Trump’s Troubled Plan for Syria’s Oil

The Trump administration has a plan to keep US forces in Syria, ostensibly to secure Syria’s oil fields. But the strategy underpinning this plan has little to do with oil and almost no chance of succeeding in the face of a rapidly changing geopolitical reality that neither Trump nor his advisers have yet grasped. The plan is politically and militarily unrealistic, if not impossible. Eventually the Syrian oil fields are likely to fall back under the control of the Syrian government and, with time, might even resume normal production.

In a speech from the White House on Oct. 23, President Donald Trump took credit for avoiding “another costly military intervention that could’ve led to disastrous, far-reaching consequences” by ordering the withdrawal of thousands of US troops from northeastern Syria. He then seemingly reversed himself by suggesting he might send an even larger contingent back into Syria to secure oil fields currently under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Force, or SDF. Trump declared that “We’ve secured the oil, and, therefore, a small number of US troops will remain in the area where they have the oil,” a reference to the Al-Omar, Tanak and Tabiyeh oil and gas fields located in and around the city of Deir ez-Zor on the east bank of the Euphrates River. “We’re going to be protecting it [the oil],” Trump noted, “and we’ll be deciding what we’re going to do with it in the future.”

The same day Trump delivered his speech, Ambassador James Jeffrey, US Special Representative for Syria, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he had not been consulted by the president prior to the decision about withdrawing US forces in Syria and that plans on how the US would defend the Syrian oil fields had not been completed. “What are we going do with these oil fields?” Jeffrey asked, rhetorically. “That’s a really good question and were really working hard on it. We do not have an answer on it at this time.”

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper noted that the US priority in focusing on Syria’s oil fields was “to deny access, specifically revenue, to ISIS [Islamic State] and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities.” Planning for such an eventuality, however, remained nebulous. “The military’s job is to prepare options, and then present them to the president and let him decide,” he explained.

The identity of the “other groups” mentioned by Esper was made clear during meetings between Ambassador Jeffrey and representatives of the Syrian Kurds, who were in Washington for discussions in the aftermath of the US withdrawal. Jeffries pressed the Kurds to help sustain a long-term US military presence in northern Syria centered on the oil fields, which, when partnered with the SDF forces, would serve as the foundation of a larger policy to roll back Iranian influence in Syria and isolate the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Overtaken by Events

Jeffrey’s plan was an extension of a policy first outlined by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a speech at Stanford University in January 2018. Tillerson noted that in a post-Islamic State era, the US would continue to maintain a robust military presence in Syria that would help promote the conditions for al-Assad’s departure from power and curb Iranian influence in Syria. According to Tillerson, this US posture would expand as Russia’s military profile declined over time.

The conditions necessary for Tillerson’s plan never materialized. In a series of stunning victories from 2018 onwards, the Syrian army routed anti-regime fighters, liberating large swaths of territory and driving rebel forces into a final bastion in Idlib Province. There, the Syrian army, backed by the Russian military, continued its attacks. Indeed, the success of the Syrian army in Idlib precipitated the current turn of events. Turkey pushed to invade northern Syria because the inevitable defeat of the rebel forces in Idlib would generate hundreds of thousands of refugees linked to radical Islamic forces that Turkey did not want on its territory. Instead, Turkey’s incursion into Syria would create so-called “safe zones” that Turkey could use to resettle refugees already in Turkish camps as well as those from Idlib.

Moreover, the justification for the US military presence in Syria — the alliance with the Kurdish SDF to defeat Islamic State — had lost its significance. Turkey tolerated the US-SDF alliance so long as there existed a viable threat from Islamic State. With Islamic State routed on the battlefield, Turkey viewed the 70,000 to 100,000-strong SDF as an existential threat to its security, given the organization’s links to the Kurdish People’s Party, or PKK, which is engaged in a decades-long fight with Turkey for Kurdish independence. In addition to creating a “safe zone” for the resettlement of Syrian refugees, the other main objective of the Turkish incursion was to eliminate the presence of SDF forces along a 30-kilometer wide strip of land along a large section of the Turkish-Syrian border.

The Turkish incursion, coupled with the withdrawal of US forces from northern Syria, made implementation of the Tillerson plan unrealistic. In order to survive the Turkish onslaught, the SDF, abandoned by its US allies, instead sought Syrian government assistance. To limit the scope of the Turkish invasion, Syrian Army forces, accompanied by Russian military police, occupied significant portions of the so-called “safety zone,” taking control of border checkpoints and major population centers.

By the time Trump, Esper and Jeffrey began to contemplate what a US defense of the Syrian oil fields might entail, the geopolitical reality that dictated their options had dramatically changed for the worse.

The US military presence in northern Syria had always been modest — a few thousand troops embedded among the SDF with US air support. The SDF was able to largely contain the threat from Islamic State, preventing any widespread anti-American insurgency from taking root. Moreover, the one time the US was directly threatened by forces aligned with the Syrian government — an attempt by several hundred Russian contract fighters and Syrian militia to occupy the Tabiyah gas field in February 2018 — the effort was repulsed with great losses among the attackers. The small number of US forces inside Syria, when coupled with the SDF and US air support, was more than a match for any battlefield opponent.

A New Reality

Today, this reality has changed dramatically. The SDF has been effectively neutralized as a viable fighting force, and the autonomous Kurdish enclave in northeastern Syria, which once comprised almost a third of Syria’s landmass, has virtually ceased to exist as Turkish, Syrian and Russian military forces have taken up their respective positions. While the US has sought to strip out select Arab units within the Kurdish-dominated SDF to serve as the basis of a planned “counter Iran” force, the numbers and quality of these fighters are modest — no more than a few thousand. This leaves a residual force of some 200-300 lightly armed US soldiers to defend the massive territory encompassing Syria’s oil fields.

The harsh reality is that the US is assuming an indefensible position. The remaining US forces hunkered down in a handful of fortified bases in and around Deir ez-Zor are incapable of projecting the kind of presence necessary to secure the oil fields, let alone defend their respective bases from concerted attack. A repeat of the February 2018 attack by Russian contractors would more than likely succeed in rapidly overrunning the US positions.

In order to create a militarily viable presence in the Syrian oil fields, the Pentagon has proposed deploying an armored task force drawn from a US army brigade currently in Kuwait. With some 30 main battle tanks and accompanying armor vehicles, this task force, comprising several hundred soldiers, would allow the US to conduct robust patrolling with forces able to face down any challenge from either the Syrian Army or Russia, as well as to defeat any resurgent Islamic State threat.

Left unsaid is the willingness of the Iraqi government to permit this force to transit its territory, or the ability of the US to sustain the armored task force once deployed. The main road that connects the remaining US forces in Syria to Iraq and their source of supply is now under the control of the Syrian and Russian armies. “It’s going to be a Fort Apache scenario,” former Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk, who coordinated the anti-Islamic State effort for both Presidents Barack Obama and Trump, observed. “Very difficult to supply.”

“When we commit American troops to battle,” Trump stated during his Oct. 23 address, “we must do so only when a vital national interest is at stake, and when we have a clear objective, a plan for victory, and a path out of conflict. That’s what we have to have.”

Having successfully extricated the US from one policy disaster, it appears Trump is violating his own instincts by creating the conditions for the US to become bogged down in another mission impossible scenario. “We need a plan of victory,” Trump had declared. “We will only win. Our whole basis has to be the right plan, and then we will only win.”

US policymakers and military planners confront a situation with Syria’s oil fields in which none of the factors mentioned by Trump exist. There is no plan worthy of the name, and, as such, no pathway to victory. The US position is unsustainable. It’s just a question of time until even the most hawkish of policymakers recognizes this harsh new reality of the US position at Syria’s oil fields and the last remaining US forces in Syria are ordered home. At that point, Syria will regain control of its oil and gas production.

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