastern oil fields to recoup some of the cost of its military operations in the region — an idea that experts say violates international law and would only fuel criticism of American intentions.
In the best of times Syria produced only about 380,000 barrels of low-quality oil per day. And production has fallen more than 90% during the country’s long civil war. Last year, Syria ranked 75th among countries in the world in oil production, with a daily output comparable to that of the state of Illinois.
Energy expert Daniel Yergin of IHS Markit has explained that the oil “was very important to the (President Bashar) al-Assad regime before the civil war because it produced 25% of the total government revenues.”
Trump has floated the idea of modernizing Syria’s productive capacity with help from a major oil company. “What I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an Exxon Mobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly,” he said.
Various energy experts have said that undertaking such a project, even under peaceful times, would require hundreds of millions of dollars.
More importantly, there are political suggestions that the whole oil story has started appearing in Trump’s thinking because he is being fed that information by people who favor keeping U.S. troops in Syria and in the Middle East.
Indeed, the arguments abound that the raid against al-Baghdadi could not have occurred if U.S. troops had been fully withdrawn, as Trump had announced a week ago. Trump seems unconcerned, if not unaware, that the military job of protecting oil fields involves a very different group of soldiers and skills than held by those commandos who raided the al-Baghdadi complex and eliminated the ISIS leader.
The legal and diplomatic concerns ahead for oil are deep and complicated; Trump’s assertions are inadequate to date to explain how the United States should maintain control over oil fields in another country, and why legally the United States should be the force deciding who will benefit from any oil revenues.
If and when ISIS regroups, it may target the oil fields for the revenue, reported Time magazine. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said U.S. troops are defending Syria’s oil fields in order to keep ISIS from regaining control of them. “If ISIS has access to the resources, and therefore the means to procure arms or to buy fighters or whatever else they do, then it means it makes it more difficult to defeat ISIS,” he said. Leaving some troops behind to help defend the oil fields while pulling others out elsewhere could be Trump’s way to try to achieve his isolationist goals while avoiding an ISIS renaissance, experts say.
Just for context here, the president also has said he will deploy 2,800 troops to Saudi Arabia to help protect oil fields from Iranian missiles. There was no explanation of what exactly these troops would do or how long they would be deployed, just that Saudi Arabia would be paying for the deployment as if our army is for rent. But there was no expression that the United States should control Saudi oil.
I’m left thinking that this president values oil over people, that he wants U.S. isolation over foreign involvements — unless it includes oil, and that all strategy is situational and need not make any logical sense.