U.S. Military Involvement
As the Trump administration has pulled American troops back from Syria’s northern border with Turkey, President Trump has simultaneously vowed to secure the region’s oil reserves. In addition to protecting the oil reserves, Trump recently released a statement that references his desire to make a deal with ExxonMobil or another multinational energy company to extract some of the Syrian oil. He has labeled Syria’s oil as a national security priority for the U.S. in order to defend the oil fields from Islamic State militants. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has also echoed the need for American troops to defend Syrian oil fields to prevent the remaining members of the Islamic State from profiting off the oil (Hirsch, 2019). Prior to the Syrian Civil War, fossil fuel production made up about 25 percent of Syria’s budget (Bauer, 2019). However, as the Islamic State gained control of the region around 2015, Syrian oil made them of the best-financed terrorist groups in history, with oil sales bringing in as much as $50 million per month (Bauer, 2019).
Tapping Syria’s Oil Reserves
While the prospect of the Islamic State regaining control of Syrian oil reserves may sound like a problematic scenario, the Trump administration has been on the receiving end of a great deal of criticism as a result of the decision to deploy American troops to Syria’s oil region. The criticism has been specifically targeted at Trump’s Twitter tweets suggesting that the U.S. will work to modernize the oil fields and then make a deal with an American oil company to tap some of the reserves (Hirsch, 2019). This isn’t the first time Trump has suggested that American interests should be involved in Middle East oil production. In reference to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Trump repeated his assertion that the U.S. should have seized Iraq’s oil (Gilson, 2019). The notion of tapping into Syria’s oil reserves fits into the Trump administration’s narrative that the U.S. should be eligible to receive fossil fuels as compensation for American military activity in the region (Carlisle, 2019).
In addition to receiving bipartisan criticism for the concept of tapping into Syrian oil, Russia has also fiercely condemned the possibility of U.S. control of Syria’s fossil fuels. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov has said, “what Washington is doing now, the seizure and control of oil fields in eastern Syria under its armed control, is, quite simply, international state banditry” (Heintz, 2019). Russia claims that the fossil fuels located in the oil-rich region of Deir el-Zour should be owned and controlled by the Syrian Arab Republic rather than American military forces. Conversely, the Trump administration is opposed to Syrian government forces recontroling the oil assets since the Bashar al-Assad regime is still under tight international economic sanctions.
With the battle over Syrian oil in the forefront of international headlines, it’s important to review the facts about Syrian fossil fuel reserves. Prior to the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, the country produced roughly 385,000 barrels of oil per day (Carlisle, 2019). However, last year, Syrian oil production only resulted in about 28,000 barrels a day, which is only 0.03 percent of the world’s total output (Gilson, 2019). While Syria may not be producing much today, the Trump administration has stated that there are still significant proven reserves located underground. The Energy Information Agency reports that Syria has about 2.5 billion barrels of crude oil in proven reserves; by contrast, Saudi Arabia has over 100 times as much in proven oil reserves (Gilson, 2019). While the U.S. has expressed interest in Syrian oil, many foreign policy experts agree that it is unclear how the U.S. may be legally able to take hold of oil reserves within any other sovereign nation (Carlisle, 2019).
Bauer, S. (2019). “Behind the Lines.” Mother Jones: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/06/behind-the-lines-syria-part-one/
Carlisle, M. (2019). “Trump Keeps Talking About Syria’s Oil Fields. Here’s What’s Going on With Them.” Time: https://time.com/5710576/trump-oil-syria/
Gilson, D. (2019). “Trump Keeps Eyeing Syria’s Oil—But There’s Not Much There.” Mother Jones: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/10/trump-syria-oil-production/
Heintz, J. (2019). “Russia Calls U.S. Move to Protect Syrian Oil Fields ‘Banditry’.” Time: https://time.com/5711498/russia-criticize-us-syria-oil/
Hirsch, L (2019). “Trump wants to make a deal with Exxon or others to tap Syrian oil: ‘We should be able to take some’.” CNBC: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/27/trump-wants-to-make-a-deal-with-exxon-or-others-to-tap-syrian-oil.html