Oil is the reason the Americans are staying in Syria
Trump doesn't want to pay the costs of the war in eastern Syria, and the American military and diplomats don't want to leave Syria. Their compromise in Washington was to keep the oilfields so that Washington doesn't have to finance the SDF.
I spent five years in Iraq during the American war there. Many leftist analysts believe the Americans destroyed Saddam Hussein's regime because of oil. I know from my direct experience that oil was not the reason. However, in 2019 oil is the reason the Americans are staying in Syria. The American decision is strange because the oilfields in eastern Syria are relatively small and the oil's high sulfur earns only a low international price. The American justification is that they want to protect the oilfields from Daesh.
However, there are armoured units in the American forces that we never saw in Syria before. There are also artillery units. Normally, armoured units and artillery are not the best weapons to use against guerrilla fighters like Daesh. Instead, armoured units and artillery are used against another army. And, in fact, American Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on October 28 that the American mission is not only to protect the oilfields from Daesh but also to protect them from the Syrian army and its Russian allies.
This is not completely new. In February 2018 the American air force destroyed a Syrian government convoy with Syrian soldiers and Russian mercenaries that tried to take the Conoco gas factory near Deir Ezzor. It is worth mentioning that Russian company Wagner, whose owner is an ally of the Kremlin, has a contract with the Syrian government for the reconstruction of oilfields. Wagner is supposed to receive a 25 per cent share of the production.
The Americans are determined to win political concessions from the Syrian government by blocking Syrian government control of the oil revenues. American officials and many experts think that this pressure will compel Assad to make big political concessions either in the negotiations under the UN about the Syrian Constitution or concessions to the Syrian Kurds about an autonomous zone.
At the same time, American control of the oilfields also will give the Syrian Democratic Forces monies to pay its soldiers and to pay for the detention centres where thousands of Daesh prisoners and their families are being held. Trump doesn't want to pay the costs of the war in eastern Syria, and the American military and diplomats don't want to leave Syria. Their compromise in Washington was to keep the oilfields so that Washington doesn't have to finance the SDF. The oil revenues are not for Washington. They are for Mazloum Abdi and his SDF fighters led by the Syrian Kurdish YPG.
The SDF and the Syrian Kurds have strong support in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Only a few members of Congress will complain about the Trump administration controlling oilfields for the Kurds and the SDF. This Congressional support for the new American policy in eastern Syria will only change if there will be an important number of American casualties in the new military operation. From 2014 until now only eight American soldiers and employees have died in eastern Syria, and therefore the American people don't pay attention to the war and the American military role can continue.
We can expect in the weeks and months ahead that the Syrian intelligence will try to exploit tensions between the SDF and its Kurdish leadership and Arab towns.
It is even possible that Syrian intelligence will again encourage extremists like Daesh to attack American forces as it did with Al Qaeda in Iraq 2004-2010.
In the end, the American occupation of the oilfields may help Daesh without winning political concessions from Assad who is patient and can wait for the Americans sooner or later to leave Syria. Washington is moving from one failed policy in Syria to another.
-Asharq Al Awsat
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria
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