Is Syria oil deal about money or long-term US interests?

The Pentagon is reportedly happy because the economic stability brought by the deal could help the Syrian Democratic Forces remain powerful in eastern Syria.

AMERICAN SOLDIERS stand near military trucks at al-Omar oil field in Deir Al Zor, Syria, on March 23.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
AMERICAN SOLDIERS stand near military trucks at al-Omar oil field in Deir Al Zor, Syria, on March 23.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Several days after reports of a deal between an American company and autonomous regional authorities in eastern Syria emerged, the overall story of what is actually happening still lacks clarity. What appears clear is that the controversial, or “secretive,” deal may bolster a longer-term US involvement in eastern Syria.
We’ve heard this before – when the US said it would stabilize the area. But then it pulled out personnel and troops. Can oil really salvage the mission?
The story of the oil deal was revealed in articles by Amberin Zaman at Al-Monitor, the Iraq Oil Report and also by The National Interest.
The first details of the deal presented it as being revealed by mistake by US Senator Lindsey Graham and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which led to more questions than answers. Was it really a deal? Officials in eastern Syria were unclear in responses to media inquiries, leaving questions about whether Pompeo had been misleading in describing the deal.
ON THE THIRD day after details of the deal were revealed, new lines of discussion about what is really going on have emerged. Jack Detsch at Foreign Policy notes that the US-backed deal to develop oil fields in northern Syria is “helping the State Department and the Department of Defense push for a continued American troop presence.” But locals wonder whether there are any commitments that come along with this deal, because there is nothing yet on the ground, the article notes.
While the US State Department publicly distanced itself from the deal, it supported it behind the scenes, CNN reported. The Pentagon is happy because the economic stability brought by the deal could help the Syrian Democratic Forces remain powerful in eastern Syria and keep them from folding to Russian or Syrian regime pressure, the report said.
To make things more opaque, it is not clear how much the deal is for. While CNN said it is expected to net billions of dollars for eastern Syria, the reality may be that overall it is worth much less, at least initially.
The deal is “for two refineries to be made for a small portion of the region’s oil to be processed and potentially transferred out of northeast Syria,” the Rojava Information Center’s Thomas McClure told Wladimir Van Wilgenburg of Kurdistan24.
That is a lot of known unknowns, as former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld was fond of saying. The deal is as much about political brinkmanship as it is about oil, Zaman argued in an Al-Monitor article this week. In short, it has a lot to do with keeping Turkey from another offensive, getting buy-in from the US State Department and keeping the regime and the Russians away.
SO, IN KEEPING with the question of the unknown knowns and known unknowns of this deal, let’s unpack it a bit. We know there is a company called Delta Crescent Energy that has brought together several key players who know about security, political lobbying and Syria and Iraq. We don’t know precisely what the deal covers, but they have a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), which would get around other US sanctions on the Syrian regime.
We know that Turkey, Russia, the Syrian regime and Iran likely oppose this deal. It appears that Pompeo, Graham and the Pentagon support it, or at least support aspects of it. We know that this would now enable the White House to claim it is actually securing oil and able to say it is Americans who can benefit. That would be a good “deal” from the Trump administration’s point of view.
What we don’t know is what the deal is for, who signed it on the Syrian autonomous administration side, if it is one of many or exclusive and if it will have outside people on the ground, or the Syrians develop things themselves. We don’t really know precisely what the deal will cover. Politico says the goal of the company is to get production back up to previous levels in eastern Syria and then sell to customers in the region. Proceeds would mostly or partly go to eastern Syria.
CNN SAYS the firm discussed its role with the State Department, including James Jeffrey, the very pro-Ankara US Syria envoy and anti-ISIS czar. Representatives of the company traveled to Syria, met with SDF commander Mazloum Abdi and got their OFAC license in April. Signatures were secured in July.
“We have been authorized to engage in all aspects of energy development, transportation, marketing, refining and exploration in order to develop and redevelop the infrastructure,” James Cain of Delta Crescent Energy was quoted as saying by CNN. That sounds like a big purview.
It may be that the firm has come along at the right time to meet the interests of the players involved. That means the State Department, Treasury, Pentagon and the SDF may all suddenly be on the same page. Why is that? The State Department may be tiring of Turkey after working for years to appease Ankara and seeing it spread extremists and chaos in areas it occupies in northern Syria.
The Pentagon wants a way to fulfill its mission of securing the oil and defeating ISIS. The SDF understands its precarious position and that the Syrian regime is driving a hard bargain for it, while the US pressures it against talking to the regime. The US Treasury Department wants to sanction Syria but not ruin the areas in eastern Syria where there are US forces and potentially cause instability.
An oil deal may be exactly what everyone wants. But the US has an election in several months, and new uncertainty may be on the horizon. It is unclear how much oil can be moved or secured in the next six months.

Tags Syria oil