Whether it was merely symbolic, tactical or genuine, Trump might have in recent weeks withdrawn a good deal of US troops and equipment stationed in Syria for most of the nine years of Syrian conflict, but when it comes to Syrian oil fields, he appears to have dug deep in order to openly loot and plunder the country’s oil under an array of ridiculous pretexts. Paradoxically enough, Syrian president Bashar Al Assad praised in a recent TV interview, what he referred to as Trump’s openness about some of his sinister plots. Assad maintained that “Trump is the most transparent US president ever”. One of President Trump’s few merits is this controversial “transparency” even when he is committing what many critics have described as “a war crime.” Trump made no secret of his plan to loot Syria’s oil reserves, and as one such Western critic put it: “He’s pulling back that curtain and just telling you the truth.” What does this mean for Syria’s oil, economy and future?
Oil and gas, crucial to Syria’s economy and recovery plans
The impacts from the Syrian government’s loss of control over most of the country’s main oil and gas fields throughout much of the nine years of conflict have been daunting. The fuel crisis, aggravated by a chain of US-led sanctions against Damascus, including import of fuel and related material or components, have posed a tremendous challenge for both the government as well as ordinary Syrians alike. Oil and gas revenues have been a crucial contributor to Syrian economy and the government plans to overcome declining living standards and alleviate the ramifications of a series of austerity measures taken in recent years, due to war-damaged installations, loss of control over oil and gas fields and the impact of stringent US and EU sanctions and embargo enforced against Syria.
Syria’s oil fields are concentrated in the province of Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border, and Hassakah in the north-east. The two regions have been out of government control for many years, and the country’s oil production has collapsed since the conflict began in 2011. Syrian known oil reserves, however, are relatively small compared with those of other countries in the Middle East. In 2018, Syria had an estimated 2.5 billion barrels of oil reserves, compared with Saudi Arabia’s 297 billion, Iran’s 155 billion and Iraq’s 147 billion barrels. In 2008, Syria produced 406,000 barrels per day. In 2011, production dropped to 353,000 (BPD) and had plunged to just 24,000 BPD by 2018 – a drop of over 90%. This figure has recently gone up following the Syrian army’s recovery of some oil and gas fields in the northeastern desert region.
Exchange of control over Syria’s oil and gas fields
In the course of conflict, the Syrian government lost control of most of the country’s oil fields initially to some Syrian opposition groups, later the so-called Islamic State terrorist organization (ISIS) who managed to seize most of the fields in eastern Syria, including the largest, al-Omar complex, in Deir Ezzour province. By year 2014, oil sales became one of the biggest sources of income for the radical terror group, earning about $40m a month from oil revenues in 2015, according to the US Department of Defence. Erdogan’s Turkey was a main accomplice and major, if not only, destination for Syrian ISIS-looted and smuggled oil.
Later on, control of the oilfields went to US-backed Kurdish militias, mainly SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) who fought ISIS in the region, and most recently to Uncle Sam himself represented by no one other than current US President Donald J Trump. Syrian oil and gas fields suffered considerable damage due to US airstrikes and recurrent battles for control of the strategic fields, between rebel and terror groups on the one hand, and the Syrian army and its allies on the other. ISIS terrorists destroyed much of the oil infrastructure when it became apparent that the oil fields would fall to Kurdish forces who took control of the fields and have been exploiting Syria’s national wealth for their purposes since 2017.
The Syrian government has had to resort to importing oil and gas, mainly from Algeria, Iran and Iraq, in order to compensate its lost or plundered wealth. The ongoing US and EU sanctions have made such efforts increasingly more difficult, and threatened a direct military confrontation between the US-led coalition and Iran over oil export issues and the reciprocal seizing of oil tankers earlier this year.
Trump looting oil on SDF behalf, triggers condemnation
Trump, who abandoned his Kurdish SDF allies and partners in the fight against ISIS in northern Syria and left them alone to face the Turkish army’s onslaught, is now trying to reimburse Syrian Kurds with revenues of oil ‘stolen’ from their own country’s national resources; a prime example of Trump’s generosity and despicable American double standards. Even some American and Western observers have described Trump’s Syrian oil ploy as “Blood for Oil”, a “Loot and Plunder War Crime” and a “Blatant Violation of International Law.”
The administration’s statements amounted to an admission that Trump plans to commit war crimes, wrote a number of critics on social media. “Just to be clear: despite Trump’s statements, oil in Syria does not belong to the United States or to Donald Trump,” tweeted political scientist Brian Klaas. “International law seeks to protect against exactly this sort of exploitation,” Emory University professor Laurie Blank told Reuters. Senator Bernie Sanders commented on Trump’s Syrian oil scheme: “Last I checked, Congress never authorized US forces to be deployed to secure Syria’s economic resources,” wrote Sanders. “Putting US forces in harm’s way for this purpose is illegal and unconstitutional.”
Right of protection benefit, or international banditry?
Following his controversial October decision to pull out most of US troops from Syria which drew much outrage and criticism from Kurds, American bipartisan politician and Western nations alike – many considered Trump’s withdrawal decision a green light for the ongoing Turkish offensive against Kurds in northeastern Syria – President Trump, in an effort of damage, declared that he was keeping and reinforcing US troops in and around Syrian oil fields, and that revenues from looted oil will go to the SDF. ” We are keeping the [Syrian] oil,” Trump boasted in ensuing tweets and statements. ” This is a premeditated ‘theft’ of our oil,” President Assad responded in a recent interview with RT Russian television network.
The oil fields in question here cover some 70% of Syria’s national oil and gas sector and infrastructure and facilities in the eastern province, and most of these facilities are operating far below their pre-war production levels. Although the Turkish offensive in northern Syria has resulted in Kurdish forces losing control over vast sways of territory, most of the oil fields east of the Euphrates river remain under SDF control. The US administration claims that oil revenues have helped support Kurdish forces who use the profits for military purposes and to run a civil administration. Between Trump and some US hawkish politicians’ claim to a right of benefit from ‘oil they are protecting’, and President Assad’s branding of Trump’s action as “international banditry,” the Syrian oil saga is set to continue for some time to come.