President Trump is renewing his push for U.S. control of Syrian oil. But experts say there’s not much oil there, and what there is belongs to the Syrian government.
Still, the idea of controlling the oil fields is one that has long appealed to Trump. And it may provide a rationale for maintaining a U.S. military presence in Syria, reversing the president’s promise of a full withdrawal.
“We are leaving soldiers to secure the oil,” Trump told reporters on Sunday, while announcing the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “And we may have to fight for the oil. It’s OK. Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case they have a hell of a fight. But there’s massive amounts of oil.”
In fact, in the best of times Syria produced only about 380,000 barrels of low-quality oil per day. And production has fallen more than 90% during the country’s long civil war. Last year, Syria ranked 75th among countries in the world in oil production, with a daily output comparable to that of the state of Illinois.
“Syrian oil was never important to the world market because production was so small,” said energy expert Daniel Yergin of IHS Markit. “But it was very important to the Assad regime before the civil war because it produced 25% of the total government revenues.”
Trump on Sunday floated the idea of modernizing Syria’s productive capacity with help from a major oil company.
“What I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an Exxon Mobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly,” he said.
That would be a costly undertaking, according to Joshua Landis, who directs the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“This whole oil region needs to be rebuilt,” Landis said. “So if America is going to get in the business of retaining these oil fields, it will have to invest hundreds of millions of dollars, in theory, to make them exploitable.”
Trump has argued for years that the U.S. should seize Middle Eastern oil fields to recoup some of the cost of its military operations in the region — an idea that experts say violates international law and would only fuel criticism of American intentions.
“In the old days, you when you had a war, to the victors belong the spoils,” Trump told ABC news in 2011.
Emory law professor Laurie Blank says that notion is outdated. “International law seeks to protect against exactly this sort of exploitation,” Blank told Reuters.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — who bitterly criticized the president’s abrupt decision earlier this month to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria — seized on the oil fields as an argument for a continued American presence in the region.
“By continuing to maintain control of the oil fields in Syria, we will deny Assad and Iran a monetary windfall,” Graham said in a statement last week that echoed Trump’s own language. “We can also use some of the revenues from future oil sales to pay for our military commitment in Syria.”
That position appears to have struck a nerve with Trump.
“I spoke with Lindsey Graham just a little while ago,” Trump said Sunday. “Where Lindsey and I totally agree is the oil.”
For Graham and others, the oil fields may be a way to appeal to the president’s transactional instincts and overcome Trump’s aversion to an open-ended deployment in Syria.
“There are many elements of our foreign policy establishment that want to roll back Iran and want to stay in Syria for the long haul,” Landis said. “Throwing the oil wells in front of President Trump was a way I think they believed that they could reanimate his interest in staying in Syria.”