” Let someone else fight over this long blood-stained sand.” So said President Donald Trump after pulling US troops out of northern Syria. His announcement on October 6 gave Turkey the green light to cross the Syrian border and to storm Kurdish towns.
The Turkish onslaught continued for weeks, creating over 300,000 refugees almost overnight. The death toll rises, as Kurdish, Syriac Christian and other local populations have been killed. At least 100 ISIS fighters have escaped confinement by the Syrian YPG, the defense forces in Kurdish-held territories. Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are accused of committing atrocities. The Kurds have fled, with one-time foe Syrian president Bashar al-Assad appearing as an unlikely rescuer, while the Turkish and Russian premiers brokered a ceasefire and control over northern Syria.
Kurdish populations throughout the region, residing principally in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran, see American withdrawal as an act of betrayal.
This disastrous sequence of events was described by President Trump as a ” success.” Even he knows this to be false.
This is why on October 22-17 days after Trump ordered US troops stationed in Syria to finally ‘come home’-he announced plans to send them back to secure Syrian oil fields. In neighboring Iraq, retreating American forces from Syria were pelted with rocks. The Kurds there have initiated talks with Iran about oil trade.
Just days later, on October 27, President Trump announced US troops killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in northwest Syria. How does this latest wave of conflict in the Middle East impact the regional energy balance and global energy security?
Dividing the Energy Spoils
Despite the renewed violence, the Syrian civil war (2011-2018) is effectively over, thanks in large part to the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds who defeated the scourge known as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). Assad and his allies won. And to the victor go the spoils.
The Iranians and Russians now have greater control of the region’s oil and gas fields than ever before. This includes influence over vital energy arteries feeding Europe and Asia. Among these is the critical oil pipeline between Kirkuk, Iraq and Ceyhan, Turkey. After a failed bid for Iraqi Kurdish independence in 2017, the Iraqi central government and Iranian-backed Shia militias seized the disputed Kirkuk oil refinery from the Kurds by force. The U.S. and European Union did little more than express displeasure, essentially throwing Kurdish allies under the bus and ceding further power to Iran.
So the Kurds went to the Russians. In 2018 the Russian energy giant Rosneft both invested in and helped rebuild the energy infrastructure of Iraqi Kurdistan, damaged after years of war against ISIS. By year’s end, oil production had recovered and exports had resumed. Even oil exports to Iran resumed by early 2019, despite several interruptions.
To say this all differently: Moscow, Tehran and Baghdad worked out their differences, and restarted oil exports after ISIS. Washington had no part to play.
This puts the abrupt US foreign policy move in context. Trump wants to pull out of Syria, but he can’t because that would leave Russia as the uncontested oil czar of both Syria and Iraq. Say what you will about the Russians. They have been competent partners in building up the region’s energy infrastructure .
Syria exports a little more than 30,000 barrels of oil per day, mainly to Europe. That modest oil output pales in comparison to its strategic energy significance. Some blame the war in Syria on lucrative plans to build a pipeline between vast oil and gas reserves in the Persian Gulf on the one hand, and Europe on the other. Only time will tell if now is the end of the “pipeline war.”
Still oil exports make up a quarter of Syrian GDP. The industry is nationally run, with European, Chinese and Indian investment. Syrian oil fields are concentrated in the southeastern province of Deir El-Zor, an Arab region bordering Iraq and controlled by Assad. The risk of conflagration is high. The US is already stretched thin, and its military interventions in Yemen have garnered widespread international condemnation. In the words of Russian president Vladimir Putin, US dominance is ending after mistakes ” typical of an empire.”
After Baghdadi: A Return to Oil War?
The pitfalls of policing Middle Eastern oil fields are many, namely: mission creep, quagmire and a return to endless war. In coordination with Syrian Kurds, and despite abandoning them, on October 27, US troops killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in northwest Syria. He was holed up in the last precarious Syrian rebel stronghold, Idlib, which is caught in a tug of war between Syrian president Assad and Turkish president Erdogan. The Americans appear as involved today in the fate of Syria as ever before, but they have ceded power in the process.
These developments culminated in President Trump’s bewildering announcement October 28, “we’re keeping the oil… perhaps…make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly.” Analysts claim this would violate the Fourth Geneva Convention (1955), to which the U.S. is a signatory, and the U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996. Doing so, furthermore, would mark a return to conflict with Damascus. Pillaging Syrian oil may be considered ‘payment’ for securing the oil fields. But the U.S. is already the world’s top oil producer. The more likely scenario is that Washington is yet again serving the war economy, and that an oil war is back on the menu.
Lacking a coherent foreign policy in Syria, it is unclear if the Trump administration and Washington hawks intend to bolster or compromise energy security in the region today. Finally, if and when the Americans return to secure Syrian oil fields, the Kurds will not be there to welcome them.
Dr. Emran El-Badawi is Program Director and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, at the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, University of Houston. His research is on Arabic and Islamic civilization. He teaches a course on Energy, Society and the Middle East. His work includes advising government, legal and business communities on Middle East related projects. He can be followed on Twitter @EmranE.
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