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Is Syrian Oil Now a ‘U.S. National Interest’?

We want to hear how keeping our troops there in harm's way is 'America First.'

Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell during Aug. 27 RNC (screengrab).

Between both national party conventions we’ve heard the words “Iran” and “China” —even “Afghanistan” and “Venezuela” and “Cuba”—quite a bit. But funny, we’ve heard nothing about a place where our troops and the Russian have been actually scuffling, literally, all summer.

It’s probably because neither side can quite articulate why, almost a year after President Trump insisted he was pulling all U.S. forces out of Syria, we are still there.

I’m not the only one wondering.

Sure, officially, the military says we are there for stability operations, keeping the peace between the competing factions in the contested areas of Northeastern Syria near the Turkish border. They will say we are still patrolling with Kurdish fighters against the remnants of ISIS. More importantly, however, is Trump’s reason for leaving some 500 troops there—for protecting the oil fields from the Syria government on behalf of the Kurds. More on that in a minute.

While RNC surrogates were congratulating Trump for “rebuilding the military” and his America First virtues in countering China and Iran last night, four American soldiers were recuperating from injuries sustained when a Russian armored vehicle sideswiped their own Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV) as they were both racing down a highway in Dayrick near the Turkish border on Aug. 24.

Both sides are blaming each other, with the Americans saying that the Russians have been turning on the heat for months and changing the ‘deconfliction’ rules established between them to avoid altercations as they both patrol the same area: the Russians on the side of Bashar Al Assad and the Syrian Government, the U.S. on the side of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Brett McGurk, who served as a presidential envoy working on Syria policy for Trump and President Barack Obama, said on Twitter on Wednesday that Trump needs to address the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Russian military forces are ramming and injuring US troops in Syria,” McGurk tweeted. “No competent [commander in chief] would leave our troops in this position.”

This issue is this: the military (like McGurk), backed by hawks on both sides of the fence, want us to be more engaged in Syria. For the left, it is more of the same humanitarian/democracy-building calls, the remnants of Assad regime change efforts. For the right, it is also about regime change, but to counter Iran’s influence and to cut it off from the rest of the Shia world, too. Both sides see Russia as the enemy and are using it as an important foil for which to stay.

But there is a third, and possibly more overriding claim here. In his own transactional nature, Trump doesn’t appear to indulge in the usual justifications for extending our blood and treasure in Syria, but he is convinced that the oil fields there are ours to protect. Turns out there really is “a deal” to shepherd, and an American interest. It’s just a corporate one. According to reports earlier this month:

The US Treasury Department has extended a waiver allowing a little-known American company, Delta Crescent Energy, to develop oil fields in northeastern Syria.

“Little known” because it was “hastily” formed last year and one of the principles has ties to U.S. military and has been a public advocate for maintaining our presence in the country. More:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina) first revealed on July 30 that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the partner of the anti-ISIS Coalition in northeast Syria, had signed a deal with a US company to modernize oilfields there.

Graham’s remarks came during testimony from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the State Department’s budget for the next fiscal year. 

Pompeo affirmed his support for the oil agreement and seemed to suggest that the State Department had played a key role in arranging it. “We are,” Pompeo replied, and Graham responded, “That would be a great way to help everybody in northeastern Syria.”

Sounds like a tidy little arrangement, but for one thing: the Syrian government not only does not recognize the Kurdish autonomous region, but it does not see those oil fields as the Kurds’ to rebuild and use and the Americans to protect and profit from. So while we are being told our troops are ensuring the fields do not fall into ISIS hands again, the truth is they are being used as (increasingly vulnerable) security guards for an American firm working with the Kurds to exploit the oil and to make sure they don’t fall into Syrian government hands again.

No wonder none of our leaders want to talk about Syria. It is a mess and in reality it doesn’t rise to any of the “nationalism” that Richard Grennel described in last night’s speech. Unless of course you call corporate oil interests, “America first.” 

Frankly I would like to see a presidential debate in which both Trump and Biden are forced to articulate why we are in Syria and why it is in our national interest to be there. My bet is neither will be very convincing. The difference will be that Trump will insist on a small force to protect the aforementioned claims, while Biden, in the thrall of the liberal interventionists and Hillary holdovers on his team, would be more likely to expand our presence there if he were to win. 

about the author

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor, has been writing for TAC since 2007, focusing on national security, foreign policy, civil liberties and domestic politics. She served for 15 years as a Washington bureau reporter for FoxNews.com, and at WTOP News in Washington from 2013-2017 as a writer, digital editor and social media strategist. She has also worked as a beat reporter at Bridge News financial wire (now part of Reuters) and Homeland Security Today, and as a regular contributor at Antiwar.com. A native Nutmegger, she got her start in Connecticut newspapers, but now resides with her family in Arlington, Va.

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