Absurdity of the Neocons’ Syrian Oil Narrative

No doubt, US foreign and military policy since the 1970s has focused on access to and control over the vast oil reserves in the Middle East. Uncritical support of Saudi Arabia (home base for jihadi terrorism and the women-oppressing form of Islam practiced by the Taliban) and the Shah of Iran (oppressive dictator who led to the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1978) are/were countenanced due to the huge oil reserves these two countries possess. Gulf War I in 1990-91 involving Kuwait and Iraq was entirely about Middle East oil. Gulf War II in Iraq was initiated in 2003 for many yet unclear reasons. But sustaining this war of choice for eight years (through 2011) was done in part to get Iraq’s oil production and export sales back up to the country’s prewar level of 4.5 million barrels/day (b/d).

Over the last 50 years, the US has spent trillions of dollar and fought wars to ensure that the 18 million b/d of oil (about one-fifth of world supply) that is exported through the Straits of Hormuz continued to flow to the US, Europe, and Asia. (As of this year, the US became a net oil products exporter; thus our country is no longer directly dependent on foreign oil.)

But none of this US blood and treasure involved Syria oil.

The pre-civil war territory of Syria holds less than 0.2% of the world’s known oil reserves. After eight years of civil war, the Syrian oil fields in the Deir ez-Zor region currently produce only 24,000 b/d of oil. Current world oil production is over 80 million b/d. Yet, President Trump (egged on by Senator Lindsay Graham and Fox News analyst General Jack Keane) says he will be keeping U.S. troops in Syria indefinitely to protect the meager Deir ez-Zor Syrian oil fields. Russia, upset that the US grabbing Russia’s lawful right to all Syrian oil production, claims the US is stealing $30 million/month by commandeering the oil in Syria’s suddenly hotly contested Deir ez-Zor region.

Is the US really keeping US troops in Syria and sending M1 Abrams tanks (or other mechanized vehicles) and several hundred additional soldiers to Syria to keep the "bad guys" from reaping this paltry $1 million/day "windfall"? In this case, the bad guys are: what remains of a degraded ISIS after Baghdadi’s demise; the lawful Syrian Assad government; Russia as the country that holds contractual rights to Syrian oil; and all-round villain Iran. The insignificant amount of money to be gained by the US garnering the Deir ez-Zor region’s oil production is far less than the costs US taxpayers will incur for deploying and sustaining 30 or so fuel-guzzling armored vehicles and at least 400 soldiers (not to mention the requisite air support, quick-response backup teams, med-evac capability, intelligence, security, life support, etc.) at a remote desert location along the Euphrates River in southern Syria.

Has anyone in Washington done a cost/benefit analysis on the revised Graham/Keane plan versus the full pullout of US forces as President Trump originally announced? This is basic stuff that I learned at the same place the Secretary of Defense went to business school. Let’s see the analysis. Why not just give the Kurds the cost of the US troop deployment and let them handle the oil on their own?

Despite the Trump administration’s hostile "maximum pressure" campaign, Iran currently sells an estimated 300 to 500 thousand b/d of crude oil (compared to Iran’s pre-sanction level of 2.5 million b/d of crude oil exports). However, to offset its loss in crude oil sales, Iran has increased its oil-products exports. Iran now totals nearly $500 million/month in hydrocarbon sales. With US troops gone from Syria, would Iran wage a civil war against its allies (the Assad government and Russia) and the Kurds to increase its petroleum sales by a mere $30 million/month? Rest assured, Iran’s goal is to get its crude oil exports back to the pre-sanction figure of 2.5 million b/d. This achievement would be a $3.5 billion/month increase in revenues for Iran over the status quo. Iran may be a lot of things, but its leaders are not stupid. It’s implausible Iran would start an internecine conflict in Syria and confound its international problems by stealing a minor amount of Syrian oil.

Apparently, the neocons in Congress think the possibility of Iran confiscating Syria’s trivial oil production and garnering further international scorn is such a realistic probability that they regurgitate this incredulous assertion every time one gets in front of a microphone. For example, below are excerpts from a New York Times article, dated October 27, 2019, citing Senator Graham’s comments on this matter:

Mr. Graham, too, contends that American control of the oil fields [in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria] would "deny Iran and Assad a monetary windfall," as he put it in a statement last week.

But Mr. Graham has taken the argument a step further, to suggest that Syrian oil [revenues] could go into American coffers, as Mr. Trump once implied for Iraq. "We can also use some of the revenue from oil sales to pay for our military commitment in Syria," Mr. Graham added.

Yes, with probably several billion in foreign direct investment, the Syrian oil fields could be returned to their prewar (2010) production levels of about 400,000 b/d. This endeavor is probably a 2-to-3 year project that could be started only after peace is restored and Syria is again an intact, sovereign nation. Having been personally involved in wasting over $1 billion in US taxpayer funds trying to perform infrastructure projects in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan from 2011-14, I can attest to the insanity of undertaking infrastructure construction projects in an active war zone.

Once a multi-billion-dollar oil infrastructure improvement program is completed in Syria, about 300,000 b/d of Syrian oil production would be available for export sales, net of Syria’s domestic consumption. Such projects – which Russia and Iran have already committed and are contracted to do under a February 2018 energy cooperation agreement with the Assad government – will also benefit the Syrian Kurds. The projects contemplated in this agreement have been put on hold pending the end of Syria’s civil war.

Given that Syria’s civil war is still raging, it’s unimaginable that ISIS (or any other terrorist group) could retake the Syrian oil fields; fund and make the necessary capital improvements to restore the Deir ez-Zor region’s oil production capacity; and then generate export oil sales as necessary to reestablish a caliphate that could threaten America. The simple fact is, without having any US soldiers on the ground in Syria, the US Air Force would bomb into nonexistence any oil production facilities terrorists started to build as soon as they showed up in satellite imagery – just as the USAF did in 2015-18 to obliterate the infrastructure of the original ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Despite this fact, the US Congress has repeatedly passed bipartisan resolutions condemning President Trump for wanting to end America’s endless wars and to bring our weary soldiers home. Instead, Congress contends that ISIS remains a clear and present danger to America that requires US ground troops to remain in harm’s way in a sectarian civil war in Syria 7,000 miles away from the American homeland.

Referring to the investment and expertise needed to restore Syrian oil production to prewar levels, President Trump (a real estate developer with no background in the oil business) is quoted as saying he’s going to pursue "getting a US oil company – like ExxonMobil – to go in there and do it properly." This dubious possibility has already been assessed and dismissed by a real ExxonMobil executive: Trumps’ first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, the retired Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil. Here are additional excerpts from the above cited Times article:

Then there is the basic question of the oil’s ownership.

"Oil, like it or not, is owned by the Syrian state," Brett H. McGurk, Mr. Trump’s former envoy to the 70-nation coalition to defeat ISIS, said at a panel discussion on Syria hosted Monday by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Mr. McGurk said that Mr. Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, had studied the issue and concluded there was no practical way for the United States to monetize its control over oil-rich areas.

"Maybe there are new lawyers now, but it was just illegal for an American company to go and seize and exploit these assets," Mr. McGurk said.

[Are the "new lawyers" Mr. McGurk is alluding to a certain ex-New York City mayor?]

Mr. McGurk said the only legal way to make money from the Syrian oil fields would be to work with Russia and the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to place the revenue into an escrow account to help fund Syria’s postwar reconstruction. But he said Russia had little interest in the idea, even before America assumed a diminished role in the country this month. Nor has Mr. Trump expressed any public interest in using the oil to fund Syria’s reconstruction.

Mr. [Arron] Stein [an expert on Syria and Turkey with the Foreign Policy Research Institute] said he believed the true goal of some Trump administration officials and advisers was to keep the oil fields not from ISIS but from Mr. Assad’s forces, to deny him funds to rebuild his country and thus ensure that Syria remained a financial burden on its ally, Iran.

There you have it! Prolonging the Syrian civil war and thus continuing the misery and suffering of the 18 million Syrians remaining in their country (including the two millions Kurds whom the Washington establishment deems to be our dearest allies) – along with the four million Syrian refugees who have fled the country – is a cynical ploy by the Washington establishment to further its geopolitical war with Iran.

The truth is, Iran in no way, shape or form poses a threat to America. Iran does not have the military capability to attack America. Iran agreed to and abided by an UN-approved treaty ratified in 2015 that was negotiated and signed by all world powers, including the US. This agreement prohibited Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran is also a compliant signatory to the 1968 UN Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, even though all countries in the Middle East are not signatories to the NPT.

Congress owes it to the American public to explain in plain language why the US is maintaining a large military presence in the Middle East at a great cost to US taxpayers and engendering the further loss of American soldiers in combat operations that do not involve US national security or economic interests.

Spoiler alert: It has nothing to do with Syrian oil.

Ronald Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA and MIT graduate who has served in the Air force and worked for USAID in Iraq and Afghanistan for seven years. He has written a book, When Will We Ever Learn? (Amazon Kindle), critiquing US foreign and military policy from his involvement in the War on Terror and his experiences living and working in Europe and the Middle East for over 20 years. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico.

Author: Ronald Enzweiler

Mr. Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA , MIT graduate, and US Air Force veteran who has lived, worked, and traveled extensively in the Greater Middle East, including working as an USAID contractor and US Foreign Service (limited) Officer in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007 through 2014. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico with his wife Elena. He’s written a book critiquing US foreign and military policy titled, When Will We Ever Learn?, and has written other articles for Antiwar.com and the Libertarian Institute.