U.S. Troops Really Are in Syria to Protect the Oil—for the Kurds

U.S. Troops Really Are in Syria to Protect the Oil—for the Kurds

U.S.-backed deal to develop oil fields in northern Syria is helping the State and Defense departments push for a continued American troop presence in the area to counter the Islamic State, current and former U.S. officials told Foreign Policy.

The deal, in which the Delaware-based Delta Crescent Energy is to revamp Syrian oil fields in conjunction with Kurdish authorities, was first revealed during a Senate hearing exchange between South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week.

Current and former U.S. officials say the arrangement will both starve the Bashar al-Assad regime of money and give U.S. officials a way to make the case to keep troops on the ground in a still critical theater.

“I think DoD and State can now make the argument to [President Donald] Trump that we have to stay and make sure the oil flows or the U.S. company will lose all their investment,” a former senior Trump administration official told Foreign Policy. “So it’s a gift for those who want us to stay in Syria.”

One former official said the United States still has forces in Syria only “because of the State Department’s efforts” to negotiate an oil deal. There is a balancing act: Turkey remains concerned that U.S. efforts to help the Kurds will legitimize the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organization in the United States, Europe, and Turkey. But a U.S. official said the oil deal would help “perpetuate the SDF’s staying power in eastern Syria,” referring to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The U.S. official said the effort to develop Syrian oil fields, taking away refining dollars from the Assad regime and potentially taking away a long-standing backdoor for oil deals between the rebel-held northeast and regime-held areas, would help double down on pressure after the Trump administration first instituted sanctions under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act in June.

The United States has been laying the groundwork, with the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria building up an SDF force designed to protect petroleum fields in Hasakah and Deir Ezzor provinces, which are controlled by the Kurdish-dominated group.

“The U.S. has been quietly moving the pieces in place to box Russia and Assad from Syrian oil, by trying to provide an alternate market to the regime,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East expert at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank. “The effort requires an indefinite U.S. commitment to Syria, or it will collapse.”

But even after the dust settled around the hearing, it remains unclear to Kurdish authorities and American observers how they’ll be able to conjure a market for Syrian oil beyond the regime. Oil fields have sustained extensive damage from the conflict with the Islamic State as well as from the U.S.-backed coalition in air raids to root out the group. 

More than 60 percent of eastern Syrian oil fields need to be repaired, said a source familiar with the matter, and providing for security expenses could wipe out any oil profits. The United States has agreed to provide two mobile refineries, the source added, but in the past, both the Kurdistan Regional Government across the border in Iraq and Turkey, a sworn rival of the Syrian Kurdish bloc, have balked at refining their oil. 

The surprise news that Delta Crescent Energy had received a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control earlier this year, first reported by Al-Monitor, has left Kurdish authorities scrambling to come up with plans to refine the oil amid festering political tensions as Russian forces have expanded their reach further into the war-torn country.

“The announcement was a little bit rushed. Some of the Kurds didn’t like the fact it was announced in this way,” said the source familiar with the deal. “Now the Kurds are a bit confused, scared, I would say, due to the uncertainty. Are there any commitments that come with the announcement? Because there is nothing on the ground.”

The source added that Graham, a Trump ally, had helped facilitate meetings between the politically connected Delta Crescent Energy and U.S. officials.

But as the Trump administration’s Syria policy has twisted and turned since the president reversed an October 2019 withdrawal announcement during a Turkish incursion into the country, only to say that U.S. troops would stay to protect the country’s damaged oil reserves, experts have questioned the legality and efficacy of the new policy.

While the U.N. process has sought to keep a single government in Damascus, the deal cooked up by the Pentagon and State Department would seem to give the Kurdish authorities more autonomy and could potentially split up the country. And it may ignore that the Assad regime still has an upper hand over rebel groups—and over the ultimate destination for any Syrian oil.

“You can get this dirty oil out of the ground, but you can’t do anything with it,” a former congressional aide told Foreign Policy. “Really your choice is the Assad regime.”

 

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