Before Donald Trump left the London NATO summit in a huff, he made the startling claim at a press conference that the United States can do “what we want” with the oil-fields now under its control in northeast Syria. The Dec. 2 remarks are provided via White House transcript: “And I wanted to say that, in keeping the oil, ISIS was trying to, as you know, regain control of the oil. And we have total control of the oil. And, frankly, we had a lot of support from a lot of different people. But, right now, the only soldiers we have, essentially, in that area, are the soldiers keeping the oil. So we have the oil, and we can do with the oil what we want.” This faux pas, jumped on by the British tabloid press, recalls Trump’s 2016 campaign trail boast of his plans for Syria: “I’ll take the oil”—and turn the seized fields over to Exxon!
It also recalls Trump’s comments to reporters a month earlier, shortly after US forces grabbed the oil-fields in Deir ez-Zor province: “Look, we don’t want to keep soldiers between Syria and Turkey for the next 200 years. They’ve been fighting for hundreds of years. We’re out. But we are leaving soldiers to secure the oil. And we may have to fight for the oil. It’s OK. Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case, they have a hell of a fight. But there’s massive amounts of oil.” (NPR, Oct. 27)
To which Syrian president Bashar al-Assad ironically responded that Trump is the best president in US history because of his blatant intentions. “I tell you he’s the best American president. Why? Not because his policies are good, but because he’s the most transparent president,” Assad told Syrian state TV. (MEE, Nov. 1)
A military showdown over the oil hasn’t happened yet, as all sides to the conflict await the new order that will emerge from the current scramble for northern Syria. But a contest for Deir ez-Zor between the US and Russian-backed Assadist forces is a terrifying possibility. One restraining factor is that the US holds the fields jointly with Kurdish forces—and Washington, Moscow and Damascus alike are attempting to groom the Kurds as proxies. Anonymous US military and intelligence sources even intimated to Time on Oct. 28 that the grab for the oil-fields had been sold to Trump as a subterfuge to keep a residual US force in northeast Syria to protect the Kurds from (further) attack by Turkey and its allied militias:
The announcement was perplexing. Protecting Syria’s oil fields in the Deir al-Zour province, where the troops are deploying, makes little strategic sense, two of the officials involved in the redeployment tell TIME. “The oil fields are small, we blasted them after Daesh [ISIS] seized them, and they will take years to rebuild,” said one official. So why leave forces there to protect them? “Talking about oil was the only way we could talk the President into keeping any US military force in the area,” the official says. On Friday, after the plan to protect the oilfields was unveiled, Trump tweeted, “Oil is secured.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper also suggested that the oil-fields are being held on behalf of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-backed Kurdish-led militia force. “We want to make sure that SDF does have access to the resources in order to guard the [IS] prisons, in order to arm their own troops, in order to assist us with the ‘defeat ISIS’ mission,” Esper told reporters after the seizure. (MEE, Oct. 28)
The new order in northern Syria?
The ironic and untenable situation in northeast Syria now is that the former Kurdish autonomous zone, in the traditionally heavily Kurdish area along the Turkish border, has been usurped by the Turkish intervention force and its allied Arab and Turkmen militias—while the Arab-majority areas to the south, including Deir al-Zor, are under occupation by the Kurdish-led SDF, which has held them since they were taken from ISIS last year.
Despite efforts by multiple powers to groom the Kurds as proxies, none of them (predictably) are eager for them to get their autonomous zone back. In late October, officially UN-facilitated (but actually Russian-overseen) talks on a new Syrian constitution and an official end to the long conflict opened in Geneva. The 150-member committee and smaller “drafting group” made up of 15 representatives are drawn from three delegations: one for the Assad regime, one for the opposition, and one for civil society. Notably absent is any delegation representing the SDF or the (former) Kurdish autonomous administration. Although seven Kurds are on the committee, the political wing of SDF, the Syrian Democratic Council, was excluded. (The Guardian, UN News, Oct. 30)
Again despite efforts to groom the Kurds, Great Power acquiescence in Turkish control of the Orwellianly named “safe zone” in the former Kurdish autonomous zone seems all too likely. The US House of Representatives in late October bucked Trump by approving sanctions against Turkey over its aggression in northern Syria. (The Hill, Oct. 29) But two weeks later, Trump hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House, and discussed ways of getting around the sanctions, as well as those imposed over Ankara’s purchase of a Russian missile system. (NYT, Nov. 15)
Evidence of atrocities by Turkish forces and their allied militias continue to mount. Harowing footage from Ras al-Ain before it fell was broadcast by CNN, with Kurdsh workers at the local hospital relating how it came under attack by Turkish artillery. (Not the first time hospitals have come under attack by Turkish or allied forces, ironically emulating the criminal tactics of the Assad regime.) Just this week, eight children were among 11 civilians killed in a Turkish artillery attack that hit near a school in Tal Rifaat, one of the few towns in the area still controlled by Kurdish forces. (Turkish Minute, Dec. 3)
More video footage has emerged of Turkiish-backed miltiiamen posing with the corpses of slain Kurdsh fighters. “Allahu Akbar!” shourts one in a smartphone video. “We are mujahedeen from Faylaq Al-Majd battalion.” In the background, a group of men plant their feet on a woman’s bloodied body. One says she was a “whore.” (BBC News, Nov. 3)
Erdogan, of course, made continued US support for the Kurds an issue at the London NATO summit. He told reporters: “The allies should pay regard to Turkey’s concerns just as we took the security challenges of the alliance seriously. We expressed during the summit and in bilateral meetings that there cannot be an alliance without solidarity. It was unfortunate to see that some allies continue their cooperation with terrorist organizations while emphasizing the struggle against terrorism at the same time.” (Daily Sabah)
With equal hypocrisy, the Assad regime has been assailing Turkey’s plan to resettle Arab and Turkmen refugees in the “safe zone” cleaned of Kurds. “If Erdogan wants to return Syrians, he has to coordinate with the Syrian state to ensure their safe return to the areas they left rather than carrying out ethnic cleansing in specific areas because this violates international law,” said the regime’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem (Rudaw, Oct. 2) This is of course hilariously itonic given the Assad regime’s own legacy of “sectarian cleansing” of Sunni Arabs.
The Russian military is meanwhile moving into some areas abandoned by the US when it withdraw its forces in October, precipatating the Turkish aggression (only to partially redploy them to the south to seize the oil-fields). A new Russian “air defense base” has reportedly been established in Qamishli, formerly administrative center of one of the autonomous Kurdish cantons. (Moscow Times, Nov. 14)
Terrorism and propaganda
Early last month, a car bomb exploded in Turkish-occupied Tal Abyad, killing 13 people and wounding some 20 more. Turkey of course blamed Kurdish forces, while the SDF blamed Turkish-backed militia bent on “creating chaos” in Tal Abyad to displace the remaining Kurds from the town. (AP, Nov. 2)
In Istanbul the armed left faction known as the Peoples’ United Revolutionary Movement (HBDH) claimed credit for an explosive attack on a luxury yacht, saying it was a response to the Turkish aggression against the Syrian Kurds. (AMW, Nov. 5)
Whatever one thinks about such tactics, it should be noted that space for peaceful protest and opposition is rapidly closing in Turkey. Hundreds of people were detained after the Syria intervention for protesting or even just commenting or reporting about it online, according to Amnesty International. (AI, Oct. 31)
Meanwhile, Kurdish cliams of official Turkish collaboration with ISIS are given greater weight by a new report from the Netherlands’ General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) finding that the Islamic State is using Turkey as a “strategic base” to reorganize, posing a threat to the security of Europe. (Kurdistan24, Nov. 6)