A Confused Syria Policy Gets Even Worse

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

U.S. troops sent into Syria on an illegal and pointless mission to “take the oil” don’t know what they are supposed to be doing:

US military commanders overseeing Syria operations are still waiting for precise battlefield orders from the White House and Pentagon on their exact mission to protect oilfields in eastern Syria, according to a defense official directly familiar with the matter.

Nearly three weeks after President Donald Trump ordered troops out of northern Syria, publicly declaring he was taking “control” of the oil and sending troops and armored carriers to protect it from ISIS, US commanders lack clarity on the most basic aspects of their mission, including how and when troops can fire their weapons and what, exactly, that mission is.

The lack of precise orders means troops are on the ground while critical details are still being worked out — exactly where they will go, when and how they will stay on small bases in the area, and when they go on patrol.

Perhaps most crucially, there is no clarity about exactly who they are operating against in the oilfields.

Everything the Trump administration has done in Syria has been horribly confused, so it makes sense that the latest version of the policy would be baffling to our own troops. U.S. commanders lack clarity about the mission because it was cooked up to appeal to the president’s desire for plundering other countries’ resources. It was thrown together on the spur of the moment as an excuse to keep U.S. troops in Syria no matter what, and now those troops are stuck there with no instructions and no idea what they are expected to do. This is the worst kind of unnecessary military mission, because it is being carried out simply to keep a U.S. foothold in Syria for its own sake. The “critical details” aren’t being worked out so much as a plausible justification after the fact is being conjured out of thin air. There is no reason for these troops to be there, and there is nothing that they can do there legally, but the administration will come up with some bad argument to keep them there anyway.

Meanwhile, Trump is very proud of his clownish, illegal Syria policy:

Trump labors under the delusion that the oil is ours to “distribute.” which everyone else knows to be false. The oil belongs to the Syrian government, and that oil can’t be sold and revenues from those sales cannot be used without the permission of the government that owns it. Syria’s oil resources are not that great, and the infrastructure of many of the fields has been damaged or destroyed, so if it were legal to loot the spoils there wouldn’t be very much to loot. The president thinks that seizing Syrian oil is worth boasting about, but in reality it is one of the most absurd and indefensible reasons for deploying troops abroad. In addition to damaging the country’s international standing with allied and friendly governments with this open thievery, Trump’s “take the oil” fixation is a propaganda coup for hostile governments and groups. As Paul Pillar pointed out last week, it plays into the hands of jihadist groups and aids them in their recruitment:

Trump’s Sunday appearance before the press played right into this theme. Referring back to the Iraq War, Trump described as his own view at the time that if the United States was going into Iraq, it should “keep the oil.” As for Syria’s oil, he said it can help the Kurds but “it can help us because we should be able to take some also. And what I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an Exxon Mobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly.” A propagandist for ISIS or al-Qaeda would hardly have written the script differently.

Keeping troops in Syria to “take the oil” is divorced from genuine American security interests just like any other unnecessary military intervention. The president is exposing U.S. military personnel to unnecessary risk, and he is also putting them in legal jeopardy by ordering them to commit what is essentially the war crime of pillaging. The president has managed to take a Syria policy that was already incoherent and chaotic and he has made it even worse.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.