President Trump was persuaded to keep a number of troops in Syria partly so the United States could have some of its oil. But the idea of seizing petroleum in the war-torn country presents a big barrel of problems.
Trump explained Sunday that one of the reasons he decided to keep a contingent of about 200 U.S. troops in Syria was to prevent the oil fields in the eastern portion of the country from being retaken by the Islamic State, which had once used them as a source of income. The president made the about-face after enduring withering criticism from within his own party about pulling U.S. troops from Syria’s border with Turkey.
“We're protecting the oil, we're securing the oil,” Trump said during a news conference about the death of Islamic State commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a U.S. military operation in Syria.
But Trump's rationale did not stop there. The oil, he added, “can help us because we should be able to take some, also.”
There are a number of legal and strategic challenges for the United States, or any U.S. firm, to get that oil, according to a several experts. Trump's suggestion that the oil can be taken by the United States is the latest in a long list of legally dubious proclamations the president has made while in office.
To start, the United States has no legal claim to the oil in the first place. Pillaging the natural resources of another nation is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, according to Ryan Goodman, a professor at the New York University School of Law who once served as special counsel to the general counsel of the Defense Department.
“The war crime of pillage is almost as old as the laws of war,” Goodman said. “Most infamously, the Nuremberg tribunal after World War II saw Germans convicted of the war crime of seizing oil in Eastern Europe.”
Further complicating matters is the fact that the United States claims it is not in an armed conflict with the Syrian government. “So Syrian property is not enemy property that might be taken, even for military purposes, as spoils of war,” said Sarah H. Cleveland, a professor of human and constitutional rights at Columbia Law School.
Trump's comments about Syria's oil are similar to those he made during the 2016 presidential campaign urging the United States to “take the oil” in Iraq as one of its “spoils of war.”
“I always used to say... if they're going into Iraq, keep the oil. They never did. They never did,” Trump said Sunday, harking back to his comments as a candidate.
Trump explained that he wanted to have a major U.S. oil firm tap the Syrian oil. “What I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly.”
But even if such a deal were legally permissible, the reserves in Syria's Deir al-Zour province are relatively small, isolated, of low quality and in a war zone — in other words, a highly unlikely place for a major Western oil company to want to invest.
“It is one thing to engage in operations like yesterday’s kill — where you come and go more or less on your own terms,” David Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California at San Diego, said of the U.S. mission to take out ISIS founder Abu-Bakr al Baghdadi. “Totally different is operating an infrastructure needed to produce and market produced oil.”
U.S. oil companies, of course, often partner with developing nations around the world to extract oil. Even if such a deal is what Trump meant when he said the United States should “take some” oil, the question here is: With which country do you make a deal? A number of groups — Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's government, Kurdish rebels, the Islamic State — have at times laid claim to areas in the Syria.
Even trying to partner with a U.S. ally such as the Kurds (who may not be favorably disposed to the United States after it left them vulnerable to a Turkish invasion) presents problems. For example, in 2011 Iraqi officials were furious when ExxonMobil struck a deal with the semiautonomous Kurdish region to expand operations there.
“If the United States supported some kind of autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, that region might work with American oil companies to develop its resources,” said James Coleman, associate professor of energy law at Southern Methodist University. “Of course, working with a break-off government can be impolitic for big U.S. oil companies.”
Even if Trump's wish to drill for Syria's oil may forever be deferred, his interest in the energy resources in the region did serve a purpose for military leaders unhappy with the initial exit from Syria. It gave the Pentagon the opportunity to temper Trump's insistence on a full withdrawal from the region, according to The Post's Karen DeYoung, Dan Lamothe, Missy Ryan and Michael Birnbaum.
“This is like feeding a baby its medicine in yogurt or applesauce,” one U.S. official with knowledge of operations in Syria told the Post team.
— A state of emergency: California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared a statewide emergency as heavy winds fueled fires across Sonoma County, prompting mass evacuations.
- The Kincade Fire, by the numbers: The wildfire had spread to at least 54,000 acres and was only 5 percent contained as of Sunday evening. There were 94 structures burned and 80,000 threatened. An estimated 180,000 people were ordered to leave their homes. "'This is the largest evacuation that any of us at the Sheriff’s Office can remember,' the Sonoma Sheriff’s Department tweeted in both English and Spanish. 'Take care of each other,'" The Post's Courtney Teague, Lea Donosky, Kayla Epstein and Hannah Knowles write.
- Weekend of blackouts: Pacific Gas & Electric announced massive preemptive shutdowns that impacted 38 counties starting on Saturday afternoon. "An estimated 965,000 customers — or nearly 3 million people — were braced for no power through the weekend as a result of fire prevention measures," The Post team writes. "An additional 100,000 customers lost power unplanned, probably because of infrastructure damage, PG&E officials said."
California’s new fiery normal: It may have been difficult to explain even a year ago that in California, a state at the forefront of climate initiatives that has taken the lead nationwide on efforts like adopting electric vehicles, would have entire neighborhoods choosing between gasoline generators or sitting in the dark, The Post’s Faiz Siddiqui writes. But it’s part of a new normal -- PG&E's preemptive rolling blackouts could continue for a decade in an effort to curb wildfires.
- What state leaders are saying: Newsom lashed out at the utility company and said this can't continue. “But nonetheless we have to recognize we are living in a new world, particularly in a state like ours after a five-year historic drought, after 15 of the 20 most destructive fire seasons just since 2000 because of climate change,” the governor said. “The hots are getting hotter, and the dries are getting drier, and the wets are getting wetter, which has aided and abetted these grass fires.”
— ExxonMobil hit with another climate lawsuit: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) announced late last week her state would be the latest to file a lawsuit against ExxonMobil over climate change. She argues the oil giant deceived investors about how the company’s products contributed to global warming and about the financial risks, the Boston Globe reports. The trial for a similar lawsuit in New York started last week. "Exxon has known for decades about the catastrophic climate impacts of burning fossil fuels — its chief product,” Healey said in a statement. The company called the suit “baseless,” adding “We look forward to refuting the meritless allegations in court.”
— Saudi Arabia is finally set to announce it will take Saudi Aramco public: But it will be “in a much smaller, humbler form than first promised. It will probably be valued at a far lower price,” the New York Times reports. “…It was perhaps inevitable that pulling off the biggest I.P.O. in history would be a long and difficult task. But in the case of Aramco, the yearslong process has faced difficulties in the financial and geopolitical worlds, forcing Prince Mohammed to whittle his ambitions significantly.” In 2016, Mohammed bin Salman said Aramco could be valued at about $2 trillion, but now bankers on the transaction say “prospective investors would probably value the oil producer at about $1.5 trillion.”
— Perry on the record: Energy Secretary Rick Perry again defended asking Trump to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in an interview with the Associated Press over the weekend, insisting it was critical for energy-related needs.
- To quote: “We had had enough conversations with him that we had felt comfortable that he actually was going to do what he said he was going to do when he ran for office, which was have that type of transparency, have that type of anti-corruption efforts,” Perry told the AP. “(I said) Mr. President, call this guy. It’s good for him and it’s good for us and we can go forward in helping supply gas, preferably U.S. gas, to Ukraine. Pretty straight-forward story.”
- Perry didn’t feel Trump set him up: Trump told some Republican lawmakers that Perry was the one to urge him to have the July call with Zelensky. That call is now at the center of the House impeachment inquiry, but Perry said he didn’t feel like the president was setting him up. “I don’t consider President Trump trying to put the blame on me, I consider President Trump to be telling the truth. I didn’t ask him to do a favor,” he said. “I asked the president to make the call.”
- Perry said he did not hear the Bidens mentioned: "[H]e urged Trump to call [Zelensky] to offer Ukraine 'an alternative to Russian gas' and said he never once heard the word Biden or Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that once employed Biden’s son,” per the AP.
— Interior Department walks back change to final FOIA rule: The final version of the department’s new public records rule got rid of language that some argued would give agency officials too much authority to reject requests. The agency said the changes were part of making the Freedom of Information Act process “efficient and more transparent,” the Hill reports. "By removing proposed revisions that were incompatible with FOIA from the final rule, Interior has taken a small step towards rolling back the secrecy and rampant corruption that has plagued the agency in recent years," Lisa Rosenberg, executive director of Open the Government, said in a statement about the rule.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands holds a legislative hearing on Tuesday.
- The House Small Business Subcommittee on Innovation and Workforce Development holds a hearing on a clean energy workforce on Tuesday.
- The House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment Subcommittee holds a hearing on “Fuel Efficiency Rollbacks on the Climate, Car Companies and California” on Tuesday.
- The Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis will hold a hearing on “Dark Money and Barriers to Climate Action" on Tuesday.
— Arrested again: Actors Jane Fonda and Ted Danson were arrested in Washington during a weekly climate change demonstration that Fonda is calling “Fire Drill Friday.” It's the third Friday in a row that Fonda has been put in handcuffs during a climate protest.