On March 4, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, made a surprise visit to U.S. troops stationed in northeast Syria to the chagrin of the Syrian government, which said the visit was “illegal” and a “flagrant violation of the country’s sovereignty.”
The Syrian Foreign Ministry said that Milley’s visit would “not make Damascus stop its fight against terrorism. The U.S. and its allies put boots on the ground in Syria in 2014 under the pretext of fighting Daesh. The Takfiri terrorist group had emerged as Washington was running out of excuses to extend its regional interference. The U.S.-led coalition keeps its illegal presence on the Arab country’s soil, although Damascus and its allies defeated Daesh in late 2017.”
Who is the Real Thief?
As Syria struggles to recover from a devastating earthquake on February 6, Biden administration officials are warning that Bashar al-Assad’s government will take advantage of the easing of banking restrictions to funnel money into its own coffers, and will divert humanitarian aid, like food and tents, being sent to victims of the natural disaster for its own uses.
The Syrian Oil Ministry, however, has accused U.S. occupying troops in northern Syria of stealing an average of 66,000 barrels of oil per day, about 80 percent of Syria’s oil production, which if true means that the U.S. is the real thief.
Three-quarters of Syria’s oil is located in that portion of the northeastern governorate of Deir Ezzor, east of the Euphrates River, which is under the control of the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia, the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF).
The United States has 500 of its 900 forces in Syria in the Deir Ezzor oil fields, from which the oil is being allegedly stolen. (There are also crucial wheat fields there, which the U.S. is likewise stealing, according to the Syrian government.)
According to the Lebanese-based news network Al-Mayadeen, Syrian government accusations of theft have been confirmed by Russian intelligence operating in Syria.
The Russian conclusion is not really contestable in light of the fact that when he was President, Donald Trump admitted that stealing Syria’s oil was a main goal of the U.S. military occupation.
In October 2019, Trump told a gathering of police chiefs in Chicago that “we’re keeping the oil [in Syria]—we want to keep the oil. Forty-five million dollars a month? Keep the oil. We’ve secured the oil.”
Seconding Trump’s pitch for exploiting Syria’s war-blasted oil fields was Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a hawk on Syria who said: “This doesn’t violate any law, in my view. This is a win-win: The SDF will get more money if we can modernize the oil fields. We’re not going over there to enrich America—we’re over there to help our allies, deny our enemy resources that will allow them to get stronger over time and finally—and this is OK—to lower the cost to us.”
Graham was mistaken about the oil theft being legal. As National Public Radio (NPR) reported in a rare critical piece on the topic, an important precedent was established at the Nuremburg tribunal following the end of World War II when Walther Funk, the chairperson of the Continental Oil Company, was convicted of pillaging oil throughout occupied Europe because the German army expropriated it for the purposes of the Nazi apparatus.
Another Criminal Operation
Convoys of U.S. military vehicles, including tankers loaded with stolen oil from oil fields occupied by U.S. forces in Syria, are frequently seen by locals crossing toward northern Iraq, in addition to trucks loaded with military equipment.
On August 15, 2022, the U.S. occupation forces brought out a convoy of 100 tankers filled with Syrian oil from Al-Hasaka countryside to its bases in the Iraqi lands through the crossing, local sources from the Al-Yaarubiyah countryside told the Syrian Arab News Agency.
The Cradle, a news outlet from Southwest Asia reported that employees working for private U.S. security firms who travel in four-wheel drive vehicles under U.S. air cover, are responsible for securing the transportation of the stolen Syrian oil to Iraqi territory—even though their mandate is solely to transport logistical equipment belonging to the international coalition.
Shepherds in the region corroborate these claims, and indicate that the Syrian oil is transported to the Harir military site in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq (KRI), for the benefit of the Kurdish oil company KAR Group, owned by Sheikh Baz Karim Barzanji, who is close to the family of the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Massoud Barzani.
The U.S. military claims to be performing “advisory work” in Iraq in order to provide Iraqi forces with some satellite images of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) presence in the mountains in northern Iraq.
However, this information is arguably already attainable by Iraqi authorities without U.S. help, according to sources in the military joint operations room, the highest military and security authority in Iraq.
An alternative motive may be to help oversee the oil theft transfers and profit from them while sustaining a U.S. military footprint in a vital geo-strategic region.
“Continuing What ISIS is Doing…”
In September, Syrian Ambassador to China Mohammed Hasanein Khaddam told Global Times that “The U.S. stealing Syrian national treasure is a long-time crime. In fact, the U.S.’ occupation forces on Syrian territories have continued what ISIS was doing—stealing and destroying oil fields and pipelines machinery. The U.S.’ occupation forces learned all that from ISIS, and followed the same ISIS deeds, no difference whatsoever, to steal the Syrian oil in tanks on a weekly, and sometimes daily basis, and smuggle it outside the country.”
“Just search on the net you will read many quotes by former U.S. president Donald Trump saying that the U.S. army is in Syria for oil, while the current U.S. administration has its own claims. The two administrations have been stealing Syrian oil and gas, the same way ISIS did. What matters for the Syrian people is they are deprived of their natural wealth, which is stolen midday. The crime is stealing, and the thief is ‘the leader of the free world’ or the worst terrorist group. They share the same vision and policies and commit the same crimes. Please notice that the U.S. is the richest country in the world, stealing [from] a third world country, and imposing illegal unilateral measures to suffocate the economy and people of this country, and ‘starve and freeze the people to death’ as one U.S. politician described U.S. policies in Syria.”
Khaddam made clear the enormous losses suffered by the Syrian people whose legal government could use the oil revenues for the country’s development.
He states: “There are direct losses of $24.2 billion until the end of the first half of 2022. Among them, $18.2 billion result from extraction, smuggling and illegal trade in Syrian oil, gas and mineral resources under the auspices, protection and support of the U.S. forces illegally present in Syria. $3.2 billion result from sabotage and theft of facilities for the extraction and transportation of Syrian oil, gas and mineral resources by armed terrorist groups, and $2.8 billion result from bombing and aggression carried out by the forces of the so-called illegal ‘international coalition’ on the Syrian oil and gas facilities.”
Before 2011, Syria produced 385,000 barrels/day, nearly five times today’s production.
Much of Syria’s 2011 production capacity was bombed or shut down during the Anglo-American 2011 regime-change war, that along with their Islamic State and al-Nusra assets sought to overthrow al-Assad.
Prior to 2011, Syria ran an oil production surplus, and exported oil and natural gas. But the effect of the war, the Caesar sanctions (with a follow-on specifically targeting the Syrian oil industry), and apparent theft of oil today, is devastating.
Ambassador Khaddam reported: “The U.S. aim of stealing Syrian oil is to cut Syria from its own oil. While we used to export electricity to Jordan and Lebanon, now we don’t have the oil to generate electricity. We were sufficient in gas. Now gas is a treasure for Syrian families…. In winter nights, the temperature is always minus in many parts of Syria. It’s really cold. We don’t have the heating oil, and we don’t have the electricity to use for heating and cooking.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Adds Voice For Withdrawal
Robert Ford, the Obama administration’s ambassador to Syria who once favored an aggressive confrontation with Bashir al-Assad, is among those now calling for the U.S. to end its military occupation of Syria.
Ford supported a bill initiated by Matt Gaetz (R-FL) demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria within 180 days, which was rejected in a 321-103 vote in the House of Representatives last Wednesday.
In a letter to Congress,, Ford wrote that the U.S. mission has no clear objective and that leftist Kurdish forces in Syria, with U.S. support, had claimed the last piece of ISIS territory in March 2019 and the Pentagon has assessed that ISIS now lacks the capacity to strike the U.S. at home.
If the U.S. withdrew, Ford said that the Kurdish separatists, while enjoying significant amounts of autonomy, would be pushed into direct talks with the Syrian government over a power-sharing agreement, which the Turks would likely support.
Ford has also said it is now time to take a hard look at whether U.S. economic sanctions were working and at what cost. “…the sanctions are not delivering political concessions from Bashar al-Assad. And…it’s disingenuous for those who justify the sanctions to say that they don’t harm ordinary Syrians living in government-controlled territories. They obviously do. All I can say is we’re inflicting pain without getting much for it.”
U.S. Troops in Syria: “A Recruiting Tool For ISIS”
Despite the defeat of his bill, Matt Gaetz said that he was encouraged that his Syria legislation “may lead us to a broader discussion about the 2001 AUMF [Authorization for the Use of Military Force],” which has been used to validate U.S. troop deployments across the Middle East.
According to Gaetz, having U.S. troops in Syria “is a recruiting tool for ISIS.” “We have to also acknowledge, Syria and Iraq are the two countries on the planet Earth where we have done the most to fund ISIS. We give weapons to these so-called moderate rebels—which I actually thought was an oxymoron—and it turns out they’re not that moderate. Sometimes the rebels we fund to go fight Assad, turn around and raise the ISIS flag. And so it’s quite silly to be saying we have to withdraw to stop ISIS when it is our very presence in Syria in some cases that has been the best gift to ISIS,” he said.
Gaetz further mentioned Al-Nusra, and the numerous other groups within Syria. “There’s no real clear delineation as to what the ‘enduring defeat of ISIS’ means,” he said. This is not our role, and our vision of democracy has not worked: “We have tried this time and again, to build a democracy out of sand and blood and Arab militias, and time and again, the work we do does not reduce chaos. Oftentimes, it causes chaos—the very chaos that then subsequently leads to terrorism.”
Gaetz also hit at the narrative that the U.S. is upholding the “balance of power” in the region, promulgated by what he identified as “Georgetown School of Foreign Service” acolytes: “You go tell that to the parents of the Americans who have to sleep tonight in Syria, who have to guard oil fields with Iranian drones coming at them—that they’re necessary to preserve the balance of power.”
Further, Gaetz gave an interesting comment given to The Intercept regarding his future plans: “Syria is my leadoff hitter. We’re going to take a trip around the globe. We may go to Yemen. We may have stops in Niger. We may have stops in Sudan. Maybe ultimately, we’ll end in Ukraine”
The U.S. Occupation is Illegal
According to The Intercept, the legal rationale for U.S. occupation is dubious at best.
With ISIS suppressed, the administration has suggested the purpose of the occupation is to act as a bulwark against Iran.
Giving voice to this view, The Washington Post reported: “The balance of power in Syria’s multi sided conflict depends on the American presence. Where U.S. troops retreat, American officials see an opening for the Syrian military or forces from Russia or Turkey to advance. Some U.S. officials have stressed that the American deployment precludes Iranian forces from establishing a ‘land bridge’ that would allow them to more easily supply weapons to their Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. ‘It’s about keeping a balance,’ said one senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity.”
The Intercept pointed out, however, that Iran already has a direct “land bridge” through eastern Syria to Lebanon; the U.S. occupation merely adds some time to the Iranian truckers’ journey. More to the point, as Ford emphasized, there is no authorization to deploy troops overseas to counter Iran. “The 2001 authorization of the use of military force was all about Al Qaeda and, to a secondary extent, the Taliban and Afghanistan,” he said. “It wasn’t about Iranian or pro-Iranian militias in eastern Syria.”
The U.S. media have widely condemned Assad for allegedly blocking humanitarian aid from getting to the needy in rebel held areas, claiming that Assad is channeling all aid through Damascus and taking his cut. The media at the same time fail to discuss the ravaging effects of U.S. sanctions in compounding the misery of Syria’s people and fact that U.S. occupying forces stood by and allowed people to die. A characteristically one-sided and possibly defamatory piece is Jane Ferguson, “How Assad Blocked Aid to Syrian Earthquake Victims,” The New Yorker, February 13, 2023. ↑
In December 2022, protesters demanded the expulsion of the SDF from Syria and the holding of its leaders accountable for committing crimes, and for plundering national wealth, which they deliver to the U.S. ↑
Barzani maintains a strong relationship with the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria, whose members have been protecting convoys of Syrian oil tanks. Sheikh Baz came under some scrutiny in March when one of his villas, reportedly used as a safe house by Israel’s Mossad spy agency, was struck by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) missiles, killing and injuring agents inside. At the time, Kurdish politician Hiwa Seid Salim told The Cradle he suspects the reason for the Iranian attack on Sheikh Baz’s villa was due to his business activities, which Iranian security sources say includes selling Iraqi (or Syrian) oil and gas to Israel. ↑
Gaetz introduced his resolution, which was backed by the Progressive Democratic Party Caucus along with libertarian conservatives and right-wingers like Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-GA), after four U.S. soldiers were wounded in a raid in February. On the House floor, Gaetz said American troops in Syria were trapped in a “hellscape” of war and meddling from various foreign nations and the American counter-terrorism operations in the country have “no end in sight.” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, said he does not support an “indefinite” presence in Syria, but the resolution was “premature” and would leave partner forces “out to dry.” That argument was backed by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), who said a withdrawal would lead to a “much larger, more complex problem at a higher cost and threat to Americans worldwide.” “We don’t need to repeat 9/11,” Wilson said. “Peace is best maintained through strength.” ↑
Max Blumenthal of The Grayzone Project tweeted on March 9: “Americans who want to see an end to the U.S. occupation and plunder of Syria owe Matt Gaetz and his partners in the Congressional Progressive Caucus a debt of gratitude for their effort. A similar coalition has driven Rage Against The War Machine and anti war efforts across Europe.” In the past, Gaetz, like some other Republicans, has claimed that concerns about Russian threats to national security are “phony,” though has also warned about China posing the most serious threat to U.S. national security and advocated for an expansion of the U.S. military buildup in the Asia-Pacific. Gaetz and other MAGA Republicans furthermore overplay the threat of illegal immigration, obscuring its root cause, and support the militarization of the U.S. Mexican border; building a border wall and cruel policies directed against immigrants. ↑
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About the Author
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine.
He is the author of four books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019) and The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018).
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.