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Trump wants US companies to tap Syria’s oil, despite experts warning that could be a war crime

Negar Mortazavi
A US military vehicle drives past an oil pump jack in the countryside of Syria's northeastern city of Qamishli on 26 October: AFP/Getty
A US military vehicle drives past an oil pump jack in the countryside of Syria's northeastern city of Qamishli on 26 October: AFP/Getty

Having provoked bipartisan and international condemnation for abruptly announcing a withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria, effectively greenlighting the subsequent Turkish incursion into largely Kurdish-held territory, Donald Trump quickly did an about face.

Some troops, he announced last week, would be returning to the country. But not to support those Kurdish allies, so vital in the US-led coalition's battle against Isis, but to "secure the oil," he repeated on Monday.

More specifically, he has said he wants US companies to enter into the oil region in Syria to tap the war-torn country’s natural resources. “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,” Trump said on Sunday.

US secretary of defence Mark Esper had announced last week that American troops will be deployed to eastern Syria to protect oil fields from Isis fighters. But now the president's latest remarks about oil have raised new concerns regarding his future plans for Syria.

Donald Trump has made similar comments in the past about tapping oil from other countries racked by war, but not while in the Oval Office.

Experts argue that the United States is not legally capable of seizing control of oil fields in Syria and say the revenue from oil cannot go to the US Treasury.

“The president appears to believe that the US can sell the oil, based on his statements in the past about Iraqi oil and Libyan oil … thinking that we can loot countries,” said Benjamin Friedman, policy director at think tank Defence Priorities and adjunct professor at the George Washington University.

“I am sure people in the White House have tried to explain to him that is not how it works,” he told The Independent.

"Taking the profits from the sale of Syrian oil for the US treasury would be illegal," he said, adding: "That would probably qualify as pillaging under the law."

Pillaging another country counts as a war crime, as per the Geneva Conventions, which the US ratified, rendering it a war crime.

"Note that the troops don’t even have legal authority from congress to be in Syria, let alone to take its resources."

Mr Friedman says it does not make any sense for the United States to occupy Syria’s oil fields except as a way to deny revenue to the Syrian government.

“The only real goal is to continue with the fantasy that we are going to overthrow the Assad regime,” he told The Independent, adding: “I don’t understand why at this point we would be doing that.”

President Trump’s point of view about oil seems to have been a way for the US foreign policy establishment to convince him to retain a presence in Syria, despite contradicting his own claim that US forces are going home.

“The Assad regime retaking power in Syria is the simplest way to suppress Isis – if that is the goal,” Mr Friedman said. The raid on Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's compound, he added, demonstrates that terrorists are operating in parts of the country that the Syrian government doesn’t control.

And now that the US has killed the Isis leader and the caliphate has lost its territory, critics say it is time to get out of the country and let the Assad regime take the lead in going after terrorists in its territory.

Trump has long argued, correctly, that endless wars have cost a tremendous amount of money to American taxpayers and there is no national security interest to commit long-term resources in Syria with no end goal.

“But the process is so botched and incoherent, and the decision has been reached without consulting allies and partners, that it is clear to me that any benefits of withdrawing are being more than compensated by the costs of poor execution,” said Thomas Juneau, professor of International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and former Middle East analyst at the Department of National Defence.

“This is very unfortunate for US interests, which are not being well served at all by all this confusion, but also for those who, like me, believe that the US should act with more restraint in the Middle East,” Mr Juneau told The Independent.

Mr Trump’s decisions over the last few weeks in Syria have played contrary to the argument that it is in the interest of the US to exercise restraint in the region.

And critics argue that as of late October, nobody really knows what the US policy is in Syria. What seems clear now is that the number of troops being deployed to the oil region is not very different from before the withdrawal was announced.

And the United States seems to be pursuing competing objectives on the ground. “We have an envoy to Syria, Jim Jefferies, who still seems attracted to the idea that we can do something to hurt the Assad regime … even if not aimed at regime change,” Mr Friedman said, adding that “counterterrorism in the country is best served by giving up the fantasy that we can undermine the Assad regime and let it govern Syria.”

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