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Syria has no oil to speak of, and certainly not the sort of potential production that would remunerate a US investor. (Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

Syria has no oil to speak of, and certainly not the sort of potential production that would remunerate a US investor. (Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

Top 6 Problems With Trump Taking Syrian Oil

Whoever told Trump the US was there for oil is an inspired fabulist who pulled the wool over Trump’s eyes.

Juan Cole

 by Informed Comment

Trump keeps talking about taking Syrian oil. In fact, many of those 1,000 special operations troops he pulled out, sending them to Iraq, are mostly back in Syria now, but in Deir al-Zor rather than up north. That is because the lion’s share of Syrian petroleum is in Deir al-Zor province.

Trump said, “We are leaving soldiers to secure the oil. And we may have to fight for the oil. It’s OK. Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case they have a hell of a fight. But there’s massive amounts of oil.”

He also said, “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,”

He added that the US should be able to take some.

This is a pipe dream. No oil major would be interested.

There are many problems with Trump talking like this. Here are a few:

1. It would be a war crime. The US presence in Syria is of dubious legality. It was justified by the Obama administration as self-defense against ISIL, which was planning attacks on the US mainland. But ISIL no longer exists as even an informal state, and so the redeployment to Deir al-Zor is hard to see as self-defense.

But in any case, the US presence is a form of occupation. Occupying states are forbidden to drain the resources of occupied territories “by Articles 49 and 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and Articles 43, 46, 53 and 55 of the Hague Regulations.”

Trump’s plans are also a form of pillage under the Rome Statute and could result in charges by the International Criminal Court.

Taking the oil is equivalent to destroying its value for the locals, the the 4th Geneva Convention says

Art. 53. Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or cooperative organizations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.

So it is just illegal.

2. The second problem is that the Syrian oil fields have largely been devastated by US airstrikes to deny them to ISIL and they are for the most part not operating. So no oil to speak of is coming out of the ground and nor is there much prospect of it doing so any time in the near to medium future. You’d have to make significant investments.

3. Even if the oil was being pumped, there is not much of it. Syria’s total producton before the civil war was 380,000 barrels a day. The world pumps about 100 million barrels a day. The US pumps 12 million barrels a day. So does Russia, and Saudi Arabia until recently did 8 or 9 million. Only 400k a day is such small potatoes that no US oil major would even be interested in it. NPR points out that it is the production of the state of Illinois, which doesn’t exactly swim in black gold.

This should be underlined. Syria has no oil to speak of, and certainly not the sort of potential production that would remunerate a US investor.

4. If US forces attempted to take Syrian petroleum, how would they export it? They can’t take it to Latakia, Syria’s port, because the Syrian government would not allow it. You couldn’t take it north to Turkey because you’d be passing through a war zone, which is inadvisable with petroleum trucks. Would you try to load it on trucks and take it through Iraq to Umm Qasr? That is a long way, through some territory where anti-American militias operate. At the moment, angry crowds have blockaded Umm Qasr as part of the 2019 Iraqi Revolution, and the crowds are deeply anti-American. Plus how many trucks would you need? How many does the US even have in Deir al-Zor? The logistics here are impossible. The only reason US special ops can even be in Deir al-Zar is because they have air support from bases in nearby Iraq, but you can’t fly out oil.

5. Trump’s announced was immediately taken advantage of by Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, and it will fuel suspicion of the US in Iraq as well, endangering US interests in the region. It is a huge propaganda gift to ISIL, Damascus and Iran. Trump is a one-man recruiting poster for terrorism against US interests.

6. The real reason the US military and foreign policy establishment wants to be in Syria is to try to block overland supplies coming from Iran through Iraq to the Syrian government and Hizbullah. This plan is not actually very practical, since the Syrian border with Iraq is enormous and trucks can go offroad.. These US attempts seem to have had no impact at all on Iran or Syria or Hizbullah. But in any case, whoever told Trump the US was there for oil is an inspired fabulist who pulled the wool over Trump’s eyes.

© 2021 Juan Cole
Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His newest book, "Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires" was published in 2020. He is also the author of  "The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East" (2015) and "Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East" (2008).  He has appeared widely on television, radio, and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. 

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