How Not to End a Forever War

Photograph Source: A. Lourie – Public Domain

I love “caper’ movies. There’s nothing like a gang of lovable rogues executing an elaborately planned, seemingly impossible crime. President Donald Trump, while in no way lovable, pulled off the perfect caper when he grabbed the White House three years ago. Now Trump has launched a new caper: stealing Syria’s oil. Danny Ocean, eat your heart out.

We got the story straight from the horse’s ass in a series of Trump tweets and press conferences. Trump’s abrupt decision on October 6 to withdraw US forces from Syria (leaving the Kurds to the mercy of Turkey which launched an incursion into northeastern Syria on October 9) was followed less than two weeks later by the announcement that the US would be leaving from 900 to 1200 combat troops plus 30 Abrams tanks in Syria to “secure” the country’s oil fields. Another 500 to 600 troops will be left in Syria to fight ISIS, the Pentagon announced on Sunday.

Trump has had oil on the brain for decades. Trump tells anyone who will listen that he was against invading Iraq, but since we did, we should have taken the oil in order to pay for the war. Trump speaks often of the value of Syria’s oil fields, which are located primarily in Syria’s eastern province of Deir ez-Zor. The Pentagon, which opposed Trump’s initial decision to withdraw US troops, seized on Trump’s oil obsession to convince Trump that the US has to keep a limited number of troops in Syria in order to protect Syria’s oil.

The Syrian Falcon

If you’ve seen a few caper films, you know how often a scheme falls on its face. The eponymous statuette in The Maltese Falcon, turns out to be worthless. Trump doesn’t know it now, but Syria’s oil is shaping up as his Maltese Falcon.

Trump thinks that Syria’s oil will “reimburse” the US for its efforts in Syria. He thinks that American corporations are eager to extract Syria’s oil.[1] But as Juan Cole remarks: “This is a pipe dream. No oil major would be interested.”

Why not? Because Trump is wrong about Syria having a “massive” amount of oil. It doesn’t. Syria is not Saudi Arabia. Or Venezuela, or Iran, or Iraq, or Kuwait, or any of the world’s other top oil producing states. Syria has a “piddling amount of oil,” according to Robin Wright of the New Yorker. Even at its pre-war peak, Syria produced no more than 350,000 to 400,000 barrels of oil a day. Saudi Arabia produces ten million barrels a day. What’s more, since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, oil production has plummeted 90%. Much of Syria’s oil production infrastructure has been destroyed during the course of the war (including by the US, which bombed the Syrian oil fields when they were in the hands of the Islamic State).[2] It will take years and billions of dollars to get Syrian oil production back to prewar levels. Lucian Truscott writes in Salon that “If Trump thinks ExxonMobil or any other American oil company can just move into Syria and start pumping oil and making profits, he’s dreaming.”

“A Hell of a Fight”

You can’t have a caper without a crime. Trump is on the verge of a big one. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a torturer and mass murderer who Syrians have been trying to overthrow since 2011. Yet that does not change the fact that legally the Syrian state is the owner of the country’s oil. This means that Trump’s proposed oil heist may constitute “pillaging” (theft during wartime), a war crime under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. The Pentagon claimed on November 7 that the US would not be keeping any of the revenues from Syria oil sales. Instead, revenues will go to the primarily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. This flatly contradicts Trump’s statements about “keeping” Syria’s oil in order to defray US outlays for its military operations in Syria.

Trump realizes that he is risking a violent clash with Assad, ISIS, or Russia. That’s fine with him. During his October 27 press conference, Trump said that “we are leaving soldiers to secure the oil. And we may have to fight for the oil. It’s okay. Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case they have a hell of a fight” (emphasis added). Trump has said that he wants to end America’s “forever wars.” Yet he is unfazed by the prospect of going head to head with Russia or the Syrian Arab Army, or renewing US fighting against ISIS.

I am not certain that the US did the right thing going into Syria, but we took on obligations when we did. Chief among these is not to betray America’s friends. I don’t agree with commentators who argue, in effect, that it is okay to betray the Kurds because they’re used to US betrayal. Trump has shown that he cares more about oil than he does about our Kurdish allies. If the US is going to have troops in Syria, they should be protecting people, not property. We should end the “forever” wars, but not this way.


1. At an October 27 press conference called to announce the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by US Special Operations Forces, Trump said: “And what I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it [extract Syria’s oil] properly.”

2. Later in his October 27 press conference, Trump said: “[M]uch of the machinery has been shot and dead. It’s been through wars.” But does Trump appreciate just how much work it will take to get Syria’s oil flowing again? There is no sign that he does.

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at