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Trump Administration's Interest In Syrian Oil Fields Raises Questions


After the raid against ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, President Trump is now focused on keeping control over the oil fields in the eastern part of Syria. They were once a vital source of revenue for Islamic State fighters. The Pentagon is sending more American troops and equipment to that region. And as NPR's David Welna reports, that's raising questions about just what Trump intends to do with that oil.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: After announcing on Sunday the violent death of Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi, President Trump warmed to what's lately become a favorite topic - controlling Syria's oil fields.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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. Right now it's not big. It's big oil underground, but it's not big oil up top.

WELNA: Trump's designs on Syria's oil were seconded minutes later by one of his closest congressional allies, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham wants to keep some American forces in Syria, and he's made the case to Trump that protecting the oil fields there is a reason to do so.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: This is a win-win. The SDF will get more money if we can modernize the oil fields. We're not going over there to enrich America; we're over there to help our allies, deny our enemy resources that will allow them to get stronger over time and, finally - and this is OK - to lower the cost to us.

JAMES GRAHAM STEWART: He makes no mention of who owns the oil, and that seems like a fairly key question.

WELNA: And University of British Columbia law professor James Graham Stewart says there's one other key question.

STEWART: What exactly is Trump planning to do with the oil? Because it really makes quite a difference if they're securing it and protecting it for the true owners, as distinct from taking it without the consent of the owners. One would probably be more acceptable; the other would be a war crime.

WELNA: That's because taking the oil without the consent of its owners - in this case, the Syrian government - could well be pillaging, which is a war crime. Yesterday at the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley justified an increase in U.S. forces in the oil fields region, as simply making sure they're not pillaged again by the Islamic State or ISIS.


MARK MILLEY: The fundamental purpose of securing those oil fields is to deny those oil fields access to ISIS in order to prevent ISIS from resurgence because we are still committed to the counter-ISIS campaign, and we don't want them to resurge. They get a lot of their revenues from that.

WELNA: At that same briefing, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked if the U.S. intends to protect the oil fields from either the Russians or Syria's own government forces.


MARK ESPER: The short answer is, yes, it presently does because in that case we want to make sure that SDF does have access to the resources in order to guard the prisons, in order to arm their own troops, in order to assist us with the defeat ISIS mission.

WELNA: Funding the SDF forces with oil revenues instead of American appropriations may sound like a good idea, but Brett McGurk, who until this year was Trump's special envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, told MSNBC yesterday it's more complicated than that.


BRETT MCGURK: Well, it'll be very difficult legally to exploit those resources. So I'm not quite sure what the president has in mind, but it doesn't seem to make a great deal of sense.

WELNA: After all, says law professor Stewart, Syria's oil should not be war booty.

STEWART: It's not as if natural resources are just the property of no one, that any armed group can just waltz into a country and decide that it's going to expropriate natural resources in the area. That creates a perverse incentive for violence.

WELNA: Especially, he adds, in violence-wracked Syria.

David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIDES FROM NEBULA'S "HIGGS BOSON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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