The Fuse

No, You Can’t Simply “Take the Oil”

September 12, 2016

Guest Post by Matthew M. Reed | @matthewmreed

Matthew M. Reed is Vice President of Foreign Reports, Inc., a Washington, DC-based consulting firm focused on oil and politics in the Middle East.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says he’ll “cut the head off ISIS and take their oil.” More recently, during an interview with Matt Lauer, Trump argued that the U.S. should have taken the oil years ago—presumably Iraq’s—because it would have prevented ISIS from capturing it later. To Trump, the businessman-turned-politician, the Iraq invasion was a bad deal. Most Americans agree with him on that. However, the practical, legal, and moral hurdles involved in “taking the oil” then and now make his campaign promise laughable.

Trump isn’t arguing to re-invade Iraq. Instead, he laments the fact that the U.S. wasn’t paid handsomely for removing a dictator, when the mission cost thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars.

Trump isn’t arguing to re-invade Iraq. Instead, he laments the fact that the U.S. wasn’t paid handsomely for removing a dictator, when the mission cost thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars. Being paid for an invasion sounds like nonsense but it actually happened in 1990-91 when the U.S. led a coalition to liberate Kuwait. Leading up to Desert Storm, former Secretary of State Jim Baker secured $15 billion each from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to finance the war effort. (See his memoir: Politics of Diplomacy, pp. 288-91.) The difference then was that America’s closest regional allies were totally on board with the campaign whereas in 2003 some had serious reservations.

Remember that the U.S. expected Iraq’s oil exports to finance post-war reconstruction—a costly 8-year occupation was never part of the plan. Also remember that Iraq’s oil sector was a leaky disaster long after 2003 because of chronic underinvestment and a decade plus of crippling sanctions. It wasn’t until 2009 that Iraq got its act together and finally signed deals for major projects raising production above 2-2.5 million b/d. And it wasn’t until after 2010, and most remarkably in 2015, that those investments started paying off and Iraqi volumes rose sharply. All this is to say that the country’s oil output was modest before U.S. forces departed the country in 2011. It only soared after the U.S. left and billions of dollars was invested by foreign companies.

When asked how exactly he would take the oil, Trump said on September 7 that he’d rely on subcontractors in hostile territory: “We would leave a certain group behind and you would take various sections where they have the oil,” he told Lauer. There’s no reason to believe the Iraqis would allow this. No country would. Instead, the government would call on foreign courts to intervene; the population would protest and violence would be unavoidable. Seeing as Iraq’s oil infrastructure is a sprawling network, vulnerable and almost entirely above-ground, it can’t possibly be protected on the cheap or exploited without local consent. Consider also the moral costs of taking this oil: to do so then would have proven conspiracy theorists right about American intentions and destroyed what little credibility the U.S. had; to deny Baghdad vital revenues would have only increased public suffering, making the country even riper for insurgents like ISIS.

If Trump thinks that taking oil from Iraq a decade ago would have prevented ISIS from capturing it later he is wrong.

If Trump thinks that taking oil from Iraq a decade ago would have prevented ISIS from capturing it later he is wrong. The vast majority of ISIS-controlled oil sits across the border in Syria, where for a time the group produced tens of thousands of barrels every day. Production there is way down thanks to relentless U.S. airstrikes going back two years. The fact remains ISIS never produced that much oil in northern Iraq. Regardless, ISIS would have made a fortune in Syria no matter what. To this day it earns money from taxes, trade and simple theft.

Taking oil from ISIS, as promised, would require physically capturing territory inside Syria, where countless factions are fighting for territory and resources. The only way to do that decisively is with American boots on the ground. Who else could be trusted? Before ISIS, the Assad regime controlled Syria’s oil and gas. Since the civil war broke out in 2011 the country’s resources have served the agenda of whichever faction controlled the oil wells, be it the Kurds, local Arab tribes, or extremists like Al Qaeda and ISIS.

Under these hypothetical circumstances, the government in Damascus, like the one in Baghdad, would claim those resources in courts around the world, where it would try to prevent other countries from importing what it considered stolen oil. Baghdad has experience contesting imports by U.S. refiners (see this case from 2014). There’s no reason to believe even U.S. courts would give the green light, seeing as they usually defer to foreign courts on constitutional matters. Both the Syrian and Iraqi constitutions define hydrocarbons as state-owned. This begs the absurd question: Where and how would you sell this disputed oil?

This begs the absurd question: Where and how would you sell this disputed oil?

Taking oil from Syria is impossible for other reasons, first among them is the devastating success of American airstrikes, the pace of which accelerated this summer. There’s no easy outlet for Syrian oil either. ISIS sells it by the truckload to locals and to the Assad regime and all pipelines go west to regime territory. The cost and risk of such an endeavor can’t be overstated. Like Iraq after 2003, it will take many, many years to rehabilitate infrastructure—and that’s only after the civil war ends, whenever that may be. Like Iraq, billions of dollars will have to be invested.

Cutting the head off ISIS remains a sensible and achievable goal but if you want to make money from Syrian oil nowadays you’d be better off boxing up the industry and selling its parts as scrap metal.

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