President Trump’s Washington meeting with his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, went as well as could have been expected. Trump held the line against U.S. lawmakers who had wanted him to take tougher action against the Turkish president, a figure of scorn and scrutiny in Washington for both his creeping authoritarianism at home and recent attacks in northern Syria on U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. The specter of a further breakdown between the troubled allies was dispelled, but neither president could point to any meaningful resolution of a list of grievances between both sides.
What did catch attention was a seemingly off-the-cuff comment from Trump, made while sitting alongside Erdogan in the Oval Office. In remarks about the situation in northern Syria, Trump reiterated his view that American troops should not be patrolling borders thousands of miles away. “We want to worry about our things,” Trump said, returning to his familiar talking point about extracting America from overseas wars (no matter that his administration has intensified, rather than de-escalated, the U.S. role in conflicts around the globe).
But then, in the next sentence, he turned around and explained why a small troop presence was sticking around in Syria. “We’re keeping the oil. We have the oil. The oil is secure,” Trump said in his customary cadence. “We left troops behind, only for the oil.”
Trump’s justification for the troop deployments, which emphasized exclusively his desire to “keep” the oil in Syria’s eastern fields, seemed to contradict his own Pentagon chief. “Our mission is the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told reporters on the same day, using another term for the Islamic State. “We’re going to have about 500 to 600-ish troops there, at the end of the day.”
Esper added that the logic for these deployments was to deny Islamic State militants “access to the oil fields because if they have access to the oil fields, they can generate revenue. If they can generate revenue, then they can pay fighters, they can buy arms, they can conduct operations.”
That’s the roundabout reasoning now invoked by Pentagon officials to explain how the United States will retain a credible troop presence in Syria that can maintain airspace control and carry out counterterrorism operations, while, at the same time, satisfying Trump’s political instincts. “This is like feeding a baby its medicine in yogurt or applesauce,” a U.S. official told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity about internal U.S. deliberations.
Contrary to Trump’s own statements, the Pentagon insists that the (comparably meager) revenue from the Syrian oil fields will not go to the United States or an American entity. “There are two legitimate reasons to guard oil facilities in northern Syria,” observed Slate’s William Saletan. “One is to prevent ISIS from capturing or destroying them. The other is to protect the ability of our betrayed allies, the Syrian Kurds, to use the oil. Trump has added a third, illegitimate reason: to make money for the United States.”
It’s “illegitimate” in serious terms; experts suggest that the kind of oil grab without the consent of local governments would constitute a war crime. “In the case of the United States, specifically, acting on such a policy could put the U.S. military in the position of acting as war profiteers in foreign war zones,” former war crimes prosecutor James Stewart wrote in The Washington Post last week. “In the general case, taking Trump’s stated approach invites the perpetuation of resource wars that create incentives for violence on the part of belligerents the world over, at a tremendous human cost. It’s one of the reasons that, historically, prohibitions on pillage have been codified in the rules of warfare and why a number of courts have applied the prohibition to the illegal exploitation of natural resources during war.”
None of this has ever stopped Trump from voicing his desire for the oil. It’s been one of his longest-held political beliefs, along with his suspicion of climate change, antipathy toward minority communities and disgruntlement about the economic might of Asian countries.
In a 2011 interview with the Wall Street Journal, when discussing the NATO intervention against Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, Trump said that “I’m only interested in Libya if we take the oil. If we don’t take the oil, I’m not interested.” Although he styles himself as an opponent of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, he is adamant that the United States should have retained control over Iraq’s vast oil reserves while it maintained a military occupation of the country.
The former real estate tycoon would perhaps see such an arrangement as a fitting quid pro quo. Glimmers of such thinking have surfaced elsewhere: In the Trump administration’s tortured wranglings to exit Afghanistan, the president’s enthusiasm for keeping boots on the ground was briefly stoked by talk of accessing the country’s vast mineral wealth.
The problem for Trump — or, more likely, a handful of horrified aides — is that his transactional worldview hinges on an crude understanding of the world where American strength of arms justifies violating the sovereignty of a weaker country and plundering its resources. Critics from the left, not to mention Islamist militants, have long said this is precisely the ultimate objective of American foreign policy. Trump seems singularly unequipped to refute those claims.
“I always heard that when we went into Iraq, we went in for the oil,” Trump revealed in that same 2011 interview. “I said, ‘Ah, that sounds smart.’”