War Stories

We Can’t Keep the Oil

Trump’s new rationale for keeping troops in Syria makes no sense.

U.S. soldiers chat next to a Turkish military vehicle.
U.S. soldiers chat next to a Turkish military vehicle in al-Hashisha, Syria, on Sept. 8. Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s new rationale for keeping troops in Syria—that they’re needed to protect the nation’s oil—is, not to mince words, preposterous.

First, Syria doesn’t even rank among the world’s top 60 oil producers, pumping out only about 0.05 percent as much petroleum as Iraq—just half as much as Cuba, which isn’t known as an oil power.

Second, its oil fields aren’t America’s to protect. They are owned by the Syrian government, with some venture capital provided by China, Russia, and India. No American oil companies are keen to step into the fray. In any case, the cease-fire agreement that Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed with Turkey—the deal that Trump has touted so proudly—pretty much removes the United States as a political, economic, or military power in the entire area. As Joshua Landis, editor of the Syria Comment website, notes, the Russians and Turks will in effect control the oil.

Third, the new rationale—even if it had merit—contradicts Trump’s claim that his abandonment of the Kurds in northern Syria was the first step of a broader pullout from the “endless wars” of the Middle East. He had already reversed that policy a few days later, when he announced the deployment of 1,800 troops to Saudi Arabia, saying that the Saudis would pay for their expenses in full, as if that meant the U.S. government wouldn’t be involved in the mission. (Everything to Trump is a monetary transaction; in this case, he was basically declaring the U.S. military to be a mercenary force.) Then the Pentagon announced that the troops withdrawn from Syria won’t be coming home; rather, they’ll redeploy to western Iraq, at least for a while. And now, Trump is saying that some of the troops will stay in Syria too—not to protect the Kurds or to keep ISIS from recovering territory or to help stabilize that corner of an incendiary region, but to preserve oil.

Fourth, as a result, he has to reinforce the notion that the United States is a rapacious imperial power—and a feckless one at that, since the oil, for which he’s willing to send troops to fight and die, doesn’t belong to America in the first place.

Fifth, even if U.S. troops could somehow occupy and take over the oil fields, they would need more troops and equipment to guard the routes and pipelines through which the oil flows—and more troops and equipment still to protect and supply the troops guarding the fields and pipelines. In other words, if the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command take Trump’s new rationale seriously, if it’s translated into an operational order, it will mean much more than keeping the 1,000 troops we currently have in Syria—it will mean having to send thousands more.

So what is this all about? Why is Trump, who has seemed genuinely keen to get troops out of what he calls the “blood-soaked sand” of the Middle East, doing this? It seems that he’s been hoodwinked, and not for the first time.

Trump’s withdrawal from northern Syria drew withering criticism from Republicans, Democrats, and foreign policy analysts, on the grounds that it would expand Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s control over the entire country, strengthen Iran and Russia, revive ISIS’s prospects for renewal, and—by abandoning the Syrian Kurds, the strongest ally in the fight against ISIS—stir doubts about U.S. security commitments among allies everywhere.

These geopolitical arguments didn’t move Trump an inch. So Sen. Lindsey Graham—Trump’s most loyal political defender but also a fervent advocate for the Kurds—shifted tactics to focus on something he figured the president would understand: finances. According to NBC News, Graham and Jack Keane—an influential retired Army general who, back in 2007, persuaded President George W. Bush to order a “surge” of troops to Iraq—brought maps into the Oval Office, showing Trump the network of oil fields across the region, including in Syria.

The argument about oil was flimflam, and Graham and Keane knew it. Citing a defense official, NBC noted that “while the emphasis on oil in Syria is intended to convince the president that the U.S. military is valuable, securing the oil fields is not a military strategy. U.S. troops will not actually be guarding the oil fields.”

The ruse was reminiscent of the time, early in the administration, when Trump wanted to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, to the alarm of several officials. Trump paid no attention to arguments about counterterrorism or the balance of power, so the officials shifted tactics.
Pentagon officials started talking about “rare-earth metals” in Afghan soil—something that had never been in previous briefing books. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, then the national security adviser, showed Trump old photographs of Kabul in the 1970s, in which young women were seen wearing miniskirts. See, McMaster told the president, Afghanistan hasn’t always been a graveyard of empires; it’s been a “normal” country in the past, and it can be again.

Trump not only reversed his decision to pull out—he doubled the number of troops that President Barack Obama, toward the end of his term, had kept in.

Graham, Keane, and many others wanted to keep some U.S. troops in Syria. Trump did not. So they made up a phony argument to get him to change his mind. It worked. Now even Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is going along with the game. At some point, will Trump ask how the campaign to defend the oil fields is going? Esper, Graham, Keane, and the others probably assume he won’t. They know, from experience, that, ultimately, he doesn’t care.