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The Real Reason Behind America’s Control of Syrian Oil

The Real Reason Behind America’s Control of Syrian Oil

Thursday, 14 November, 2019 - 08:30
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

I spent five years in Iraq during the American war there. Many leftist analysts believe the Americans destroyed Saddam Hussein’s regime because of oil. I know from my direct experience that oil was not the reason. However, in 2019 oil is the reason the Americans are staying in Syria. The American decision is strange because the oilfields in eastern Syria are relatively small and the oil’s high sulfur earns only a low international price. The American justification is that they want to protect the oilfields from ISIS.

However, there are armored units in the American forces that we never saw in Syria before. There are also artillery units. Normally, armored units and artillery are not the best weapons to use against guerrilla fighters like ISIS. Instead, armored units and artillery are used against another army. And, in fact, American Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on October 28 that the American mission is not only to protect the oilfields from ISIS but also to protect them from the Syrian army and its Russian allies.

This is not completely new. In February 2018 the American air force destroyed a Syrian government convoy with Syrian soldiers and Russian mercenaries that tried to take the Conoco gas factory near Deir Ezzor. It is worth mentioning that Russian company Wagner, whose owner is an ally of the Kremlin, has a contract with the Syrian government for the reconstruction of oilfields. Wagner is supposed to receive a 25 percent share of the production.

The Americans are determined to win political concessions from the Syrian government by blocking Syrian government control of the oil revenues. American officials and many experts think that this pressure will compel Assad to make big political concessions either in the negotiations under the UN about the Syrian Constitution or concessions to the Syrian Kurds about an autonomous zone.

At the same time, American control of the oilfields also will give the Syrian Democratic Forces monies to pay its soldiers and to pay for the detention centers where thousands of ISIS prisoners and their families are being held. Trump doesn’t want to pay the costs of the war in eastern Syria, and the American military and diplomats don’t want to leave Syria. Their compromise in Washington was to keep the oilfields so that Washington doesn’t have to finance the SDF. The oil revenues are not for Washington. They are for Mazloum Abdi and his SDF fighters led by the Syrian Kurdish YPG.

Who gave the Americans the right to make this decision about Syrian oil? According to international law, the Syrian state’s sovereignty extends over the country’s natural resources. Damascus, not Washington, is the legal authority. At the same time, the Trump administration’s legal justification under American law is also debatable. American forces entered Syria under a Congressional decision after the 9/11 attacks that permits military action against al-Qaeda, and Obama said that al-Qaeda gave birth to ISIS. It will be difficult for the Trump administration to use a Congressional decision about al-Qaeda to justify protecting oilfields from Syrian and Russian forces. If the legal justification is debatable, the politics are more clear. The SDF and the Syrian Kurds have strong support in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Only a few members of Congress will complain about the Trump administration controlling oilfields for the Kurds and the SDF. This Congressional support for the new American policy in eastern Syria will only change if there will be an important number of American casualties in the new military operation. From 2014 until now only eight American soldiers and employees have died in eastern Syria, and therefore the American people don’t pay attention to the war and the American military role can continue.

This American plan depends on the Syrian government, and its Russian and Iranian allies, not killing many Americans. Of course, these enemies of America will try and they won’t use normal military attacks. Instead, they will use unconventional tactics like drone attacks, car bombs and roadside bombs against American convoys. In the past, we have seen protests by Arab villages in Deir Ezzor against the SDF smuggling of oil. ISIS will also benefit from this tension and the image of America exploiting Arab oil. We can expect in the weeks and months ahead that the Syrian intelligence will try to exploit tensions between the SDF and its Kurdish leadership and Arab towns. It is even possible that Syrian intelligence will again encourage extremists like ISIS to attack American forces as it did with al-Qaeda in Iraq 2004-2010.

In the end, the American occupation of the oilfields may help ISIS without winning political concessions from Assad who is patient and can wait for the Americans sooner or later to leave Syria. Washington is moving from one failed policy in Syria to another.

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