Don’t Make It About the Oil

Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

By Paul R. Pillar

Confusion has prevailed regarding the purposes of the U.S. troop presence in Syria, and whether the declared purposes are the actual ones. Originally the expedition was widely understood to be all about combating the Islamic State (ISIS) after the group had established a mini-state on a large portion of Syrian and Iraqi territory. Then hawks within the Trump administration and President Trump himself, in a classic case of mission creep, declared that the U.S. troops were also in Syria to “watch Iran.” Later variations of the creeped-up mission included not only watching Iran but also, through some unexplained mechanism, getting Iran and maybe Russia to abandon their positions in Syria.

More recently, Trump has been under much pressure from various parts of the political spectrum to keep the U.S. military in Syria, in contradiction with his earlier stated intention to exit and his orders to redeploy troops that had been in the Kurdish-inhabited northeastern part of the country. Political pressures and contradictory tendencies are a prescription for even less clarity than before about what the troops’ mission is or ought to be. Trump, who is trying to milk as much political advantage as possible from the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and proclaimed that because of al-Baghdadi’s death “the world is now a much safer place,” is resisting the idea that the original mission of combating ISIS in Syria is still necessary, at least in the general and open-ended way in which that mission was first framed. So now the declared mission has evolved yet again, with a new rationale that had emerged even before al-Baghdadi’s removal. Some U.S. troops are staying in eastern Syria, according to this rationale, to secure Syria’s modest oil resources.

There is still an ISIS dimension to this rationale, in that the group, while it had its mini-state, gained some revenue from exploitation of oil fields under its control. But to do that it needed the mini-state. Any scenario in which ISIS once again exploits, rather than just damages, Syrian oil fields presupposes re-establishment of its territorial caliphate, which means the world would once again be facing a bigger and more general anti-ISIS task. In its current status as an insurgent movement and terrorist group rather than a mini-state, ISIS is in no position to exploit the oil, except perhaps in an extremely small way, in the manner of Nigerian banditry, by surreptitiously tapping into a pipeline.

This leaves open the question of what the Trump administration intends to do with the oil that it has “secured” through military occupation. That in turn raises disturbing questions of whether the United States is engaging, contrary to international law, in wartime pillaging of Syria’s oil.

But there is another disturbing implication that deserves attention especially because of how big a deal Trump is attempting to make of the blows against ISIS and how they supposedly have made the world “much safer.” From a counterterrorist perspective, taking possession of oil resources is one of the worst possible rationales for justifying a U.S. military presence in a foreign country. And in his Sunday morning performance, Trump couched the subject in one of the worst possible ways.

A prominent and longstanding theme in the ideology and propaganda of terrorist groups rooted in the Arab Muslim world—including al-Qaeda and ISIS—is that the United States and the West are out to plunder the resources of Muslims. Such groups violently oppose U.S. troops in Muslim countries partly because they are seen as furthering the plundering mission. Osama bin Laden repeatedly returned to this theme. In a 2004 audio recording, for example, bin Laden stated that “the biggest reason for our enemies’ control over our lands is to steal our oil.” Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a 2005 video called on his followers to “focus their attacks on the stolen oil of the Muslims…This is the greatest theft in the history of humanity. The enemies of Islam are consuming this vital resource with unparalleled greed.” The terrorists’ focus on oil has raised concerns about terrorist attacks on oil facilities, but the idea of stealing resources that rightfully belong to Muslims has motivated attacks on the United States wherever such attacks can be staged.

Trump’s Sunday appearance before the press played right into this theme. Referring back to the Iraq War, Trump described as his own view at the time that if the United States was going into Iraq, it should “keep the oil.” As for Syria’s oil, he said it can help the Kurds but “it can help us because we should be able to take some also. And what I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an Exxon Mobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly.” A propagandist for ISIS or al-Qaeda would hardly have written the script differently.

Even if there were any ISIS fighters who turn away from their cause in response to Trump’s probably embellished account of a “screaming, crying, whimpering” al-Baghdadi, there surely are many more who are energized by the evidence confirming what their leaders have always told them about U.S. plundering of Muslim resources.  Trump’s priority, however, was not in speaking to them but instead, as always, to his domestic political base.

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Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. When I heard that Trump was keeping troops in Syria to protect the oilfields I did not understand. It made no sense to me. I later read that Lindsay Graham was touting that this was a brilliant move – then, I became very suspicious.

    Let me explain – During my five months of Pentagon prewar oil planning in 2002 followed by seventy-five months in Iraq under DOD, I saw several things that did not make any sense to me at the time. For example, why did Paul Wolfowitz reverse a cabinet level decision just before hostilities started in March 2003 to destroy an Iraqi $50 million export pump station in Anbar Province? It made no sense to me at the time. It was the only intentional oil, electricity or water infrastructure target attacked by the US Forces during the early stages of the 2003 war. It reversed the decision made by the President’s cabinet just a couple months earlier that said the pipeline and pump station would not be destroyed. It took me more than twelve years to learn that this pipeline attack and the other items making no sense to me at the time were all part of the neocon oil agenda to get Iraqi oil to Israel. Only while researching for my recently published book and reading the Israeli press and other articles in the international press did I learn of the oil agenda orchestrated by the neocons, Dr. Ahmed Chalabi and the Israeli government.

    Today, Israel gets almost all of its oil imports from Iraqi Kurdistan at reduced prices. Why? Because Baghdad considers all Iraqi Kurdish exports as smuggled oil and has executed seizure orders in the past to seize Kurdish cargoes sent to countries recognized by Baghdad. Since Baghdad does not recognize the country of Israel, the Kurds use Israel as a sanctuary for receiving their oil exports. Whatever oil Israel does not need for domestic consumption gets re-exported to other customers without being sold as Iraqi crude and thus avoiding seizure. It may well be the largest oil smuggling operation in the history of the international oil industry. With the Syrian Kurdish oilfields located fairly close to the Iraqi Kurdish oilfields – could Lindsay Graham be so pleased because he thinks that the Syrian Kurds will export/smuggle their oil to Israel just like the Iraqi Kurds? That makes sense to me. We continue putting American blood and treasure at risk in Syria just like we did in Iraq so that our business friends in Israel make $billions and the citizens of Israel get cheap gas at the pump!

  2. Gary Vogler

    Not sure about today, but before 2016 they were getting their oil from KRG.

    On your broader thesis, I agree.

  3. Gary Vogler
    Sorry to tell you this but the fact that it took you 12 years to start understanding what is patent for years to any international observer, means you’re a rather lazy or somehow uninterested writer, not a genuine author. You should also be focused in all the story about Al-Baghdadi escaping from either Raqqa or Deir-ez-Zor in the East of Syria just when the U.S. troops with the help of the Syrian Kurds were coming forth. We know that lines of trucks and buses were heading to the north-west (Idlib province, near the Turkish border) under supervision by U.S. troops. The whole ‘adventure’ of the U.S. in the region is both to depose Al-Assad in Syria and counter Iran. You clearly forgot or ignored the fact that Iran’s growth in influence in the region was directly related to Bush ‘W’ invasion and dismissal of Saddam Hussein and the crush of Baath secular rule in Iraq. You also conveniently forget or ignore the C.I.A. role in the creation and development of warriors ‘freedom fighters’ strangely morphing into Al-Qaeda (with cero previous foothold in Iraq and Syria) then becoming ISIS. Still strange for you is also the fact that Al-Baghdadi was infamously ‘protected’ by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham likely with Erdogan’s assent in Idlib with as many of ‘liberated’ ISIS warriors and their families, all under U.S. knowledge.

  4. No, the world is not a safer place. The forces that threw up Isis are entirely of US origin. The death of ‘al Bhagdadi’ – the nom de guerre of a vicious but briefly spectacular warlord, no more – is irrelevant. Solemn discussion of oil, or not, ignore the fact that the US, after destroying a nation – Iraq – just because it wanted to, and invented a ‘reason’, invaded Syria. And remains there so long as one uninvited Army Private remains.there.

    It beggars the imagination to imagine Trump’s reply should a ‘small number’ of North Korean troops invite themselves on US territory and start bombing and otherwise killing US civilians, just (effectively) on a whim.

    In the view of any imperial power in history, there is only one sovereign power. Itself. As with the destruction of Melos, the Athenians had no interest in arguing over the morality of their action, as in practice ‘might makes right’—or, as they summarized it,, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” (Thucidides, ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’).

    Precisely the US position, but with bracing honesty replacing mealy mouthed, hypocritical moralizing.

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