On October 6, President Donald Trump announced that U.S. troops were withdrawing from Syria, giving a green light to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to begin an offensive against Kurdish forces across the border.
The news caught his generals, senior policy-makers, and the American public by surprise, to say nothing of U.S. allies in Syria, including the Kurds who would now be exposed to attack from Turkish forces.
But on October 23, the plan for an immediate withdrawal was altered.
A few hundred U.S. troops would remain in Syria, positioned near the area of Deir al-Zour, what the President has referred to as Syria’s “oil region.”
While the President has indicated his hope that Kurds displaced by the Turkish invasion of Syria will re-settle in the “oil region,” the U.S. motivation for re-positioning in Syria seems a tad more mercenary.
“We’ve secured the oil,” Trump said on October 23. “And we’re going to be protecting it, and we’ll be deciding what we’re going to do with it in the future.”
Why is the United States interested in “securing” Syrian oil?
Syria has reserves of about 2.5 billion barrels, while the fields around Deir al-Zour make up about 50 percent of Syrian production. In 2010, before civil war broke out, Syria produced 400,000 barrels per day (bpd). For the United States, now currently producing 12.5 million bpd, this is a drop in the bucket—the Bakken Formation of North Dakota holds twice as much as oil as Syria.
Pentagon officials have cited strategic reasons for “securing” Syrian oil, tied to the fight against ISIS. The terrorist group once controlled Syria’s oil-producing regions and used revenue from oil to fund its operations. Positioning U.S. forces near the fields and drawing on support from the Kurds would ensure that a resurgent ISIS would not succeed in recapturing the fields. It would also give retreating Kurdish forces, who were instrumental in the fight against ISIS, a place upon which to fall back, as Turkish and Syrian forces overrun areas formerly held by Kurdish troops.
“It is time,” tweeted the President, “for Kurds to start heading to the Oil Region.”
But fighting ISIS was not the justification used to convince the President to retain U.S. forces in Syria. Senator Lindsay Graham, a staunch supporter of the President who nevertheless criticized the decision to withdraw, showed Trump a map of Syria outlining the country’s oil resources. The President, who has long been skeptical of the U.S. mission in Syria, was convinced to maintain a presence there based on Graham’s arguments that Syrian oil could fall into the hands of Iran.
“I didn’t want to go into Iraq,” said President Trump during a meeting of his Cabinet on October 21. “But I always said, ‘If you’re going in, keep the oil.’ Same thing here: Keep the oil. We want to keep the oil.”
The President went on to say: “Maybe we’ll get one of our big oil companies to go in and do it properly.”
But apart from posing immense—and probably insurmountable—logistical problems, “taking the oil” violates international law.
Exploiting the resources of a sovereign nation—in this case, the Republic of Syria—without the consent of the government constitutes confiscation of national assets and is considered a war crime according to The Hague Regulations of 1907, the Fourth Geneva Conventions, and the 1996 US War Crimes Act prohibiting “pillage.”
Not only would it be physically challenging for the United States to extract Syrian oil, it would be illegal, unless the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad agreed to such an arrangement.
Allowing revenue from the oil to fund the Kurds, who are expected to assist the U.S. in securing the fields are Deir el-Zour, also poses some tricky legal questions. Under ISIS, the oil was sold through black market deals in small amounts—between 34,000 and 40,000 bpd at prices of $20-$45 per barrel.
The Kurds, who are the Middle East’s largest ethnic minority, are already in the oil business in northern Iraq, where the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) operates as a semi-autonomous enclave within the Republic of Iraq. Oil is sold through a complex and occasionally fraught process involving the Kurdish regional government and Baghdad.
Kurdish groups in Syria will likely hope to sell their oil through legal channels, though they will be in a considerably weaker position than their compatriots in Iraq, who were forced to fall back from the oil-city of Kirkuk in November 2017 after a confrontation with the Iraqi government.
If the Kurds in Syria hope to profit from this “secured” oil, they will need to come to some understanding with Damascus—and given the Kurdish weakness in the wake of the Turkish invasion, the terms of such a deal would not be favorable.
It’s unclear how these contradictions will be resolved. Turkish President Erdogan has come to an understanding with Assad’s ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, on how to divide northern Syria once the Kurds are pushed out. Even with a few hundred U.S. troops in the area, it’s unlikely that Assad or his allies will permit the Kurds to retain control over Syrian oil—while relatively small, the fields of Deir al-Zour constitute a major source of revenue for a Syrian government now in the early stages of rebuilding the war-torn country.
A determined stand by the U.S. would possibly deter Assad, Putin, and Erdogan. But it would put the U.S. on very shaky legal ground. The small number of troops present near the oil fields would be vulnerable to attack. Russian-backed Syrian troops attempted to seize Deir al-Zour back in July 2018, and Turkey has already shown a willingness to threaten American troops despite being a member of NATO.
The President hopes to “take the oil,” while still keeping his promise to withdraw from Syria. But this latest move threatens to make a chaotic, complicated situation even worse—with potentially disastrous consequences, both for the United States and its few remaining allies in Syria.