Daniel Larison, senior editor at the American Conservative, recently wrote that President Donald Trump “isn’t kidding when he says that the U.S. mission in Syria is all about illegal plunder.” Trump declared this past Wednesday that the American mission in Syria is focused solely on protecting oil fields, which seems to directly contradict the Pentagon’s contention that fighting ISIS is still the priority.
“We’re keeping the oil, we have the oil, the oil is secure, we left troops behind only for the oil,” Trump told reporters during a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — whom Trump publicly hailed a as friend — at the White House. Keeping in mind that the oil fields do not belong to anyone but to the people of Syria, yesterday, vice director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, Rear Adm. William Byrne had to correct a reporter who said the mission there was to protect the oil:
“I’m not going to pick on your words, but I would only — I would be cautious with saying that ‘the mission [is] to secure the oil fields. The mission is the defeat of ISIS. The securing of the oil fields is a subordinate task to that mission, and the purpose of that task is to deny ISIS the revenues from that oil infrastructure.”
Trump in early October ordered the withdrawal of almost all of the 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria after learning that Erdoğan planned to send troops into the country’s northeast to clear the area of YPG (People’s Protection Unit) Kurds, which Turkey considers terrorists. Trump later switched course and decided to send in US troops to protect oil fields in eastern Syria.
Just days after, reports that the Turks are using chemical weapons against the Kurds — including Kurdish civilian populations, President Trump announced that the US will lift the sanctions on Turkey he imposed over Turkey’s operation against the Kurds in northern Syria due to the promise of a “permanent” ceasefire. Multiple sources have reported that the chemical weapons were dropped in the border town of Ras al-Ayn after images and video surfaced of civilians, including children, suffering gruesome chemical burns. This would not be the first time that Erdogan has been accuesd of using projectiles carrying poisonous gas in Syria.
The present-Trump policy is no different from Presidents Jimmy Carter’s helping create the ongoing chaos in Iran or George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. In fact, is is right in line with what a mentor of mine, Father Samir Khalil Samir, S.J., had always explained in that the US-led West, while publicly accusing rogue nations for killing innocents and pillaging from lands not their own, is no different since it appears that its only interest is the petrodollar — the system that buttressed the US currency hegemony for decades by ensuring that oil producers would recycle their dollar proceeds by purchasing more American-denominated assets, thereby boosting the financial strength of the US reserve currency, leading even higher asset prices and even more US currency-denominated purchases. Samir says:
“We [the West] raised our voices (rightly) against the violations perpetrated in the Balkans by Serbia, but we remain silent on the violations of human rights in Saudi Arabia, well aware that … we risk the profits connected with oil. The West has great respect for human rights but even greater respect for material advantages and wealth. If there is some conflict related to economic or commercial interests, human rights are placed second. If the defense of human rights implies the sacrifice of economic advantages, the rights are normally sacrificed, not the economic advantages.”
As Larison pointed out, “Trump was convinced to keep some troops in Syria after having the prospect of oil loot dangled in front of him by the military. The military has yet to endorse the president’s oil fixation as the real reason for the new mission, and so they are keeping up the pretense that this has something to do with fighting ISIS. The trouble is that the president is interested in staying in Syria only because of the chance to steal Syrian oil, and he doesn’t care that this is illegal and completely impractical.” To believe as US Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters on October 22 that Washington wants to be sure that ensure oil fields do not fall into the hands of ISIS or other militants tends to be pretentious at best.
This two-headed Syria policy has left us with the worst of both worlds. The president signs off on the continuation of an illegal military intervention for the worst reasons, and his underlings then try to exploit the situation to run the Syria policy that they want instead. The subordinates will be able to get away with this for a time until Trump realizes that they are not carrying out the oil-stealing mission that he wants, and then there will be another sudden upheaval. Neither of the two Syria policies is in the American interest, but the United States seems to be locked into a tug of war between the President Trump’s impulsive, bad decisions and the rest of the administration’s ill-conceived and unrealistic goals. No matter which side prevails, US troops are stuck in Syria fighting an unauthorized war that has nothing to do with American security. No matter who wins the struggle inside the Trump administration on Syria policy, the U.S. loses.