Despite President Donald Trump’s pledge to end “forever wars” by withdrawing troops from Syria, the U.S. has in fact taken over oil fields in the country. By doing this, Washington is further entrenching itself in the eight-year-long war as well as setting itself up for long term confrontation with regional actors.
Ostensibly, the U.S. presence is meant to protect oil fields from a potentially resurgent ISIS, which had previously relied on both Syrian and Iraqi oil to finance its terrorist activities. However, it is likely that the real motivations are to deny other powers these resources. While Syria’s oil output is relatively low by regional standards, cash-strapped Damascus would find the revenues from the oil extremely beneficial as it enters the final stages of the war and looks towards rebuilding the country. By preventing the Syrian government from retaking their oil fields, the U.S. is effectively shifting the economic burden back to both the government as well as Russia, which won’t be able to shoulder post-war reconstruction efforts by itself.
By denying Damascus, the U.S. is also limiting Iranian influence in the country. The growing unpopularity of its role in Syria could come back to bite the Tehran government as domestic issues worsen due to U.S. sanctions.
Additionally, continued American entrenchment in the region will probably soothe politicians, like Senator Lindsay Graham, who opposes any U.S. withdrawal from Syria and supports alignment with Israel and Saudi Arabia as part of an anti-Iran axis.
In the region and beyond, the move is set to reinforce the widely held notion that U.S. involvement in the Middle East is primarily motivated by oil. This is made even more acute by Trump’s repeated emphasis on the matter. As early as 2013, he tweeted “I still can’t believe we left Iraq without the oil.” During the 2016 campaign, he reiterated this by stating that the U.S. should “take the oil.” The president had even raised the topic with Iraq’s prime minister, arguing that it would serve as reimbursement for the U.S. invasion and occupation of the country.
I still can’t believe we left Iraq without the oil.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 23, 2013
The seizure of the oil fields will create numerous logistical issues for the White House. First among these is the question of how long the U.S. will be willing to commit itself to this endeavor. Should the Syrian government forces retake the rest of the country, as they are set to do, the U.S. would be in a standoff that could last years. The situation could protract as long as the unilateral implementation of a no-fly zone over northern and southern Iraq, which lasted over a decade.
U.S. officials have suggested that they would like to see some of the resources go to the SDF, which controls parts of northeastern Syria. This though is unlikely to occur should Damascus and the SDF continue their path towards further cooperation.
If Trump is serious about wanting to extract oil for U.S. benefit–which would be considered illegal–he also faces the difficulty of implementing such a policy since he would be surrounded on all sides by governments that would be extremely opposed to what they would consider to be the theft of Syrian oil–something that if they permitted to happen would create a precedent that could later come back to haunt them.