President Trump says he is determined to keep control of Syrian oil fields as the country’s civil war plays out, but exactly how far the U.S. military is willing to go to protect those valuable energy reserves remains a mystery and represents a key question for the administration’s broader policy in the Middle East.
The murky U.S. mission in northeastern Syria’s oil-rich region has no end date or any clear path to lasting victory, and last week’s near-clash with Russian military forces cast a fresh spotlight on the serious danger American troops face.
Regional analysts, meanwhile, say the Trump administration has made a high-risk bet in committing to protect the oil fields indefinitely and officials are likely to be disappointed if they expect any U.S. energy company to ever be interested in bringing Syrian fuel reserves to market.
Beyond the oil itself, the policy is straining an already tense relationship between Washington and Moscow.
Pentagon officials on Wednesday offered little detail about the recent confrontation between U.S. and Russian forces on the outskirts of a Syrian oil field, but regional media suggested that American troops physically blocked their Russian counterparts from entering the area.
Officials cast the episode as the latest in a string of low-grade confrontations with Russian forces in Syria and said Moscow has shown it wants to systematically test the U.S. commitment to stay in the region.
SEE ALSO: U.S. troops block Russian forces from capturing Syrian oil field
“We’ve had a number of different engagements with the Russians on the ground,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday. Gen. Grynkewich serves as deputy commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led mission to defeat the Islamic State group.
“Our message every single time is to try to de-escalate the situation, not take any provocative action and ask them to adhere to the protocols. Most of the time that’s what ends up happening,” he said. “I think the Russians are always testing us.”
The U.S. mission in northeastern Syria — which currently involves about 500 troops — centers on waging war against the Islamic State and to train and advise the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their fight against the extremist group.
Even after the Pentagon scaled back its military presence in Syria last year on Mr. Trump’s order, the U.S. mission expanded to include protecting Syrian oil fields from the grip of the Islamic State.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly defended his focus on securing the Syrian oil fields. He brought up the issue again Wednesday in a meeting with Iraqi Kurdish leader Nechirvan Barzani at the global economic summit in Davos, Switzerland.
“Very importantly, as you know, we have the [Syrian] oil,” Mr. Trump said. “And we left soldiers for the oil, because we take the oil and we’re working on that, and we have it very nicely secured.”
Pentagon officials have said U.S. troops are tasked with keeping all actors — including Russia, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, local militias or any other group besides the SDF — from seizing the energy reserves, which at their peak produced 400,000 barrels of oil per day.
Although the risk of a full-scale war with Russia over Syrian oil is remote, the policy opens another potential conflict zone and could result in American casualties as a result of miscalculations.
Specialists say the oil policy fundamentally misreads the situation on the ground. No U.S. energy company will sign up to work in one of the world’s most dangerous areas, they say, and the White House has now set the military on a course to defend the oil fields indefinitely, given that Russia has signaled it intends to maintain a presence inside Syria for years to come.
“President Trump’s idea that we could get U.S. companies there and pump the oil out … it’s just not going to happen,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Washington think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies who tracks Syria extensively. “With all of the problems, terrorist groups, uncertainty, oil companies just aren’t going to operate in that environment. There’s not enough oil for that risk to be taken. Legally, there are issues as well, which makes this idea really nonsensical.
“Putting U.S. troops in danger, risking an escalation with the Russians, it’s just not worth it in this instance,” Mr. Roggio said. “I think the Trump administration really needs to take a serious look at this and reconsider what its goals and objectives are.”
The president first raised the notion in October of recruiting U.S. oil companies to extract Syrian oil. He made the off-the-cuff remark amid a firestorm over his decision to pull American forces from the Syria-Turkey border ahead of an invasion by the Turkish military targeting U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces.
“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,” the president said at the time.
U.S. companies have provided no evidence that they intend to follow through on the president’s idea.
Furthermore, the approach is surrounded by legal uncertainty. Under international law, the U.S. has no clear claim whatsoever to Syrian oil.
Mr. Assad, whose government has the full backing of Moscow, vowed in November to file a formal complaint with the United Nations over what he called the “U.S. theft” of Syria’s energy reserves. Although Mr. Assad’s words carry little weight with the global community given the chemical weapons attacks and other atrocities he has presided over during Syria’s civil war, such a case could open the U.S. to international condemnation and legal rebuke.
Without an end date to the mission or any clear metrics to determine when the objective has been met, U.S. military officials say the policy is meant to benefit the SDF, a key American ally.
“The task to defend the oil fields, to make sure ISIS can’t get access to those resources, that’s also being done in concert with the Syrian Democratic Forces, who frankly benefit from having access to those resources themselves as well,” Gen. Grynkewich said Wednesday.