28 October 2019   Leave a comment

One of the more bizarre elements of President Trump’s Syrian policy is his decision to station troops to protect Syrian oil fields. Ostensibly, the policy is designed to prevent ISIS from controlling the oil and gaining revenues from its sale. But President Trump’s earlier statement that the US should have taken control of Iraq’s oil fields in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq raises questions about his intentions. The Guardian has several quotes on the matter:

“At a forum hosted by NBC on 7 September, Trump suggested oil seizure would have been a way to pay for the Iraq war, saying: ‘We go in, we spend $3tn, we lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then … what happens is we get nothing. You know, it used to be to the victor belong the spoils.’

He added: ‘One of the benefits we would have had if we took the oil is Isis would not have been able to take oil and use that oil to fuel themselves.’

The idea predates Trump’s presidential campaign. As far back as 2011, he was telling the Wall Street Journal that this was his policy for Iraq. ‘You heard me, I would take the oil,’ he said. ‘I would not leave Iraq and let Iran take the oil.’ And he insisted to ABC News that this did not amount to national theft.

“’You’re not stealing anything,’ Trump said. ‘We’re reimbursing ourselves … at a minimum, and I say more. We’re taking back $1.5tn to reimburse ourselves.’”

Trump’s assertions are pure nonsense. The right of conquest was nullified by the UN Charter and such imperial adventures are politically unpalatable today. But in his speech yesterday announcing the death of Baghdadi, Mr. Trump made this comment:

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

“And we’re securing it for a couple of reasons.  Number one, it stops ISIS, because ISIS got tremendous wealth from that oil.  We have taken it.  It’s secured.

“Number two — and again, somebody else may claim it, but either we’ll negotiate a deal with whoever is claiming it, if we think it’s fair, or we will militarily stop them very quickly.  We have tremendous power in that part of the world.  We have — you know, the airport is right nearby.  A very big, very monstrous, very powerful airport, and very expensive airport that was built years ago.  We were in there — we’re in that Middle East now for $8 trillion.”

Mr. Trump went on to say “We should be able to take some also, and what I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly.”

What Mr. Trump is talking about is called “pillaging” and it is prohibited in both international and US domestic law. According to ABC News:

“Pillaging is illegal under international law, explicitly prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which the U.S. ratified as a treaty in 1955. The U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 also made it punishable under U.S. law to commit a ‘grave breach’ of any of the Geneva conventions ‘whether inside or outside the United States.’

“These codifications were built on many previous legal prohibitions and military practices, from the charter of the Nuremberg trials that prosecuted the Nazis after World War II, to the Hague Convention of 1907 which was first proposed by President Theodore Roosevelt, all the way back to the 1863 Lieber Code. Commissioned and signed by President Abraham Lincoln, it governed the conduct of the Union Army in the field during the American Civil War and prohibited ‘all pillage or sacking, even after taking a place by main force,’ punishable by death.

One should also remember that the oil belongs to the Syrian state. Syria may wish to strike a deal with ExxonMobil, but it is difficult to imagine that the company would jump at the idea of managing tiny oil fields in the middle of a war zone. Mr. Trump may wish to negotiate a deal with ExxonMobil itself (I suspect that Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State that Mr. Trump fired who was also the CEO of ExxonMobil, would not make such a deal), but that amounts to stealing from Syria. And 500 US troops would not be nearly enough to defend the oil fields from Syrian troops backed up by the Russian military. The Guardian quotes Chris Harmer, a former navy officer and naval aviator, who is now a military analyst:

“‘It would take close to 100,000 troops plus the equipment, the airborne patrols, to secure the oilfields and extract the oil,’ Harmer said. ‘Theoretically it would suck up all the deployable assets we have. Forget about the Pacific, forget about Africa. They would just have one purpose – sucking up oil assets in the Middle East.’

“The military footprint would have to be even larger to actually get the oil out.

“’You’d have to occupy most of Syria to get the oil out of the country, since the Syrian export pipelines travel from the oilfields in eastern Syria all the way to the Mediterranean coast, right across the central breadth of the country,’ Krane [Jim Krane, an energy studies fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston] said.

“’It wouldn’t do you much good to just capture the oilfields. If you wanted to steal the oil, it would take a full military occupation of Syria to control the full length of the pipelines, so you could move the oil to market. At a minimum, that would mean occupying the city of Homs in central Syria, as well as the main Syrian oil terminals at Banias and Tartus. All that is in addition to occupying rebel-held areas such as Deir ez-Zour where the oilfields lie.’

“…..The costs of the military operations would far exceed any revenue that could be extracted.”

The reality of the battlefield will overtake this fantasy. Let’s hope that it occurs before a major confrontation.

Posted October 28, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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