On October 6, President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria as he declared victory over the Islamic State. The controversial announcement made way for the Turkish military incursion into northern Syria, which led to the clearing of the Turkish-Syrian border area from Kurdish forces that the Turkish government consider to be terrorists.
Yet under bipartisan pressure in the United States, Trump soon backpedaled on the U.S. pullout. This was the second time in less than a year that he had done so. This time, Trump’s justification was that U.S. forces would seek to control Syria’s oil, the bulk of which is concentrated in the country’s northeastern region.
“We are keeping the oil … We left troops behind only for the oil,” the president said in comments at the White House in mid-November. At the time of the announcement, Washington had around 1,000 troops stationed in the country. The Pentagon subsequently revealed plans to keep approximately 600 troops in Syria.
Most of the commentary thus far has focused on the legal and ethical aspects of pillaging another country’s resources. But is taking Syria’s oil economically feasible for the United States? Before the war, Syria produced most of the oil derivatives it needed. In the 1990s, production peaked at 600,000 barrels per day (bpd). After that, oil production steadily declined as production capacity shrank. Right before the uprising in 2011, Syria produced 375,000 bpd.
With the militarization of the Syrian conflict, the country’s oil became a lucrative resource fueling the war economy. Before the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in 2017–2019, the group controlled most of the oil fields in Syria. Islamic State fuel derivatives traveled long distances and crossed many enemy lines. The revenue was crucial for sustaining the organization.
In late 2017, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took over most of the old fields with the help of the international coalition fighting against the Islamic State. Since then, the bulk of the oil has been consumed in SDF areas and the revenues have been a primary source of funding for the Kurdish-dominated militias.
Yet taking control of Syria’s oil, as Trump has vowed, is hardly economically feasible. Assuming a U.S. oil company were to invest in fixing the Syrian oil sector’s infrastructure, which would take money and time. Assuming also that it were to return production to the prewar level of 375,000 bpd, it would still not make up for the cost of U.S. intervention, which was $13 billion in 2018 and budgeted at $15.3 billion for 2019. At $60 per barrel, the company would need to increase production from the current 30,000 bpd to 593,607 bpd just to break even with regard to the costs of U.S. intervention. And that’s not counting extraction costs, royalties to any Syrian body, or wage premiums to compensate employees for working in a dangerous environment, among other costs.
Senior U.S. officials, but also oil giants, don’t see much reason in Trump’s plans for seizing Syrian oil. The Pentagon, for instance, refrained from declaring such an ambition. Asked how to translate the U.S. “keeping” or “taking” the oil, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “I interpret that as to deny [the Islamic State] access to the oil fields, [to] secure them…”
As for oil companies, it is little wonder that not a single one has expressed any interest in the president’s idea. Trump said: “What I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there [Syria] and do it properly.”
But what Trump did not say was that the U.S. objectives in Syria go far beyond his official excuse of wanting to take the country’s oil. The United States’ presence there gives it leverage over Iran, the Syrian regime, and Russia, which partly explains the strong bipartisan opposition to a complete U.S. withdrawal. Keeping such a presence is vital for Washington, given the increasingly close cooperation between Russia and Turkey in Syria’s northeast. In the context of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, the Kurdish role in preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State is an additional reason. The U.S. deployment, especially around the oil fields, is crucial to allowing its Kurdish ally to continue to benefit from oil revenues.
The cost of maintaining such policy objectives in the region has in fact been relatively low. From a cost-benefit perspective, U.S. intervention in Syria has been effective. The size of the mission is minuscule—at the time of the withdrawal announcement the 1,000 or so troops in Syrian represented only 0.5 percent of the total number of U.S. troops stationed abroad. Only eight U.S. soldiers have died since the 2014 deployment as the heavy lifting in the fight against the Islamic State was done by the allied Kurds, who lost 1,100 fighters.
Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops is one of many decisions concerning Syria that has left both allies and adversaries rethinking about Washington’s future role in the country. As for the exploitation of Syria’s oil, it was simply an excuse for the president’s decision to backtrack though in reality it is hardly economically feasible.
*Karam Shaar, who is originally from Syria, is a senior analyst at the New Zealand Treasury. The views expressed in this article are his own.