Every time America gets involved in the Middle East, our enemies accuse us of imperialism. We don’t really care about democracy or human rights, they say; we just want to plunder Arab wealth. Now these enemies have acquired an ally in their propaganda war: President Donald Trump. He’s telling the world that the United States is out to get Syria’s oil.
American imperialism is a perennial theme of terrorist recruiters. In 2005, an al-Qaida video said the George W. Bush administration had invaded Iraq “to gain control of the region‘s oil fields.” In 2009, another jihadi video accused the United States of conspiring with friendly Arab governments “to plunder the Muslims’ treasures, especially oil.” In 2015, al-Qaida urged Muslims to rally behind its fighters, who, unlike America, weren’t fighting “for oil or imperial interests.”
Trump has vindicated this indictment. Before he was president, he said the United States should “take the oil” from Iraq and Libya. On Sunday, he extended that argument to Syria. He turned what should have been a triumph—an announcement that American forces had killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS—into a PR disaster. After a brief opening statement, the president spoke off the cuff for nearly 40 minutes about the raid and why U.S. troops were in Syria. In that time, he mentioned terrorism twice. He mentioned oil 22 times.
There are two legitimate reasons to guard oil facilities in northern Syria. One is to prevent ISIS from capturing or destroying them. The other is to protect the ability of our betrayed allies, the Syrian Kurds, to use the oil. Trump has added a third, illegitimate reason: to make money for the United States. “We should be able to take some also,” he said on Sunday. He argued that America was entitled to be “paid back for all of the billions of dollars that we’ve spent” in the Middle East. That’s what we should have done in Iraq, said Trump. Iraq “would be treating us much differently”—more obediently, he implied—if we had used our leverage there to demand “a lot of money.”
In Iraq, the Bush administration and its allies set up an independently audited Development Fund for Iraq. The fund collected the country’s oil revenues, shielded them from unchecked exploitation by occupying forces, and was eventually entrusted to the United Nations Security Council. Trump has no such scruples. He speaks of Syria’s oil as America’s. “We have a lot of oil,” he boasted on Friday, referring to the Syrian oil fields. “We took over oil. A lot of great things are happening in this country.”
In Trump’s mind, since it’s our oil, we get to decide who can access or exploit it. If somebody else wants part of it, he decreed on Sunday, “either we’ll negotiate a deal” with them, “or we will militarily stop them.” The president spoke with particular interest of upgrading and monetizing the oil fields. “Much of the machinery has been shot,” he explained, but with proper investment, the United States could extract “and spread out the wealth.” Last week, at a Cabinet meeting, he proposed to “work something out with the Kurds”—apparently, some kind of franchising or revenue-sharing arrangement—so “they have some cash flow.”
Trump has specific corporate partners in mind. “What I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly,” he explained on Sunday. (Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was the CEO of ExxonMobil.) The lives of American troops and the money spent by American taxpayers in the Middle East should be repaid, in Trump’s view, through favors to American oil giants. He complained that in Iraq, “Some oil companies from other countries, after all we’ve done, have an advantage” in getting leases. “We go in, we lose thousands of lives, spend trillions of dollars,” he protested, “and our companies don’t even have an advantage in getting the oil leases.”
The president didn’t just fixate on oil. He also made clear that he doesn’t care about anything else in the region. On Saturday, the Washington Post published a story in which multiple U.S. officials said that in backstage consultations, Trump had rejected almost every argument for keeping troops in Syria: stabilization, protecting our allies, and blocking our adversaries. Only one argument persuaded him: oil. In public, Trump has confirmed this venal portrait of himself. At last week’s Cabinet meeting, he reasoned that protecting the Kurds wasn’t worth the deployment of American troops. “We’ve secured the oil,” he said. “Other than that, there’s no reason for it.”
Trump’s mercenary attitude is infecting his administration and his party. On Sunday, his national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, was asked whether Syrian Kurds would continue to get all the revenue from oil fields in their territory. “We’ll have to work that out,” said O’Brien. “As the president said, there are going to be deals that are made.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, Trump’s point man on foreign policy in Congress, asserted that the United States is entitled to “use some of the revenues from [Syrian] oil sales to pay for our military commitment in Syria.” At a press conference on Sunday, Graham commended Trump’s proposal to “modernize the oil fields,” “increase revenue,” and create a “win-win” business partnership with the Kurds.
This whole scheme is illegal. In fact, it’s a war crime. It violates nearly a dozen international codes and agreements, including the Fourth Geneva Convention. Even under the most opportunistic reading of international law, we’re at war with ISIS, not the Syrian government, so we have no grounds to claim Syria’s oil. And beyond the immorality and illegality, Trump’s idea is commercially insane. We would spend more money—let alone blood—repairing, upgrading, and protecting the oil fields and refineries than we would recoup.
From a PR standpoint, the damage is already done. Our adversaries are pouncing on the president’s boasts. “What Washington is doing now, the seizure and control of oil fields in eastern Syria under its armed control, is, quite simply, international state banditry,” says Russia’s defense ministry. Iran’s state news agency says our deployment to the oil fields is, in the view of “analysts,” just “an excuse to impose control over Syria’s oil revenues.” Even U.S. officials who worked for Bush during the Iraq war have called Trump’s oil-theft fantasies “barbaric.”
Trump has a long history of helping foreign thugs, including our enemies. He has embraced Russia’s claims to Crimea, Turkey’s smears against the Kurds, North Korea’s attacks on American officials, and Saudi Arabia’s lies about its murder of a U.S. resident. Now he’s helping jihadis vilify the United States as a rapacious oil thief. It’s his parting gift to Baghdadi.
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