“The EU will have to wait a long time before America has any clear strategy in Syria,” one baffled European diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly this week, commenting on the apparent contradictions between US President Donald Trump and his defence department regarding the decision to keep 800 US troops in areas stretching from Hassakeh and Deir Al-Zor in eastern Syria to protect their oil and gas fields.
The US president was clear in his explanation, however. “We want to bring our soldiers home. But we did leave the soldiers because we’re keeping the oil,” Trump said, before adding that “I like oil. We’re keeping the oil.” He also said he intended to do a deal with “Exxon Mobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly.”
In contrast with Trump’s transparency, US military officials have emphasised that Washington wants to secure the oil in Syria only to deny the Islamic State (IS) group the chance to take back the fields and use them to fund its resurgence. “It’s a subset of the counter-IS mission,” said US-led Coalition Spokesman in Syria Myles Caggins.
A second justification for the US presence in Syria is to deter Syrian, Iranian and Russian forces from commandeering the oil fields, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said last week.
In response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared Trump’s deployment of troops to the Syrian oil fields to be “illegal” and warned it did not bode well for the future of the war-torn nation. Speaking to reporters, Lavrov said Trump’s plan was “tantamount to robbery.”
A third justification came from US Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, who said the oil revenues would go to the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) rather than the United States, explaining that the Syrian Kurds would sue the money to fight any IS sleeper cells and fund the Kurds and their areas.
“The revenue from this is not going to the US. This is going to the SDF,” he said, in comments that aroused fury from Turkey.
“Those who say that they will transfer the resources of the Syrian people to the SDF are in favour of terrorism against the Syrian people,” Omer Celik, a spokesman for the Turkish Justice and Development (AK) Party, said in a tweet.
“They claim unlawful rights over the Syrian people’s resources. And they say they will allow the terrorist organisation the SDF to use these resources.”
The oil fields have been at the centre of attention following Trump’s withdrawal of American forces from north-eastern Syria in October. Trump has since backpedalled on the full withdrawal he announced, acknowledging that some troops will stay in the region “to secure the oil.”
The problem is that there isn’t much oil to keep. Syria has never been a major oil producer, accounting for a mere 385,000 barrels a day of crude, or 0.5 per cent of global production in 2010, according to a report by British Petroleum’s Review of World Energy. That was the year before Syria’s prolonged civil war began, devastating the nation’s resources, including its oil.
Estimated in 2011 at around 2.5 billion barrels, production has shrunk from a peak of 380,000 barrels a day to an estimated 80,000 today. Currently, the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria sells the oil on the local market or through smuggling it to the Syrian government, but it has not had the resources to develop the fields.
European officials do not expect Trump to succeed in his plan to export the Syrian oil. The only pipelines from the oil fields in Deir Al-Zor head west to territory under Syrian forces’ control. It would be impossible to export the oil through Turkey, given the enmity between Turkey and Syria’s Kurds.
While US officials say the Syrian oil can be exported through Iraq, arguing that some of Syria’s low-quality oil can be blended with high-quality Iraqi crude before it is sold on international markets, oil experts argue that this would be unprofitable and unlikely.
Trump initially ordered all the US troops out of Syria last month, but then decided to keep a force in place to hold the oil infrastructure. But keeping the US troops in the middle of eastern Syria’s complex political geography, facing a backlash from Turkish, Russian, Syrian and Iranian-backed troops, is a dilemma for the US.
Syria’s oil reserves are strategically located along transit routes, and the US troops are situated not only near Syria’s oil fields, but also along main roads that are key transport lines for oil and refined fuel. Any effort to produce oil would presumably mean increasing the patrols of these roads, a complex task in a space with competing forces.
Turkish-backed militants are also active in the area, as are Russian and Syrian government forces. Their patrols have increased since last month’s Turkish-Russian deal mandating that Kurdish-led forces in Syria pull back to at least 19 miles from the border with Turkey.
Even if US forces could secure the area, energy experts say, it is unclear whether the oil companies would be willing or able to invest in rehabilitating the fields.
Many are legally owned by the Syrian state or are in partnership with companies including Total and Shell. Any company working there would wander into a legal thicket of ownership rights even as it tried to navigate the sanctions.
With no clear strategy in Syria, Washington is now playing the disruptive role usually played by Washington’s biggest foe in the Middle East, Iran.
“Given the legal, political and logistical complexities to US companies developing the Syrian oil fields, the primary goal the US administration is seeking is to prevent Syria, backed by Iran and Russia, from regaining control of eastern Syria,” the European diplomat told the Weekly.
“Since the war began in Syria, America has not succeeded in formulating a clear strategy. It has always been a step behind the Russian-Iranian Syrian alliance. Thus, in the absence of a US grand strategy in Syria, it plays a disruptive role to prevent Russia, Iran and Syria from achieving their goals.”
“I think Trump understands that there is no financial gain to be made from developing the oil fields in eastern Syria. The gain, as Pentagon officials have made clear to Trump, is to keep a bargaining chip to use it against the Russians, Iranians and Syria during the political talks,” the European diplomat said.
The US presence in eastern Syria could block plans by the Damascus government to regain the east of the country and Iran’s efforts to complete a land corridor through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iran’s ability to project its power and potentially transport advanced weaponry to Israel’s doorstep has long been a major US concern.
From the EU perspective, the recent US decision will postpone any political settlement in Syria and reopen Pandora’s Box in the region. The security situation in north-eastern Syria is deteriorating sharply, and the European capitals are worried.
The EU fears that the current situation will help extremists in the region. “Retaining the oil mantra will only strengthen the extremists in Syria, because it confirms what many say, which is that America cares only for oil in the Middle East. This is not just against America’s long-term interests in the region, but it is also against stability in the Middle East,” the European diplomat concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.