President Donald Trump proclaimed on 28 October, during a press conference announcing the death of ISIS leader al-Baghdadi, that the United States military would be holding onto Syrian oilfields until further notice. While this development is not surprising, given his lambasting of President Bush for not taking Iraq’s oil after the 2003 invasion, this appears to directly contradict his previous announcement to leave Syria.
Trump justified the decision to remain, arguing that they did not want ISIS to re-emerge and once again enrich itself through the oilfields. Instead, he offered to make any claimants to the oil a deal to have it if the United States believed that a claimant legitimately owned it. Otherwise, he stated that they will fight off anyone who tries to take it from them, presumably claimants that they do not recognize. Newsweek reported that this led to Syria’s President Assad commenting, on Syrian state television, that Trump “is the most transparent president” in being open about dominating foreign places for resources. Russia’s foreign affairs spokesperson concurred, accusing the United States of bypassing their own sanctions on Syria to funnel out the oil and the subsequent profits from controlling these oilfields. Meanwhile, the decision to stay has been complicated by the new alliance between the Syrian government and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces who are cooperating with the intention to fight the Turkish presence in Syria. Even supporters of the president have admitted that they do not understand this change of heart, including Senator Rand Paul, who tweeted that “the U.S. guarding oil in Syria will only prolong the war [and] bring [the] Kurds into conflict with Assad.”
Given that the United States has no allies left in Syria, holding onto these damaged oilfields is not only uneconomical, but likely puts the region into more danger than what the situation was prior to the United States-Turkey negotiated ceasefire in Syria. Now that the Kurdish SDF is allied with the Assad government, which the United States has not recognized for many years, returning the oilfields to their rightful owners or through the SDF is unlikely to happen given the animosity against Assad. Giving them to Russia would also yield the same result; the Syrian government would get them back. However, Trump would probably have to relive the ‘Russiagate’ spectre in news coverage as corporate media would no doubt frame it as being soft on an ‘adversary.’ So, because there are no recognizable actors to take over the oilfields (that the United States would accept), once again a military presence has occurred where it is certain to hurt any peace process in the region. Eventually, the Syrian government and allies are going to want the oilfields back with or without a fight and there is no certainty of what chaos that conflict would bring. All this, of course, completely ignores the illegal and unconstitutional nature of this foreign deployment of soldiers, notwithstanding the contradiction that this decision is anything but a withdrawal or is strategically realistic at all.
While Trump is not making the right decision here, it is still worth praising his recognition that these conflicts in the Middle East are horrible and particularly corrosive to America’s health: economically, morally, and to the nation’s reputation. It would be positive if Senator Paul’s advice gets through to him as “to stop the endless wars, you actually have to leave” is the only sensible way to ensure Syria gets its peace sooner rather than later. Leaving this troubled oil to someone else when the United States has become a net exporter of energy is nothing to be ashamed of.
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