It’s one feature of a larger U.S. mission in Syria that is really about containing Iranian expansionism, preventing a new refugee crisis, fighting extremism and stopping Russia from exerting influence over the region. The United States has serious national security interests in making sure that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran don’t push America out of Syria and declare total victory.
But Trump has repeatedly said those tasks are not the United States’ responsibility. He promised to pull the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria at a campaign rally on Thursday in Ohio.
“We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon,” he said. “Let the other people take care of it now.”
It’s not an offhand remark. Last month, Trump said that although he thinks the slaughter in eastern Ghouta by Russia, Iran and the Assad regime is “a humanitarian disgrace,” he has no intention of doing anything about it, because our mission is to “get rid of ISIS and go home.”
Of course, that contradicts his top national security officials. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said late last year that the troops would stay to prevent “ISIS 2.0” and stabilize the situation. In January, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out in a carefully workshopped policy speech five long-term goals for U.S. policy in Syria, including ridding the regime of weapons of mass destruction and solving the political conflict. He promised that the United States “will maintain a military presence in Syria focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge.”
But if Trump disagrees and is looking for a Syria policy that fits his campaign, he might remember that he has constantly complained that in Iraq, “we should have kept the oil.” Of course, we can’t and shouldn’t take or keep Syria’s oil. But there’s a grain of truth in Trump’s idea. Control over oil is the only influence we have in Syria today.
“We have this 30 percent slice of Syria, which is probably where 90 percent of the pre-war oil production took place,” said David Adesnik, director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “This is leverage.”
The actual people holding the land with the oil are not U.S. troops, but the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces that were trained and armed by Washington, along with local Sunni Arab leaders who are resisting the ongoing onslaught by government- and Iranian-backed forces.
The Assad regime and Iran have a stated and ongoing strategy to take back all the land that Assad once controlled, including the land containing Syria’s most valuable energy resources.
What’s more, in May, Trump is expected to pull the United States out of the Iran deal, meaning that he will reimpose U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil. It would be profoundly counterproductive to hand Iran control over a swath of Syria that contains huge amounts of oil at the exact same time.
As Chagai Tzuriel, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence, told me, if the U.S. and its allies intend to stop Iran’s regional expansion, that mission must begin in Syria. Also, if there is to be any real peace negotiation, the U.S. military presence is crucial for America having influence there as well.
“If there is a true commitment to counter Iran, it needs to be done in Syria first. If it’s not done in Syria, we will lose that campaign,” Tzuriel said. “The presence of the American forces is very important … That buys you a seat at the table that decides the future of Syria.”
If the U.S. troops leave, the Kurds are likely to cut a deal with the regime and leave the Sunnis to Assad’s cruelty. Then, the Iranians will move into the area, completing their land bridge of control from Tehran to Beirut. If Trump doesn’t have a real Syria strategy, he doesn’t have a real Iran strategy.
“Iran is turning its proxy network, its axis of resistance, into a region-wide resistance army,” said Melissa Dalton, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said Iran now has more than 250,000 proxy forces directly or indirectly under its influence around the region.
Syrian opposition leaders are asking for the United States to work with both the Kurds and the Sunni Arab local leaders to consolidate control in liberated areas and help organize local governance. Those who have fought the Islamic State don’t want to live under the rule of Assad and Iran, said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nongovernmental organization that works with the Syrian opposition.
“It’s incredibly important that with all these oil-rich areas … we don’t end up in a situation where we do have to pull out and there is some sort of deal that allows Iran to essentially take the land, the oil, and these areas, and empower their land bridge that they’ve been building inside the country,” he said. “We took the oil. We’ve got to keep the oil.”