Why Donald Trump is Really Keeping US Troops in Syria

Trump’s main reason for keeping U.S. forces in Syria is not about Iran. It’s about stopping Iraqi oil from getting to Damascus.
Why Donald Trump is Really Keeping US Troops in Syria
Photo credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP

For three years, commentators in the Middle East were left speechless on live debates as to how U.S. and Gulf Arab air forces could carry out thousands of sorties in ISIS-held areas in Northern Syria under Obama’s plan (which started in late 2014), without succeeding in destroying one oil field with their precision bombing.

One field held by ISIL, in Raqqa, continued producing and selling oil throughout and whose “owners” even had the nerve to advertise in the Arabic language media for a station manager when they initially took it, confident they would never be hit.

One field held by ISIL, in Raqqa, continued producing and selling oil throughout and whose “owners” even had the nerve to advertise in the Arabic language media for a station manager when they initially took it, confident they would never be hit. The main field, in Deir Ezzor in the East of Syria, also remained in ISIL’s hands until it finally fell to ground forces—not aerial attack—in 2017 from U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters. Was there a deal with the Kurdish-led SDF coalition to leave the oil fields intact or were there other factors in play?

Da’esh fighters controlling the oil fields knew they would never be significantly hit, as their main client—Israel—had struck an unwritten rule with the U.S. and its partners to let the terrorist group continue selling it cheap oil, through a road network spanning one side of Turkey all the way through to its Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The farce continues to this day.  Now in the hands of the Kurds, those same oil fields are selling oil to the same clients, except this time they sell also to the Assad regime.

America always knew that while the fight for Assad might be lost by playing a dangerous game of using ISIL as a convenient pretext to bomb the country’s infrastructure (while remaining there with forces), the peace could also be lost for the Syrian leader once he took control, with the aid of both Russia and Iran. And the cornerstone of that fragile peace, could be the domestic oil supply, not for the Assad regime but for the people who have to live without any oil at all.

Double Tap

Cranked up Iran sanctions always had this double whammy for Trump who wants so hard to show the world that he is so different from Obama, but in reality is continuing Obama’s policy in Syria: to try and achieve as much as possible to remove Assad, with as little effort as possible.

Syria now faces chronic oil shortages, which are no doubt the result of Western sanctions on Syria and renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran, a key ally. These sanctions have led to rare public criticism of President Bashar Assad’s government through social media players and even regular media which is usually servile to the Syrian leader.

Pity those who have to pay the price for peace by living in cities which have ground to a halt without even basic services. For those Syrians, the victory which Western pundits talk of when they speak of Assad’s Syria, has yet to arrive.

According to very recent reports, in government controlled areas, “cars line up by the hundreds outside petrol stations, and long lines of people waiting to buy rationed cooking gas begin forming before dawn. Taxi drivers are crossing the border to Lebanon to stock up on fuel — and then doubling their rates.”  

Syria had quite an impressive oil industry before the Western sanctions, imposed after Assad began a violent crackdown on Arab Spring protests in 2011, crippled the country’s oil industry, which once provided 20 percent of government revenues.

Most of the country’s oil fields fell into the hands of the Islamic State group and then U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. And many would argue that for America’s purposes, those two groups were – and still are – formidable players in Washington’s long-term plan to destabilize Syria under Assad.

Trump announces on a whim that he is pulling U.S. troops out of Syria.

For an outsider it’s confusing. Trump announces on a whim that he is pulling U.S. troops out of Syria. Then a few days later changes his mind and downgrades the churlish statement to retaining 400. He more recently said that U.S. troops had to remain in Syria because of ISIL, but later said that the extremist group is now no longer in Syria.

The truth is that ISIL was always a partner, I would argue, rather than a servant of Washington, although there is some evidence that some of its groups did play an entirely obedient role. And those who agreed to continue to be a pawn of Washington were allowed to escape the fighting in Iraq and eastern Syria – the latter, laughingly referred to as a “U.S. victory”–when on the other side of the country, where ISIL had much stronger units in Homs and Hamas, the victory was Iran’s and Hezbollah’s alone.

ISIL Takes Nusra Role in South of Syria

ISIL fighters who were allowed to escape are regrouping in the south of Syria and for the moment are terrorizing Druze communities there.

ISIL fighters who were allowed to escape are regrouping in the south of Syria and for the moment are terrorizing Druze communities there. Israel is very happy with that, as is Assad himself; the pressure is driving some to join the Syrian army. For Israel, it’s about boosting its buffer zone against Assad’s allies (Iran and Hezbollah) to reduce the risk of them staging an attack on Golan, where previously its main proxy doing that job—Nusra, the second-strongest insurgent group in Syria after ISIS, and a former al-Qaeda affiliate seeking to replace the Assad regime with an Islamic state—was defeated. But the more Islamist extremists (regardless of their clan) there are in the south of Syria, the better for Trump and his Assad plan.

But his Assad plan was written for him years earlier in 2012 by President Obama. A leaked U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report, more or less reveals that having a group of Islamist extremists in Syria, to destabilize Assad was the way forward and supports the more feral suggestions by those dismissed as “activists” on the net that it was always U.S. policy to support ISIL.

Hand on the Pump

The campaign to destabilize Assad is in full swing and will also involve oil, which makes a colossal mockery of Trump’s rationale for U.S. troops to stay there.

For at least six months now, Iran’s contribution in oil has dried up and now those fields are only supplying the regime itself and not the country’s citizens.

The same oil fields which have throughout the war sold oil to the regime continue to do so, but with Washington’s hand on the pump. For at least six months now, Iran’s contribution in oil has dried up and now those fields are only supplying the regime itself and not the country’s citizens. Meanwhile, experts, who acknowledge that the government buys as much as 20 percent of its needs from Kurd-controlled Syria, are now talking about new supplies being smuggled from Iraq.

So is this the real reason why Trump needs two groups of U.S. troops strategically placed in northern and south eastern points of Syria? To ensure that Syrians reach a breaking point and turn on their leader, mirroring an identical strategy in Iran?

The U.S. strategy is still about regime change—just as it was in Obama’s day. Watch very closely for the first report of any wounded Islamists in southern Syria arriving at Israeli hospitals, across the border, for surgery as ISIL takes over the role of Nusra before it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.