Sending U.S. Troops to Syrian Oil Fields is Imprudent

On October 26, a U.S. military convoy drove toward the oil fields of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria. Photo courtesy of Associated Press

On October 25, at a press conference in Brussels, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper stated that President Donald J. Trump P’00 planned to send troops and armored vehicles to secure oil fields in eastern Syria. Esper also declared that U. S. troops would “maintain a reduced presence in Syria to deny ISIS access to oil revenue.” This decision would deploy several hundred troops to Syria, contradicting Trump’s previous plans to withdraw from the country. Such a plan has unacceptable political, legal, and practical implications.

Although U.S. forces killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on October 26, and most American troops have already left Syria, some believe that the fight against ISIS must continue. The Islamic State’s primary source of revenue was oil until 2017, so capturing the Syrian oil fields could possibly prevent the group from rebuilding itself in the wake of its top guy’s death. 

However, taking the fields is no easy task. Kurdish forces, vital allies in the fight against ISIS, currently control the oil fields. Kurdish fighters have already allied with U.S. forces against the Islamic State, a common enemy. The Kurds have also proved to hold influence in the area: a Kurdish spy infiltrated the Islamic State’s inner circle and proved crucial in the recent mission to kill al-Baghdadi. Seizure of the oil on Kurdish territory would constitute the betrayal of a friend and increase risk of chaos in the region. The United States would lose an ally and create a new enemy.

Additionally, ISIS poses little threat to the Kurd-controlled oil fields. It controls no territory, and its size and power have diminished greatly; since its peak in 2014, an estimated 60,000 members have died. Even if the Islamic State did manage to take the oil, its gain would be minimal —  that region of Syria has low oil quality and volume. Preventing this unlikely threat is not worth the cost of American lives.

Former U.S. government officials warned that seizure of the oil fields — which belong to the Syrian government — could present difficulties. First, the legal status of such an operation is ambiguous. “Oil, like it or not, is owned by the Syrian State,” said Brett McGurk, a former Islamic State envoy in the Obama and Trump administrations. “Maybe there are new lawyers now, but it was just illegal for an American company to go and seize and exploit these assets.” Also, there are problems in the practical sense. Trump mentioned that he might “get one of our big oil companies to go in and do it properly.” However, it is improbable that an American company would want to engage in a deal with such a high risk and low return. Considering the poor oil grade, pipelines in hostile areas, war-damaged infrastructure, and previously low oil output, the liabilities of a seizure are too high. The logistical issues make it highly unlikely that the government will actually execute the operation. 

In an interview with ABC News, Trump insinuated monetary motives. “In the old days, you know, when you had a war, to the victor belong the spoils. You go in. You win the war and you take it.” He later tried to go back on his word, saying that “we’ll work something out with the Kurds so that they have some money, they have some cash flow.” Trump’s suggestion to capitalize on Syria’s oil contradicted the intention of many top officials, including Esper, who stated that America’s objective in Syria was unaltered and solely consisted of defeating the Islamic State. However, ISIS’s power is already so limited from al-Baghdadi’s death that the Trump administration could use the excuse of ISIS to cover up monetary motives. If greed is indeed Trump’s intent, the ethical implications are egregious. To waste American lives on financial gain, no matter how big or small, is immoral. 

Whatever his motive, Trump’s proposal to take control of Syrian oil fields is neither prudent nor feasible. ISIS does not currently control any territory, and its chance of obtaining the Syrian oil fields is diminutive. And, above all, history maintains that betraying one’s ally is a bad idea. Still, the logistical and legal obstacles are so great that the plan will likely prove to be yet another empty promise by Trump.

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