Home/Daniel Larison/The Plunder Doctrine and Our Two-Headed Syria Policy

The Plunder Doctrine and Our Two-Headed Syria Policy

The al-Tanf garrison in southern Syria. Credit: Public Domain

The president isn’t kidding when he says that the U.S. mission in Syria is all about illegal plunder:

President Donald Trump declared Wednesday that the U.S. mission in Syria is focused solely on protecting oil fields, which appears to contradict the Pentagon’s contention that fighting ISIS is the priority.

“We’re keeping the oil, we have the oil, the oil is secure, we left troops behind only for the oil,” Trump told reporters during a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the White House.

Trump was convinced to keep some troops in Syria after having the prospect of oil loot dangled in front of him by the military. The military won’t endorse the president’s oil fixation as the real reason for the new mission, and so they are keeping up the pretense that this has something to do with fighting ISIS. The trouble is that the president is interested in staying in Syria only because of the chance to steal Syrian oil, and he doesn’t care that this is illegal and completely impractical. Judging from his appearance with Erdogan earlier today, he isn’t going to stop talking about Syria’s oil and how he intends to “keep” it, so this contradiction will keep coming up. Having tricked the president into staying in Syria for a terrible reason, his subordinates are stuck with this justification that no one else in the government believes in. This leads to added confusion as subordinate officials insist that U.S. policy is not what the president explicitly says it is, which in turns leaves everyone guessing as to what the U.S. is actually trying to do.

The Trump administration has had a two-headed Syria policy for some time now. On the one hand, the president imagines that his Syria policy is very narrowly focused on one or two things. First, he thought it was focused squarely on ISIS and pretty much nothing else, and now he thinks it is focused on “keeping” the oil. The rest of the administration has run another Syria policy that sometimes overlaps with the president’s and at other times diverges from it significantly. The rest of the administration has had a much more ambitious and far-reaching policy that involved combating ISIS, opposing Iranian influence, and many more goals in addition to those. Seth Frantzman listed them all in a piece at the start of this year:

However, in Syria, the United States pursued varied and often contradictory policies that run in direct contrast to the idea that military plans flow from a political goal. Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee in September, Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Karem laid out American objectives in Syria. “The United States seeks to secure the enduring defeat of ISIS and al-Qa’ida and its affiliates.” Goal number one. “Deter the use of chemical weapons.” Goal number two. “Counter Iran’s malign, destabilizing influence.” Goal number three. “The United States also seeks a peaceful resolution of the multifaceted conflict in Syria in a manner that protects U.S. interests, preserves a favorable regional balance of power, protects our allies and partners, and alleviates human suffering.” Goals five, six, seven and more.

This two-headed Syria policy has left us with the worst of both worlds. The president signs off on the continuation of an illegal military intervention for the worst reasons, and his subordinates then try to exploit the situation to run the Syria policy that they want instead. The subordinates will be able to get away with this for a time until the president realizes that they aren’t carrying out the oil-stealing mission that he wants, and then there will be another sudden upheaval. Neither of the two Syria policies is in the American interest, but we seem to be stuck in a tug of war between the president’s impulsive, bad decisions and the rest of the administration’s ill-conceived and unrealistic goals. No matter which side prevails, U.S. troops are stuck in Syria fighting an unauthorized war that has nothing to do with American security. No matter who wins the struggle inside the Trump administration on Syria policy, the U.S. loses.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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