Analysis

As Oil War Rages in Syria, Trump and Putin Battle About to Boil Over

The U.S. president's decision to leave forces to guard Syria's oil fields has angered Russia, which sees them as war booty it deserves

File photo: U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin hold a bilateral meeting in Hamburg, Germany, July 2017.
Carlos Barria/ REUTERS

At a Mississippi rally in September, Trump that he’d like American troops to return home, but that the U.S. was in Syria to defend its oil fields. “I like oil”, he said. He was referring to oil fields in northern Syria, which until recently were under the control of Kurdish rebel forces. For the sake of these oil fields, Trump decided to leave behind some of the units that had started pulling out of Syria.

Russia was furious and accused the U.S. of illegal activity – stealing $30-40 million a month, money that rightfully belongs to the Syrian regime, according to Moscow. Defense Secretary Mike Esper warned Russia and Syria not to come close to these oil fields. The U.S. doesn’t really need this oil, as it produces all it needs itself. But maintaining control over oil fields in Deir El-Zor and al-Hasakah gives the U.S. an excuse to leave some forces in Syria. In light of the harsh criticism of Trump’s decision to withdraw from that country, his love of oil may actually increase American presence in the region.

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Trump also announced that he’s considering signing a deal with ExxonMobil, letting it run these oilfields. It will be interesting to see which ExxonMobil executive would agree to sign a deal that requires entering an area with an uncertain future, with war still raging all around. But Twitter, especially Trump’s account, can handle anything. The practical reason for American control of these fields is that this finances continued aid to the Kurds, without affecting U.S. coffers.

For Syria, American control of these oil fields is a serious economic blow. Supposedly, the amount of oil produced by Syria before the war was relatively small. Official government figures showed that in the peak year of 1966, Syria produced 600,000 barrels a day. From that year on, the numbers declined, reaching 3000,000 in 2010 and ceasing completely when ISIS took over, producing oil for its own needs.

The estimated oil reserves in Syria amount to 2.5 billion barrels, constituting 0.14 percent of the world’s reserves. But according to an analysis by Dr Suhail al-Hamdan from the American University for Human Sciences, which has branches is several Middle Eastern countries, this number is highly inaccurate.

In an interview to the Syrian website Enab Baladi, he explains that according to data he assembled independently, based on sources in the Syrian energy ministry, the Assad regime was producing 1.4-1.6 million barrels a day before 2004, but reporting only 380,000 barrels, with revenues from these going to the country’s treasury. The remainder went to franchisees that were close to the regime and to the Assad family, who became millionaires by selling the rest of the oil. In 2011, the regime reported the production of 150,000 barrels of oil a day, while the local consumption totaled 250,000. In practice, more than 800,000 barrels a day were produced. In that period too, Assad’s associates sold the difference within Syria or in neighboring countries, at reduced prices.

U.S. forces patrol Syrian oil fields on Oct. 28, 2019.
AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad

As a result, Syria could present a deceptive picture to its Russian and Iranian allies, according to which it needed credit in order to buy oil, whereas in practice it continued to export it. Apparently, Russia and Iran did not buy this ruse, and have been engaged in a struggle with the Syrian regime over the right to produce oil and develop oil fields when the war is over.

The main beneficiary is Russia, which according to Syrian websites has been awarded most of the franchises for producing oil, in contrast to Iran, which did not receive anything of substance. This applies to oil as well as to telecommunications, which Iran wanted to get into in a major way. If Hamdan’s numbers are even partially correct, it’s clear why Russia had a fit when the U.S. took over oil fields that Russia views as war booty it deserves.

While the Kurds continue to indirectly benefit from oil fields protected by the U.S., the rest of Syria’s citizens, mainly the ones living in the wide areas controlled by the Syrian government, are preparing for a harsh winter in which they will have to again look for firewood in order to heat their homes and cook their food.

Twelve million people who were uprooted from their homes are dependent on good neighbors and on aid organizations in order to survive. Recently, some of these groups, such as People in Need and the Syrian Watan Foundation, have initiated activities that could generate some revenue for families, mainly for women who’ve been left without breadwinners. One such project is called “cash for work,” in which men and women do some reconstruction work, cleaning, olive picking, rubble removal and cheese making. This is funded by these organizations, with the workers receiving a modest monthly income of $120, which allows them to buy basic foodstuffs and some fuel.

But this is just a drop in the ocean of poverty and deprivation, with a new layer of oligarchs cropping up, making fortunes from the war. The U.S. could help more and use some of the revenues from Syrian oil to fund at least some of the population’s needs. But Trump loves oil, and he won’t easily relinquish it.