WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has offered several justifications for an American withdrawal from Syria. He has dismissed the country as nothing but “sand and death,” discounted its U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters as “no angels,” and argued that he is winding down “endless wars.”
But in recent days, Trump has settled on Syria’s oil reserves as a new rationale for appearing to reverse course and deploy hundreds of additional troops to the war-ravaged country. He has declared that the United States has “secured” oil fields in the country’s chaotic northeast and suggested that the seizure of the country’s main natural resource justifies America further extending its military presence there.
“We’ve secured the oil,” Trump told reporters last week at the White House, before reminding them of how, during the Iraq War, he called for selling off Iraq’s oil to defray the conflict’s enormous cost.
“I always said, if you’re going in — keep the oil,” he said. “Same thing here: Keep the oil.”
Speaking again at the White House on Friday, Trump said he had done precisely that in Syria. “We’ve secured the oil,” the president told reporters. “We have a lot of oil.”
Trump’s message is puzzling to former government officials and Middle East analysts who say that controlling Syria’s oil fields — which are the legal property of the Syrian government — poses numerous practical, legal and political obstacles.
They also warn that Trump’s discourse, which revives language he often used during the 2016 campaign to widespread condemnation, could confirm the world’s worst suspicions about U.S. motives in the region. A Russian Defense Ministry official on Saturday denounced Trump’s action as “state banditry.”
“He has a short notebook of old pledges, and this was one of the most frequently repeated pledges during the campaign: that we were going to take the oil,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who served as a Middle East adviser to several presidents. “And now he actually is in a position where he can quote, take some oil.”
Pentagon officials said on Friday that the United States would deploy several hundred troops to guard oil fields in eastern Syria, despite Trump’s repeated boasts that he is bringing American soldiers home from Syria. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that the United States would “maintain a reduced presence in Syria to deny ISIS access to oil revenue,” leaving what military officials said would be about 500 troops in the country, down from about 2,000 a year ago.
Trump first spoke approvingly about the United States seizing foreign oil in April 2011, when he complained about President Barack Obama’s troop withdrawal from Iraq. “I would take the oil,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal. “I would not leave Iraq and let Iran take the oil.”
He elaborated in an interview with ABC News a few days later. “In the old days, you know, when you had a war, to the victor belong the spoils,” he said. “You go in. You win the war and you take it.”
That year, Trump endorsed the United States seizing oil reserves not only in Iraq, but also in Libya, where Obama had recently intervened in the country’s civil war. “I would just go in and take the oil,” he told Fox News. “We’re a bunch of babies. We have wars and we leave. We go in, we have wars, we lose lives, we lose money, and we leave.”
Once he took office, Trump largely dropped the idea until recently, when it re-emerged after his widely criticized decision to remove U.S. troops from northeastern Syria who had been helping Kurdish militias battle the remnants of the Islamic State in the region. The move effectively gave Turkey a greenlight to invade the area and push back those Kurds, whom the Turks viewed as a threat to their security.
His change in thinking follows multiple conversations with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who talks frequently with the president and has long pushed for a greater U.S. presence in Syria, for reasons like fighting the Islamic State in the region and checking the influence of Russia and Iran.
Trump has also consulted on the subject with the former Army vice chief of staff, Jack Keane, who visited the White House in mid-October and showed the president a map of Syria illustrating that 70% of the country’s oil fields are in areas in the northeast that have been under U.S. control. Keane, who declined to comment, has also warned that the oil fields risk falling into the hands of Iranian proxies in the region.
Graham, too, contends that U.S. control of the oil fields would “deny Iran and Assad a monetary windfall,” as he put it in a statement last week.
But Graham has taken the argument a step further, to suggest that Syrian oil could go into American coffers, as Trump once implied for Iraq. “We can also use some of the revenue from oil sales to pay for our military commitment in Syria,” Graham added.
Last week, Trump offered a variation on that idea, saying that “we’ll work something out with the Kurds so that they have some money, they have some cash flow.” He added that he might “get one of our big oil companies to go in and do it properly.”
But energy and security experts say it is unlikely that any American companies would be interested in the enormous risks and limited profits such an arrangement would entail. Even at its peak, Syrian oil production was modest. And any short-term revenue potential is severely limited by logistical challenges posed by infrastructure damaged by war, pipelines that run into unfriendly areas and the unusually low grade of the oil itself.
Talk of monetizing the Syrian oil also diverges from the message of top Trump administration officials, including Esper, who said last week that the U.S. mission in Syria was unchanged from its original purpose of defeating the Islamic State.
But the president has repeatedly boasted that the militant group has already been defeated. And although ISIS currently controls no territory, and is little threat to the oil reserves, experts warn that it could regenerate.
Framing control of oil as part of the fight against ISIS, however, may provide cover for an action motivated, at least in part, for reasons that analysts say have no basis in domestic or international law.
“Esper is being very careful to say this is about ISIS. And that’s because the legality is being framed around ISIS,” said Aaron Stein, an expert on Syria and Turkey with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
When the Obama administration sent troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State several years ago, it relied on the authorization of military force passed by Congress days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which gave the government broad authority to battle al-Qaida and affiliated groups. The Trump administration has invoked the same authorization for its own activities in Syria, despite many critics arguing that even the previous administration overreached in citing it to cover the battle against the Islamic State in Syria.
Then there is the basic question of the oil’s ownership.
“Oil, like it or not, is owned by the Syrian state,” Brett McGurk, Trump’s former envoy to the 70-nation coalition to defeat ISIS, said at a panel discussion on Syria hosted Monday by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
McGurk said that Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had studied the issue and concluded there was no practical way for the United States to monetize its control over oil-rich areas.
“Maybe there are new lawyers now, but it was just illegal for an American company to go and seize and exploit these assets,” McGurk said.
McGurk said the only legal way to make money from the Syrian oil fields would be to work with Russia and the government of President Bashar Assad of Syria to place the revenue into an escrow account to help fund Syria’s postwar reconstruction. But he said Russia had little interest in the idea, even before America assumed a diminished role in the country this month. Nor has Trump expressed any public interest in using the oil to fund Syria’s reconstruction.
Stein said he believed the true goal of some Trump administration officials and advisers was to keep the oil fields not from ISIS but from Assad’s forces, to deny him funds to rebuild his country and thus ensure that Syria remained a financial burden on its ally, Iran.
In recent days, hostile foreign governments have seized on Trump’s commentary as evidence of America’s sinister motives.
On Saturday, a spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said that “what Washington is doing now, the seizure and control of oil fields in eastern Syria under its armed control, is, quite simply, international state banditry.”
And Iran’s state-controlled Fars News Agency wrote that while Washington “claims that the move is in the line with its alleged antiterror campaign in Syria, analysts see it no more than an excuse to impose control over Syria’s oil revenues.”
Riedel doubted that the president would wind up insisting on control of the oil fields. Beyond the many military, technical and legal challenges, there are the optics to consider.
“Let’s say he does do it,” Riedel said. “Let’s say we establish the precedent that we are in the Middle East to take the oil. The symbolism is really bad.”