A U.S. soldier provides security near a village outside Manbij, Syria, in 2018.

A U.S. soldier provides security near a village outside Manbij, Syria, in 2018. U.S. Army / Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster

US Troops Should Withdraw from Syria, Not Protect Oil Companies

Keeping 500 troops in-country to help Delta Crescent Energy drill only hurts America’s national security.

In Senate testimony last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that the United States had approved a deal between the Syrian Kurds and the American company Delta Crescent Energy to develop oil fields in northern Syria. There are many problems with this deal, but the most troubling for Americans is that it increases the risk to our national security while providing no tangible benefit.

The oil deal, Pompeo told the senators, had taken longer to finalize than he expected, but “now we’re in implementation, and it can be very powerful.” He did not offer examples of any “powerful” benefits to the United States — and indeed, the deal saddles the United States with potentially major problems.

A Syrian Foreign Ministry statement said Damascus “condemns in the strongest terms” the agreement between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, “and an American oil company to steal Syria's oil under the sponsorship and support of the American administration."  

The move has also angered a NATO ally, however, as Turkey’s reaction was as swift and hostile as it was predictable. “By this step,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement said, the SDF “terrorist organization” – as Ankara regards America’s Kurdish partners in Syria – “has clearly demonstrated its ambition to advance its separatist agenda by seizing the natural resources of the Syrian people.” The immediate reaction of our adversaries and allies is only the first problem for the U.S. if this oil deal is fully implemented.

There are reportedly just 500 U.S. troops in Syria, concentrated in the eastern Der ez-Zor region. These troops have no valid military mission. There are no specified objectives or tasks whose accomplishment would qualify as a success and signal time for the withdrawal. At best they were left in Syria in 2019 “only for the oil.” (In strategic terms, the amount of oil in Syria is miniscule. In 2018, the country produced an anemic 24,000 barrels of oil per day. In April 2020, Saudi Arabia produced about 12 million barrels per day, while oft-troubled Iraq produced 4.5 million barrels per day.) While those 500 U.S. troops aren’t enough to defeat insurgent enemies in Syria, the troops are essential to providing security for this Delta Crescent Energy; without it, the civilian workers would be vulnerable to attack from any number of hostile forces in the region. 

One fear is that the oil deal will be used as justification for why the troops must remain. Three times, Trump has declared that U.S. forces would withdraw from Syria; all three times he was walked back from the decision by hawkish foreign policy advocates. With this energy contract in place, it is increasingly likely Trump won’t even make a fourth attempt. That is unfortunate, because there is much to lose and nothing to gain by keeping our troops in place.

Already our troops are under daily threat of attack from a host of potential enemies, and the risk of accidental clashes or miscalculation by various actors remains pointlessly high. In addition to the numerous al-Qaeda-backed extremist groups operating in Syria, there are many local terror groups opposed to us, as well as hostile Syrian and Iranian troops. Turkish leaders have sometimes threatened to engage American troops in Syria, and in recent months U.S. and Russian troops operating on the ground in Syria’s northeast have had numerous run-ins. These interactions have thankfully not yet resulted in an exchange of gunfire.

We should never risk the lives of American troops in combat missions abroad that are not tied directly to American national security. Those already killed in action remain tragic reminders of a lingering mission that was already accomplished and should have been concluded as soon as the ISIS caliphate was deprived of its last bit of territory. 

It would be a travesty if the mission of American troops in Syria were changed to be a protection force for a civilian oil company for the financial benefit of the Syrian Kurds. The travesty would degenerate into tragedy if America stumbles into a pointless war because any of the multitude of risk factors sparked a lethal exchange. The most logical course of action for America, based on a realistic assessment of the situation in Syria, is to end the mission and bring all our troops home immediately.