Why Is The U.S. Occupying Syria’s Oil Fields?

On Saturday, a large U.S. convoy entered Syria to deploy additional military reinforcements to the oil fields in Northeastern Syria, Turkish, and Syrian media reported. The convoy crossed over from the Iraqi border and was transporting pick-up trucks, minibusses, and oil rigs. The move comes as a follow up to previous promises made by Donald Trump that the U.S. would be maintaining a residual force in Syria for an indefinite period to prevent these oil fields from falling back into the hands of Islamic State terrorists. The Deir Ez-Zor governorate, where Syria’s oil fields are located, is currently under the control of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, who are also collecting the revenue from these oil sales. 

In 2010, before the Syrian conflict, the country produced 385,000 barrels per day, which accounted for just 0.5% of global production. As a result of the conflict, Syria is currently producing oil at just a fraction of that, with 30,000 per day. This is to be compared with the United States, a net exporter of oil, which produces 15 million barrels per day. Many have raised the point that the U.S. remaining in Syria to extract the oil for itself is impractical since the profits from this will not outweigh the costs of maintaining its military there. Estimates are that the U.S. would have to produce 580,000 barrels per day just to break even on what is being spent on the Syrian engagement. Given the fact that there is no indication that the territory is under any threat from an all but defeated Islamic State, the question is why exactly the U.S. will maintain its presence there and engage in oil production activities. 

After U.S.-backed rebels failed to topple the Syrian government and replace it with a pro-Western one in the early years of the civil war, it seems the U.S. will wield power in the country regardless. Of course, this is the most obvious reason behind the oil project—so that the U.S. can remain in Syria for the sake of power projection and geopolitics after failing to secure control over its government. However, control over the Syrian oil fields will also prove to be decisive when it comes to the post-war reconstruction of the country. Karam Shaar, a Syrian economic analyst and writer for the Carnegie Middle East Center stated that “even though Syria’s oil reserves are pretty minuscule for international standards, they’re quite important given the economic situation in the country”. Thus, while the oil would be all but useless to the United States, it would, in fact, play a pivotal role in determining the future of the Syrian state, where it would be an indispensable source of income that would be necessary for the rebuilding of the state’s infrastructure and economy. 

In reality, it seems likely that the U.S.’ occupation of the Syrian oil fields is a cynical maneuver aimed at preventing the Syrian government and its people from rebuilding their country, and instead ensuring that it remains weak and impoverished. Syria has for decades been on the radar for U.S. military intervention, along with other Arab nations such as Libya and Iraq, whose leaders were both toppled. Thus, with the failure to successfully destabilize Syria (as occurred in Libya), or attain military and political hegemony within it (as in Iraq), the U.S. will attempt to perpetuate the country’s current quagmire via economic means. Michael O’Hanlon from the Brookings Institution stated aptly that “it’s not a stable situation because the regime does need the money,” adding further that “the overall leverage [the U.S.] retains against Assad is in the economic realm”. Thus, with a devastated Syria, the grand chessboard of America’s Greater Middle Eastern policy is essentially complete, with the region lacking a single sovereign state which is not either under U.S. hegemony or mired in conflict. 

In the context of this, the seemingly illogical task of the U.S. extracting minuscule amounts of oil from Syria makes a lot more sense. And with the Senate just today passing a military spending bill of $738 billion for 2020, there is no chance that the U.S. will be putting an end to its disastrous military escapades any time soon. Regardless of the promises of any elected U.S. administration, or the desires of the population to end foreign intervention, the permanent bureaucrats and generals of the State Department will continue to reshape the Middle East regardless of its pernicious costs.