During an almost casual exchange at a Senate hearing last month, the Trump administration revealed something historic: It has awarded a contract to an American company to begin extracting oil from Syria. This is a vivid throwback to earlier imperial eras, when conquerors felt free to loot the resources of any territory they could capture and subdue. Yet the deal is barely about oil. It is a fiendishly clever maneuver aimed at anchoring American troops in Syria for a long time.
The contract grants an oil concession inside a strip of northern Syria that stretches along most of the country’s 600-mile border with Turkey. A militia run by Syrian Kurds officially controls that strip, but it would have trouble holding off the Syrian army without American military support. The Syrian government already has declared that any attempt to “steal Syria’s oil under the sponsorship and support of the American administration” is “null and void and has no legal basis.” So this deal sets the stage for long-term conflict between the United States and Syria.
That appears to be the intent of its chief promoters, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Replying to a question from Graham at a hearing on July 30, Pompeo confirmed that plans to implant the American oil company inside a US-protected enclave in Syria were “now in implementation.” He added that the deal might prove “very powerful.” In oil terms, it won’t be; Syria has just 0.1 percent of the world’s oil reserves and much of its infrastructure has been destroyed by years of war. As a way of keeping American troops in Syria, though, this deal is adroitly conceived. After all, a US-based company would need protection — even if that means protection against the government of the country where it works.
Behind this deal lies a crucial foreign policy question: Does America’s national security require us to maintain a potent military presence in the Middle East? American presidents since Jimmy Carter have insisted that control of the Persian Gulf and surrounding regions is vital. Rising voices now argue that this view is outdated, and that the United States would best protect itself by withdrawing from the Middle East. Placing an American oil company in Syria is an effort to prevent that.
The company that has been given the Syria contract, Delta Crescent Energy, was formed specifically for this job. Among its owners are James Cain, who was a US ambassador under President George W. Bush, and James Reese, a former officer in the Army’s elite Delta Force who later ran a private security firm. Its political and paramilitary connections position it well to build something in northern Syria that future presidents may feel compelled to defend.
Our original goal in Syria, deposing President Bashar Assad, has become unrealistic. Recognizing this, the United States is moving to Plan B: Dismember the country. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have sought to destabilize Syria — or, as President Trump’s special envoy Jim Jeffrey memorably put it, “to make life as miserable as possible for that flopping cadaver of a regime.”
Neither Graham nor Pompeo has explicitly called for the breakup of Syria. Graham, however, strongly opposed President Trump’s short-lived plan to withdraw American troops, asserting last year that “if I hear the president say one more time, ‘I made a campaign promise to get out of Syria,’ I’m going to throw up.” Pompeo has described the American mission in northern Syria as “stabilization activities” that are part of “a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure” against the Syrian government. Neighboring Turkey, correctly interpreting these euphemisms, condemned what it said were American efforts to undermine the “territorial integrity, unity, and sovereignty of Syria.”
Today fewer than 1,000 American soldiers are deployed in Syria. The stated rationales for keeping them there shift like desert sands, from fighting militants to countering Russia to defending Israel to protecting beleaguered civilians. Behind them all lies the view that the United States must remain militarily dominant in the Middle East. Yet by coldly realist standards, the United States has no strategic interest in Syria. Placing an American company in the heart of contested Syrian territory could give us one. If this deal is allowed to stand, it could prove to be geopolitical quicksand that will keep us trapped in Syria for years to come.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.